Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), was arrested by Malaysian authorities on November 24 on Jampiras island, Sabah, North Borneo, after he and his aides fled the war-torn island-province of Sulu (southern Mindanao). Initial rumours that he had been flown to the Middle East, to be handed over to the OIC, were later disproved. Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad later confirmed that Misuari had been transferred to Kuala Lumpur and would be handed over to Philippine authorities. Misuari is accused of rebellion by the Philippine government because of the recent fighting between the MNLF and Philippine forces.
Misuari’s troubles began when heavy fighting broke out in Sulu, Southern Mindanao, on November 19. MNLF forces loyal to him launched pre-dawn attacks on government installations in and around Jolo, the capital of Sulu. Misuari tried to deny having ordered the attacks, but Manila was determined to blame him. By 25 November, according to government figures, 150 people (government soldiers, MNLF fighters and civilians) had died, and more than 10,000 Muslim refugees had fled the war-torn areas as government forces launched massive ground counter-offensives and air-strikes on villages in Sulu believed to be in the MNLF’s control. Casualty figures are expected to increase further.
There was also heavy fighting at Zamboanga City on November 27, between MNLF fighters and government troops. When the attacks in Sulu erupted, Philippine troops in the city surrounded Misuari’s Kabatangan office complex and demanded the MNLF fighters’ surrender. There was a week-long stand-off until after Misuari’s arrest and the ARMM elections on November 26. The military attacked Kabatangan complex at dawn on November 27 using troops, heavy artillery and air power. Heavy fighting ensued. Most of the fighters were able to slip away just before sunrise, going to Pasonanca Park, a tourist attraction in Zamboanga, where they rounded up Christian civilians to use as hostages.
Meanwhile, about 30 MNLF fighters left at Kabatangan complex to cover the withdrawal of their comrades also fought their way out at daylight and seized about 50 civilian hostages to use as human shields. From the complex they marched to Pasonanca Park, some three kilometers away. Before noon the rearguard had joined their comrades. By then 86 civilians were being held hostage. The Moro fighters were led by Julhambri Misuari, nephew of Nur and a MNLF commander, veteran of the MNLF-led war in Mindanao in the 1970s.
The fighting and hostage-taking threw the Philippines’ government into panic. All schools and commercial establishments in the city were closed down. Flights to and from the city were cancelled; the airport was also shut down. More troops were rushed to Zamboanga city. Other cities and provinces went onto red alert as fear of joint attacks by the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) gripped Philippine officialdom. In Cotabato City, the ARMM capital, some 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) away from Zamboanga City, the military raided the official residence of Nur Misuari and the homes of his relatives and MNLF supporters. At one family home high-powered firearms and munitions were found, prompting Manila to claim that the MNLF was out to sow terror in Mindanao.
The crisis at Zamboanga was resolved on November 28, when Abraham Iribani, a former spokesman of the MNLF, negotiated a settlement on behalf of the government, after the fighters had refused to deal with Farouk Hussin, who had led Misuari’s removal from the MNLF leadership and was now approved by Manila to succeed him as ARMM governor. Before noon a deal was struck for the release of the remaining hostages, in exchange for the fighters’ safe exit from the city with all their firearms. After releasing their hostages the MNLF fighters, accompanied by an ARMM official (a member of the government’s negotiating team), boarded Army trucks and were taken to a secure MNLF camp.
As the crisis in Zamboanga was being sorted, Ghazzali Jaafar, MILF vice-chair for political affairs, said in an interview that the MNLF’s repudiation of the Tripoli Agreement (1976) and the Jakarta Accord (1996), which had stipulated autonomy for the Bangsamoros, clearly demonstrates that autonomy within the Philippine nation-state does not work. Jaafar repeated the demand for a referendum in the Bangsamoro homeland on the issue of independence. This is the only option, according to Jaafar, now acceptable to the Bangsamoro people; otherwise the MILF and the MNLF, as well as other Moro groups, will carry on fighting.
The fighting erupted as Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was wrapping up her nine-day ‘working visit’ to Washington, where she pledged her administration’s complete support for the US’s campaign against ‘terrorism’. Arroyo was rewarded with $4.6 billion to resuscitate the Philippines’ bankrupt economy, as well as to upgrade and modernise its armed forces to “fight terrorism”. Nur Misuari’s apparent defection from the Philippine government helped the government’s appeal: it is now being made to seem that Misuari has teamed up with the Abu-Sayyaf group, said to be linked to al-Qa’ida, to sow terror in Southeast Asia; Manila is now calling Misuari the “Usama bin Ladin of the Philippines.”
In the mean time, many are wondering why and how Nur Misuari, who abandoned the Moro struggle in 1996 and became the government’s most-pampered Moro leader when he became ARMM governor in 1997, is now being hunted by the very government he was once a part of. While he was Manila’s blue-eyed boy he used his office to frustrate the revolutionary Islamic movement. As chairman of the MNLF, recognised by the OIC as the “sole representative of the Bangsamoro people,” he is accorded observer status there. Misuari used the privilege to defend the colonial status quo in the Bangsamoro homeland, and allowed 5,000 MNLF fighters to become part of the Philippine Armed Forces. At the height of his power he claimed to be the only “moderate” Moro Muslim leader, in contrast with the “extremists” of the Islamic movement, apparently alluding to Ustadz Salamat Hashim, amir of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who refuses to compromise.
But Misuari failed dismally to grasp the colonial reality in the Bangsamoro homeland. He also failed to learn from the experiences of his comrades who capitulated before he did and were abandoned after they had served the government’s purposes. In 1996 Misuari renounced armed struggle, accepted ‘Muslim autonomy’ for the remaining areas of the Bangsamoro homeland, and made an agreement with then-president Fidel Ramos. The Philippine government committed itself to establish a “genuine and meaningful” Muslim autonomy in the Bangsamoro areas of Mindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. In 1997 Misuari was persuaded by the government to run for the governorship of the ARMM. He was unopposed as the government’s candidate in an election designed to legitimise his assumption of office.
Misuari was also appointed chairman of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), set up to oversee the economic development of areas within the ARMM as well as areas outside it for later inclusion in an expanded autonomy. The only things the SPCPD developed were its chairman’s pockets, but while Misuari was in Manila’s good books it didn’t matter.
As governor of ARMM, Misuari became Manila’s favourite Moro Muslim. For almost five years Misuari enjoyed the privileges of office. His three-year term was extended by Manila when it ended in 2000. He did almost nothing to improve the lot of the Bangsamoros; the Bangsamoro provinces remained the poorest areas of the Philippines. The Philippine military continued to ravage Muslim villages and violate human rights at the slightest pretext; Misuari failed to prevent these outrages or protect the people he had sworn to defend.
Last year Fidel Ramos’ presidential term ended. The administration of Joseph Estrada was openly anti-Moro and anti-Muslim, and waged war against the MILF, devastating most of the Bangsamoro communities in mainland Mindanao and leaving 800,000 Muslims homeless and destitute. Misuari did nothing for the Muslim refugees in makeshift evacuation-centres scattered all over Mindanao, not even visit them.
Early this year Estrada was toppled by a popular revolt that lifted Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the presidency. Misuari thought that he could bluff her as he had Estrada. The new regime, having decided that he could no longer be controlled, however, was already plotting to remove him from power.
In July 2001 the Arroyo regime engineered a coup within the MNLF in which 15 senior and high-ranking members of the MNLF Central Committee, now calling themselves the Executive Council, headed by MNLF foreign-affairs chairman Dr Farouk Hussin, its secretary-general Muslimin Sema, its vice-chairman Hatimil Hassan and MNLF Army chief of staff Jikiri, removed Misuari from the chairmanship of the MNLF central committee. These men, like Misuari, are now occupying high positions in the very government they once fought. This conspiracy not only involved the Manila regime and his once-trusted henchmen but also the governments of Libya and Malaysia, which had previously recognised his position.
When Manila scheduled the ARMM election for November 26, and Dr Farouk Hussin was named the official candidate for ARMM governor, Misuari announced a boycott of the polls, and condemned the political exercise as a violation of the Jakarta Accord. On November 5 he had presided over the “5th Bangsamoro Congress” in Sulu, where he warned Manila of another war should it persist in holding the ARMM elections on November 26. In that same assembly of loyal followers he also renewed his call for an independent state, the “Bangsamoro Republik”, with him as “president”. But his protest and threats fell on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, Misuari’s declaration of war against the Manila regime, in the eyes of his loyal followers in the MNLF, nullifies all the peace agreements (the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Jakarta Accord) that he made with the Philippine government, although this is disputed by his enemies in the MNLF. What is certain is that there will be an escalation of violence, not because of the threat from Misuari but because the Philippine military continues to violate a ceasefire agreement with the MILF, now the strongest Islamic resistance group in Mindanao.
In any case, Misuari should have learned a painful lesson from these experiences. The man whose loyal followers once claimed he was the personification of the MNLF and the Bangsamoro struggle is as much a victim of his own follies and delusions as of the machinations of Manila and the secular Muslim governments of the OIC. The Bangsamoro people can only hope that some good may come out of his latest caper.