Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF; flag pictured), is a man with blood on his hands – and lot’s of it. Everyone knows that; himself included. He’s been hunted by Philippine security forces for the past three years for his alleged role in the slaughter that took place in Zamboanga City in 2013; he’s been a thorn in the side of successive governments since he founded his organisation back in 1972. If there had been a government-sponsored Hall of Shame, Nur Misuari would have had pride of place in it. So how come he’s sitting down for a chat and snacks in Malacañang Palace with Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte?
Anti-Duterteists are perplexed … and angry. Is this more evidence of the president’s madness? they ask. Is this Moro (Muslim) revolutionary – his arrest warrant suspended by a Pasig City Trial Court at Duterte’s request – now to be part of some new effort for peace; a peace necessitated by the insurrection in which he played such a key part? Is the president ‘sleeping with the enemy?’
On the surface of it, their confusion is understandable. But let’s look closer, reject emotion for a moment and get inside Duterte’s rationale. The Volatilian™ has done just that, and our conclusion, unequivocally, is that this move is not only desirable, it’s essential. The time for showboating has past; the Filipino people have seen too much of that. Every passing administration has produced its own failures. It’s time for results – however down and dirty the approach.
Misuari is an iconic figure among the country’s 5.67-million-strong Moro population, and although there are factional splits within the MNLF, he remains its leader. If anyone can bring this organisation and its followers to an outbreak of peace, it’s him. The president has said he believes “this one single man can provide a solution to the problem of peace and order in our homeland”. For his part, Misuari has pledged his support for the president’s effort.
And so Duterte – ever the pragmatist – has grabbed this hideous bloody conflict by the scruff of its neck and is dragging it to a place where the hope of the future can be rescued from the death and desperation of the past. The bill in blood of the Moros’ fight for self-determination has been high; the paralysis it’s caused to the region’s economy, scaring-off investment and crippling enterprise, by now is incalculable.
In the battle of Zamboanga City – 18 hard-fought September days and nights – 200 people perished; throughout the entire conflict between Muslim separatists and government forces (1969 to the present), an estimated 100,000 lives have been extinguished.
The Moros are a proud people – they’ve been fighting for their land since the Spanish started trampling through the sultanates of Mindanao and Sulu in the 1560s. They resisted imperialist Spain’s ultimatum to convert to the Church of Rome, lose their homes or die. They laid down their lives fighting the American occupation of their homeland during the Moro Rebellion (1899-1913); they did the same when the Japanese arrived in 1942. And for the best part of the last half century they’ve continued their armed struggle.
So, after 450 years of failed initiatives, hallmarked by broken promises, divisiveness, political wrangling and stubbornness on all sides, peace in the Moro lands is as elusive today as a unicorn in the mist. And that’s why the old playbooks for a settlement need to be thrown on the fire.
This is about going to the very heart of the problem and surgically extracting a solution. It’s not about winning the hearts and minds of politicians as so many previous attempts at accords have been. The last one, for example, aimed at establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region – this was former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s great hope – has been floundering in Congress for the past two years as politicians pick away at the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the enabling legislation, like vultures on a dead carcass. Compromise be damned.
But that deal was also flawed. To make it, Aquino sidelined the MNLF and negotiated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the MILF) which had splinted from Misuari’s organisation in 1980 – effectively abrogating a peace plan brokered with former president, Fidel Ramos, in 1996. This was based on the Tripoli Agreement – forged by the MNLF and the government two decades earlier – with gave autonomy to 15 provinces and 20 cities in Mindanao. There was always bad blood between these two groups, but Aquino’s effort only made it boil.
Now the challenge is to get them to work together at the reconstituted Bangsamoro Transition Commission as joint drafters, along with other Moro groups, of the BBL. This is a high hurdle, but it needs to be cleared; all the clans of the Moro lands need to partner in this.
Plainly, though, the last remaining route to peace with the Moros is through talking – not with their mutually approved representatives and lawyers (please spare us them) – but face to face with the men who held the guns and the bolo knives on the other side. And in this case, that means Nur Misuari.
There have been plenty of precedents for negotiating with a rebel enemy. In 1994, the British Government entered into talks with Irish nationalists to seek an end to 40 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Men with blood on their hands, ranking members of the Irish Republican Army and other terrorist paramilitaries, sat across the table from government ministers. It took time – but more than that it took will – and eventually ceasefires were kept, rebel arms were decommissioned and an agreement was signed. And 22 years later that agreement – the Good Friday Agreement – is still being honoured.
Ultimately though, this has to be about reconciliation. And that requires the efforts of both parties; directly, not through their political or legal proxies. And it can be done. Let’s glimpse one example of where this was effectively put into practice. Rwanda.
This country underwent one of the biggest genocides ever unleashed. Oddly, it also happened in 1994. In that year, around 1 million Rwandans were killed and quarter of a million women were raped. The country was devastated; its people traumatised. By the side of this, the death toll from conflicts in the southern Philippines would amount to little more than striking a match in Hell.
But, miracle of miracles, combatants on all sides united and reconciled. And they’re still at peace with each other. So whether it’s salam or kapayapaan, if it can happen in Rwanda it can certainly happen in the troubled provinces of Mindanao.
In the light of all that, and given the long history of the Moro wars and the catalogue of failures to end them, Duterte’s initiative – unpalatable though it may be to his critics; however much it’s seized on by his opponents and used against him – Nur Misuari can hold the key to unlocking peace.
He may seem an unlikely a figure in this context but then so did Saul of Tarsus, another man with blood on his hands when he was asked to help his enemies. And that turned out pretty well.