Aquino’s flawed Moro policy unravels

The storming of Zamboanga City by forces of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that started Monday marks the unraveling of President Aquino’s injudicious, even reckless roadmap to end the Islamic insurgency in Mindanao.

Those were heady days for Aquino in 2011, that he thought he could win the Nobel Peace Prize in the following year by dramatically flying secretly to Tokyo to meet with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front(MILF) chairman Jaafar Gazali for the unveiling of his peace plan for the Islamic insurgency in Mindanao.

He promised to turn over to the MILF their own state in Mindanao, and he thought that his popularity was high that he could have the Constitution amended to allow this. He would buy off Congress to pass the necessary law – the Bangsamoro Organic Law—by tripling the level of lawmakers’ pork-barrel from the P7.8 billion of his predecessor to P24.8 billion.

He forgot, or refused to see the implications though of one thing: There was such an organization as the MNLF, which the Organization of Islamic Conference in 1976 as well as the Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos regimes had recognized as the legitimate representative of the Muslim insurgents.

The MNLF: Ignored in Aquino’s peace plan, now a problem.

The MNLF: Ignored in Aquino’s peace plan, now a problem.

The MILF had not existed when the Tripoli agreement was signed. It was formed after a group within the MNLF disagreed vehemently against the pact.

Because the dictator Marcos at that time was legally both the executive and the legislative, the so-called 1976 Tripoli Agreement was considered an international treaty, which the country was bound to honor, unless it was specifically rescinded by subsequent Congresses, which it was not.

But Aquino has totally ignored the MNLF, with the so-called Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed at the Presidential Palace itself in October 2012 having no reference at all to that insurgent group as if it were only the MILF that had waged a war against the Republic, and the sole representative of Muslims in Mindanao.

His mind obsessed with the delusion that a Nobel Peace Prize was within his reach, Aquino ignored the realities of the Muslim insurgency. True, the MNLF had been drastically weakened since its peace pact with the government, a victim of its own success as many MNLF veterans had been integrated into the police and the military along the terms of the 1994 Final Peace Agreement during the Fidel Ramos administration. True, many MNLF veterans were disappointed—or even disgusted—with its chairman Nur Misuari that they set up their own break-away groups.

What Aquino didn’t understand though was the ethnic dimension of the Muslim insurgency. Moros are deeply divided along ethnic groups, which are nearly nations in that they have their own territories.

Although Misuari tried to make MNLF a secular organization, even leaning towards a socialist orientation because of the influence of Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Ma. Sison over his thinking, his organization has been basically an organization of Taosugs, who are based in Sulu. This was not unexpected as Misuari is a Tausug himself, with his father part of the Tausug royalty. Misuari had relied initially (and even today) on his kinsmen and their network for the MNLF’s backbone.

However, a big push to the MNLF’s growth was the addition to its ranks of an entirely different group of young Moro leaders led by Hashim Salamat, who unlike Misuari was an Islamic cleric who studied in Muslim universities in Saudi Arabia, the breeding ground for Islamic jihadists in the world. In contrast to Misuari’s views, Salamat saw the Moros’ struggle in religious, Islamic terms, thus its name as an Islamic rather than National Front.

Salamat though is from another Muslim ethnic group, the Maguindanaoans who mostly populate the central Mindanao provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The Maguindanaoans—that Salamat recruited into the MNLF of which he was vice chairman until he broke off in 1977—dominated the so-called Batch 90 of MNLF commanders, who were first trained in Malaysia by former British special forces and who would form its officers corp.

The MILF therefore has been mainly an organization of Maguindanaons, with a contingent of Maranaos from the Lanao provinces, but who have been historically known as merchants rather than guerillas. The MNLF on the other hand has been an organization of Tausugs, mostly from Sulu and, to a limited extent, the Zamboanga peninsula. To Muslims, Tausugs are known to be warriors, while Maguindanaoans are farmers, adding to the MNLF’s sentiment that it is the leader of the Muslim rebellion.

It is the MNLF’s ethnic base that provides it with a pool of fighters that Misuari, or even his successors, can call upon to wage war. After all, Sulu has been one of the poorest provinces in the country, making it a breeding ground for insurgents.

The terrorist Abu Sayyaf was mostly organized by sons of veteran MNLF commanders who felt that Misuari had capitulated with his peace agreement with Ramos in 1994. Rather than join the MILF—seen as an organization of Maguindanaons—these MNLF sons instead set up their own armed group, which Al-Qaeda jihadists from Indonesia had brainwashed to their cause.

The MNLF may have neglected the expansion and strengthening of its military organization ever since the 1994 final peace agreement. However, it could easily call on the Tausugs—most of whom after all are still mired in poverty—and arm them to undertake such trouble as the Zamboanga siege, so the government would be forced to include them in its talks with the MILF.

It is easily rousing Tausug’s wrath against the government with its valid argument that the Tausug people (the MNLF) shed their blood to fight for the Moro nation, yet the Aquino government is turning over Muslim Mindanao to the Maguindanaoans (the MILF).

The tragedy here is that even the administration’s peace plan with the MILF is itself unraveling as Aquino becomes more and more of a lame-duck president each month. Aquino had declared that he wouldn’t push for amending the Constitution. However, a Constitutional provision is clearly necessary to set up “the new autonomous political entity” that the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro calls for.

Part VII of the agreement also specifies that a major role of the Transition Committee, which has to implement the Agreement, is “to work on proposals to amend the Philippine Constitution for the purpose of accommodating and entrenching in the Constitution the agreements of the Parties.”

Worse, the pork barrel controversy, which has shattered this administration’s image as a graft-buster, will make the Agreement with the MILF impossible to implement. This is because it also requires a law to rescind the 1989 Organic Act (amended in 2001) that had set up the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, so it could be replaced by the Bangsamoro (which means “Moro State) Aquino promised the MILF.

But with the pork barrel system removed, which Aquino is forced to do so or face the nation’s wrath, he will be unable to bribe the legislature to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which the dominantly anti-Moro Congress actually hate.

For its part, when the MILF realizes that Aquino was merely promising them the moon, it would undertake its own, more deadly version of the MNLF’s Zamboanga siege.