First of Two Parts
For most journalists of my generation, Jose Almonte –ex-President Fidel Ramos’ most trusted confidante, even his ideologue, some say–was a shadowy figure, the former president’s top spook.
He was the strategist behind such historic moves as the formation of the RAM during the Marcos dictatorship, the “Big Bird” project that would have hoodwinked the strongman in surrendering his Swiss accounts right after Cory Aquino assumed power, Ramos’ unexpected victory helped by the infamous “Sulo Hotel” operations in the 1992 elections, and the breaking of the PLDT monopoly during Ramos’ watch.
What isn’t too widely known, though, is that he is one of the very few persons I know who have managed to reach the heights of power, yet with a kind of thinking I share. This is that the country’s “core problem,” as he puts it, is the fact that the nation has been ruled by oligarchs who have controlled the government apparatus for their own personal agenda.
He is a believer of the “strong-republic” view, that only through strong government institutions, independent of the elites, and not through any single strong leader would our nation finally develop.
The nation owes “Joal” not only for his deeds, but for planting the seed of that strong-republic view in our consciousness, and now for enlightening us on the significant aspects of our modern history.
Almonte’s book Endless Journey: A Memoir, “as told to,” and excellently written by my esteemed colleague and friend from way back, Marites Danguilan Vitug, is a must-read for every Filipino who cares about the future of our country.
Because it is the burning issue of the day, though, I quote at length Almonte’s report on how the Muslim insurgency unfolded starting in the late 1980s:
Start of Almonte’s account
A problem loomed as President Cory Aquino announced her intent to bring back the MNLF to the negotiating table. Misuari had been away from the Philippines for about a decade as an exile in Saudi Arabia and Libya. He left after the peak of the MNLF battles with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the early 1970s.
From then on, clashes with the military had been sporadic. The MNLF was in its death throes. Marcos had already neutralized Misuari and his forces, including the Muslim community that supported him, spending so much money and at the cost of so many lives. Support for Misuari even in Saudi Arabia and Libya was not as robust as it used to be.
Eduardo Ermita, who rose to become Deputy Chief of Staff of the AFP after the People Power Revolution, Fidel V. Ramos, who was appointed defense secretary and I, met with President Cory to impart a single message: her idea of reviving Misuari and the MNLF would cause the country troubles.
The President felt it was her obligation to her husband to talk to Misuari because that was supposedly Ninoy’s promise to him: if he became president, he would talk to Misuari and reach some kind of understanding.
We told the President that it would hurt the government. It was best to leave the situation as it was. Anyway, the Muslim community in the south no longer looked up to Misuari as their leader. She was convinced. “You have a point,” she said, “but talk to my brother-in-law.” She was referring to Agapito “Butz” Aquino, whom she designated as her special emissary to the MNLF. Butz was a businessman who became one of the leaders of the anti-Marcos protests after the assassination of his brother in 1983 and who allied himself with Norberto “Bert” Gonzales, an activist with close ties with the MNLF. In fact, he trained with them in Malaysia in the 1970s. Bert’s group of social democrats entered into an alliance with the MNLF as part of their strategy to resist Marcos.
Our meetings with Butz were spread over a few days. On the second day, we were joined by Bert. He showed us video clips of the MNLF members with their firearms, projecting the MNLF as a strong group to contend with. He let us know that he had deep contacts with them. This worried me.
Ramos was very firm and explained the foolhardiness of resuscitating the MNLF, citing the facts on the ground. I followed up and told Bert, “Look, I don’t think you can impress me with those things. It’s the political side that we have to resolve.”
Seeing that he was facing a wall, Bert waxed personal. “When we were in the anti-Marcos struggle, Nur helped us escape.” Then he went into the details of how it happened.
“Alright, I understand that.” I said. “Do you know that if we continue the fighting, one helicopter will cost us $5 million? In just three days of fighting, we will be wasting billions of pesos. That’s going to be the cost of reviving Misuari.”
Butz Aquino did not budge. He and Bert proceeded with their trip to Saudi Arabia to hold initial talks with Misuari.
Months later [in September 1986], President Cory met with Misuari in Jolo [the MNLF leaders’ hometown] and they agreed to extend the truce that she announced when she assumed power… She asked me to be present [in her meeting with Misuari]. I stayed on the sidelines as she and Misuari talked in the convent of the Carmelite nuns. The President told me that this was her commitment to her husband…
Sadly, true to our fears, Misuari continued the attacks. And we suffered casualties, on both sides—again.
The reasons for deciding to talk to Misuari seemed very personal – honoring a dead man’s word and paying a debt of gratitude—when protecting people’s lives should have been paramount. That was why the MNLF rebellion unfolded the way it did.
End of Almonte’s account. Postcript
A month after Cory’s meeting with the MNLF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke away from it in 1977, launched a series of attacks on government installations in their strongholds in Maguindanao. It sent a message to Aquino that the MNLF might have control over Sulu, which was, after all, the homeland of the Tausugs who dominated that organization. The MNLF, though, was powerless in the bigger area of Maguindanao at the center of the Mindanao mainland, where the Maguindanaon MILF was based. There won’t be peace as they were totally excluded from the peace talks.
Cory sent another relative to talk with the MILF, and discussed arrangements for a ceasefire.
On Jan 19, 1987, Cory met with then MILF vice chairman (now chairman) Murad Ibrahim in Cotabato, accompanied by 100 heavily armed bodyguards. “We presented her with a flower as a symbol of peace. We are pinning very high hopes on her,” he was quoted by the media.
“Aquino gives us hope, “ Murad would say 24 years later, and after the MILF grew from a rag-tag guerrilla group of about 2,000 to an estimated 30,000 uniformed regulars with modern firearms, among them, the 50-mm Barrett sniper rifle that killed our commandos in a turkey shoot in Mamasapano.
Murad was referring, of course, to Cory’s son he met not in Philippine territory but in a neutral foreign land, Tokyo, in a signal that the MILF had become another state.
What irony of history. Aquino resuscitated the Muslim insurgency. Her son strengthened it and even gave it steroids. He would be surrendering Philippine territory to that insurgency if we do not stop him.