Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Nur Misuari

‘Without justice, there can never be an end to the war in Mindanao’

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Photos by Lilen Uy

“IT WAS a little bit eerie,” Nur Misuari says, recalling that cold early morning in January 1986 when a stranger came knocking on the door of his hotel room in Madrid. On the run from the Marcos government, the chairman of the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF was then living in Tripoli, dependent on the hospitality of the Libyan leader Muammar Khadaffi. He was in Madrid for just that night, waiting for a flight to Casablanca in Morocco, where he was to attend a meeting.

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Misuari was surprised to find that the stranger at his door was Agapito ‘Butz’ Aquino, the younger brother of Ninoy, who had flown to Spain at the behest of Cory Aquino. Cory was then in the thick of a presidential campaign, having agreed to run against Marcos in a “snap election.” Butz had come to seek Misuari’s assistance.

“Brother Nur, you should help us,” the MNLF leader recalls being told that morning. “You should help us save democracy. This is the only chance to destroy dictatorship, through the ballot box.”

Misuari was not a complete stranger to the Aquinos, having met several times with Ninoy in the Middle East during the late 1970s and early ’80s. After spending years in a Marcos prison before going to exile in Boston, the former senator was forging alliances among groups fighting the regime in Manila. He was sympathetic to the Moro struggle and had made speeches supporting their bid for “self-determination,” even promising that he would recognize their aspirations for a separate, even an independent, homeland if he ever succeeded in toppling the dictator.

Still, Misuari asked what the MNLF had to gain from assisting what seemed in 1986 a quixotic bid to unseat Marcos. He remembers that this is what Butz Aquino told him that morning in Madrid: “I have brought you the word of honor of Cory that if and when you decide to help and through that help she will become the next president of the republic, then all the promises of Ninoy will be fulfilled by her. All.”

By 1986, the MNLF was far from the fighting force it was in the 1970s, when they had the run of most of Muslim Mindanao. Forced by his allies in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to talk peace with Marcos in 1976, Misuari agreed to lay down arms in exchange for autonomy in 13 provinces and nine cities of Mindanao. The promised autonomy, however, was a sham. And even as many MNLF leaders took the bait of patronage and positions offered by Marcos, Misuari carried on the lonely fight. The truce fell through and bands of Moro fighters continued to give Marcos’s army a hard time, but they were even farther from their goal of independence in 1986 than they had been a decade earlier.

Misuari had nothing to lose by supporting Cory. So he told his followers to campaign for her and to ensure her votes were counted. A tape of his speech endorsing Aquino’s candidacy was played all over Moroland. Even his own mother-in-law, he says, was campaigning for Cory house to house in Jolo.

Seven months after she became president, Cory did the unprecedented: against the advice of her generals, she flew to Maimbung, in the dusty boondocks of Sulu, to meet with Misuari in the very heart of Moro country. The meeting, Misuari says, “was in fulfillment of her promise to say thank you to us and also to launch the peace talks.”

Surrounded by thousands of Moro fighters brandishing high-powered rifles, Misuari had never looked more triumphant. He was in his element, certain that finally, the wrongs of history would be righted. In the background, however, the generals of the armed forces were fretting, worried that their president was reviving an organization that, although still fully armed, was largely dormant.

In 1986, Misuari, like millions of Filipinos, was filled with hope. He remembers being at the MNLF office in Libya when news of Marcos’s fall reached him. “I was naturally very, very much elated to welcome the dawn of democracy, the dawn of a new life for our people,” he says. “We contributed to the transformation of this country from a repressive regime. We were the cause of its downfall.”

While Misuari may be exaggerating the MNLF’s role in the events of February1986, it cannot be denied that the Moros fought Marcos valiantly. They weakened the military and kept it occupied, especially in the early years of martial law. They consistently and continuously challenged the regime till the very end, even as they brought international attention to their separatist aspirations. For sure, any account of the resistance against Marcos cannot ignore the MNLF’s contribution.

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DEMOCRACY, HOWEVER, has not been kind to Nur Misuari.

Today at age 66, he is a prisoner. Charged with rebellion, allegedly for calling on his fighters in Sulu to overthrow the Arroyo government, he has been detained for the last four years in a police camp in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. With two guards and an imam for company, he is kept in a small, two-bedroom cottage surrounded by two wire fences, its only distinction being that this was the same cottage where Joseph Estrada was detained briefly in 2001. Misuari now occupies the room where the disgraced former president had been confined. The imam, the ever-loyal Abuharis Usman, has the smaller room, sleeping on what used to be Jinggoy Estrada’s bed.

Misuari is thinner now. He looks smaller, weaker, far from the once-feared revolutionary who inspired thousands of Muslim Filipinos to take up arms for a separate nation he made them think was possible. The eyes, however, still smolder, and the revolutionary rhetoric is as fiery as ever.

Sometimes it is difficult to believe that 35 years ago, this slightly built but intense university professor articulated the dream of a Bangsa Moro homeland. That dream united disparate ethnic and tribal groups and compelled them to fight the most ferocious battles the Philippine armed forces had seen since the Pacific War. Misuari himself talks nostalgically of those days when all over Mindanao, the military was raising white flags in the face of Moro ire.

But he knows those days are long gone. Today the chairman, as he is still sometimes called, spends his days reading, praying, and writing his memoirs. The imam cooks for him and prays with him. He says they also watch the news as well as basketball and wrestling matches on the small TV that comes with the cottage.

But Misuari’s greatest enemy today is not the Philippine government. It is not even, like Erap Estrada, boredom or ennui. It is irrelevance. Today the face of struggle in southern Philippines is no longer that of Nur Misuari or of the MNLF. It is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which controls sizeable territory in central Mindanao, or the much feared and discredited Abu Sayyaf.

Repeating in democracy what it did during the dictatorship, the MNLF signed peace agreements with the governments of day. It agreed to a ceasefire broached by Cory’s negotiators, but the Aquino government was concerned primarily with surviving attempted coups by rebellious military factions to pay much heed to mapping out a comprehensive peace settlement with the MNLF. The task fell on Ramos, who was eager to end the war in Mindanao, but the document he got the MNLF to sign provided for an even more watered down version of autonomy than that stipulated by the 1976 Tripoli Agreement.

In 1996, Misuari agreed to run unopposed as governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Having tired of war and having laid down their arms, Misuari and the other MNLF leaders settled down to the new challenges of peace. But the roots of Moro rebellion — poverty and injustice — remained unanswered. It was inevitable that newer, more aggressive movements would emerge to fill the slack, recruiting younger, fitter rebels more attuned to global Islam than Misuari, the secular Moro nationalist clinging to ’70s rhetoric, could ever be.

If Brother Nur realizes this, he does not say it. The MILF, he says, was a Marcos creation to divide the MNLF. The young, hotheaded men of the Abu Sayyaf, he insists, are nothing but drug addicts and they, too, were a creation of the hated Philippine state.

The MILF is currently on the verge of a peace agreement with the government. But Misuari pooh-poohs it. “This will not bring peace in Mindanao,” he says. “It will only create problems. How many times have we had autonomy? There was the autonomy of Marcos, the autonomy of Corazon (Aquino), the autonomy of FVR (Ramos). Could this be the solution to the problem [when] it has proven to be the wrong prescription? It’s like using Cortal to cure a cancer in society’s gut.”

YET IN 1996, Misuari accepted autonomy and seemed to be enjoying his role as ARMM governor. He had big dreams: 10-lane highways, a seaport in Sulu, railroads crisscrossing Mindanao, foreign investments streaming in, and factories springing up like mushrooms. In short, peace and prosperity of the type he had seen his brother Muslims enjoy in places like Malaysia and the Gulf. Certainly, being Muslim did not mean being poor. He wanted to transform Sulu into a version of Hong Kong and Mindanao into a zone of prosperity that the Christians would envy.

No one can accuse Nur Misuari of modest dreams. But he says he was denied the wherewithal to achieve them. “They promised me P45 billion as initial input for a ‘mini-Marshall Plan’ [for Mindanao],” he says bitterly. “But in the first year, I wasn’t given a single cent for development.” He was starved of money for his pet projects, he says, and all his ideas were stolen by the national government.

But Misuari’s critics, including some of his former MNLF colleagues, accuse the chairman of being an inept administrator who spent most of his time speaking in conferences overseas than in running ARMM. Others say Misuari acted like a sultan during his governorship, a far cry from the spartan, almost ascetic revolutionary that he was in the 1970s. As governor, Misuari, they say, lived it up in hotels and had a penchant for delivering three-hour speeches while refusing to heed the frustrations of his men.

They say he has not been able to reform a culture of corruption that remains deeply embedded in Muslim Mindanao. Misuari snarls at this accusation. Not a single cent passed through him, he says, Besides, he says, the Moros learned corruption from the Filipinos. “Our people were very honest people until they learned [corruption] from here. The spoils system we learned from the Americans. I was a political science professor at the UP. I know where we got the spoils system. The number one industry in this whole country is corruption.”

The fire still burns inside Nur Misuari. The government says that as his term as ARMM governor was about to end in 2001, he declared war against the government and encouraged his men to attack state troopers. Some 100 people died in the gunbattles that ensued, with Moro rebels holding children hostage to cover their trail as they retreated. The chairman denies this was his doing, saying that there were skirmishes in Sulu and the MNLF forces there were forced to act only in self -defense.

“War is terrible,” he says. “It’s a scourge to humanity. It’s like fire, it eats up everything.” And yet, Moro history, as the chairman tells it, is one of endless war. Misuari recites it over and over like a litany in the course of a rambling, three-hour interview where he refused to be interrupted: we fought the Spaniards for 377 years, then the British and the Dutch, the Americans and the Japanese, and then the Filipinos. “But who brought the war to Mindanao? Not us.”

But isn’t Moro history also one of betrayal and defeat? “What defeat?” he growls. “We are the winners. We are going to precipitate the disintegration of this country if our problem is not solved… Without justice, without sincerity on the part of the government, there can never be an end to the war in Mindanao.”

The chairman’s voice rises. The cottage is too small to contain his anger. “Do you think it’s to the benefit of the government to allow me to rot here?” he asks rhetorically. “They will only be sowing the seeds of perpetual war in Mindanao if they do.”

Fighting words. Right now, these are all Misuari has. — Sheila S. Coronel