captured MNLF gear (photo from PIA IX Facebook page)
MORO NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT (MNLF) founding chairman Nur Misuari has reportedly delivered a chilling message to the remaining MNLF fighters who are still engaged in a standoff with government forces in several villages in Zamboanga City.
The message, according to MNLF negotiator Absalom Cerveza: “No surrender, no retreat, no negotiations.”
Government forces have been locked in house-to-house fighting with MNLF rebels who swept down on Zamboanga last Sept. 9, reportedly in protest over government’s failure to implement provisions in the 1996 peace agreement with the rebel group. The rebels also claim they have been sidelined in the recent peace talks with their rival rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Earlier last month, Misuari himself had declared an independent BangsaMoro Republik, saying he could no longer count on the Philippine government to honor its commitments under the 1996 peace agreement.
The fighting in Zamboanga has already stretched into its 11th day, with scores of rebels, civilians, and soldiers killed and wounded and dozens of homes razed to the ground.
Cerveza said he spoke with Misuari over the phone Wednesday night and briefed him on developments in Zamboanga. Cerveza said Misuari is in the country, but is not in Zamboanga City itself. Cerveza said they will not disclose Misuari’s current location for security reasons.
Cerveza said Misuari also made clear to him the instructions he was giving to the remaining MNLF rebels in Zamboanga City.
“Ang sabi ni chairman, no changes, no surrender, no retreat, no negotiations (for surrender),” Cerveza said in a telephone interview with the PCIJ. Cerveza made the statement even as the government said it had begun to stabilize the situation in Zamboanga City with the surrender of several MNLF rebels.
“The war for independence has started, and the MNLF has no alternative but to make a stand,” Cerveza added.
civilians: first to die, last to understand (photo from PIA IX Facebook page)
However Cerveza said the MNLF has not entirely closed the door to peace. Cerveza said they were still willing to listen to any proposal by the Philippine government that could entice Misuari back to negotiations. However, Cerveza was not clear exactly what these points could be.
“Kung may magandang punto ang gobyerno, pag usapan natin,” he said. “That is what I am here for (in Manila,) to listen.” Cerveza is a protestant pastor who was a senior negotiator of the MNLF in the 1996 peace agreement. He has since been reassigned by the MNLF to Manila several years ago.
Cerveza also refuted rumors that MNLF commander Habier Malik had already been killed in bitter house-to-house fighting in Zamboanga. Malik, a Misuari loyalist from Sulu, is said to be the ground commander of the Zamboanga rebel force.
Cerveza said Malik is still very much alive and in Zamboanga City. Emphasizing Malik’s role in both the Zamboanga standoff and in the MNLF itself, Cerveza said that Malik’s death would have far-reaching repercussions.
“If you kill Malik, as the supreme commander of the MNLF armed forces, even Misuari will capitulate,” Cerveza said. “Wala na siyang (Misuari) taga giyera. We definitely need Malik alive.”
Human rights groups meantime are straining to keep up with the demands of the humanitarian crisis spawned by the fighting in Zamboanga City and the nearby island-province of Basilan.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center or MinHRAC reports a total of 112,916 displaced people in Zamboanga City alone, or 21,0252 families as per the count of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. While relief goods have been pouring in, relief agencies are hard pressed to keep up with the demand, especially since flights had been cancelled for more than a week now.
playing war in Basilan (photo from PIA IX Facebook page)
Photographs released by the Philippine Information Agency Region IX in Zamboanga City show the plight of evacuees in relief centers. One photo taken by the PIA IX showed an child who had evacuated from his village in Basilan after fighting between the government and the MNLF spilled out there. The photo showed the young evacuee holding a twig as if pretending it was also a firearm.
no religious war here (photo from PIA IX Facebook page)
Other photos showed locals crossing religious and ethnic lines to help each other. One series of photos by the PIA showed members of the Federation of Muslim Students Association distributing relief goods in an evacuation center.