A Bangsamoro fighter in full combat regalia.  Photo taken by the  Bangsamoro-MNLF.
A Bangsamoro fighter in full combat regalia.
Photo taken by the Bangsamoro-MNLF.

“We aim to be successful in establishing a Bangsamoro state; not an autonomous region but an independent Mindanao will be the Bangsamoro state.”

Those were the chilling words of an MNLF commander during an interview with a news reporter in Zamboanga City. Once the leader proclaimed the group’s intentions, the throngs of supporters he had behind him all raised their fists in the air and gave a proud roar, as in affirmation.

When Fidel Ramos signed the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the international community applauded and dubbed it as a ‘historic’ moment in Philippine history. As a matter of fact, Ramos and his Moro co-signatory Nur Misuari were both awarded the UNESCO Peace Prize for the monumentous treaty.

The document meant that the conflict between the government and the Bangsamoro fighters, which has spanned over three decades, would finally come to an end. It was the agreement that would cease the war that displaced over three million Filipinos, one million of who migrated to Sabah, and resulted in the deaths of another 150,000 people.

For the people in the warzone, it was supposed to be the end of the chaos. A culmination of the bombings, gunfire and endless evacuations they had become familiar with. For the rebels, it was the denouement of their struggle; the reward for fighting to uphold their ancestral lands. In reality however, the agreement would turn out to be false hope for these people.

Early Sunday morning, the 8th of September, scores of fully-armed MNLF fighters began making their way to the pre-dominantly Christian city of Zamboanga, dubbed as the last frontier of the Philippine’s Latin heritage. Under orders from Nur Misuari, who was not a participant himself, their division that numbered around 400 fighters engaged in a firefight with authorities that left  scores wounded – in addition to a soldier who was killed as the Navy spotted a pumpboat full of armed men.

To make matters worse, the rebels took over 100 people hostage and utilized them as human shields. They declared their intention, ‘to declare an independent Bangsamoro state’ and demanded to be allowed to hoist their flag of independence in the city hall.

The demagogic Nur Misuari addresses a rally.
The demagogic Nur Misuari addresses a rally.

The military should have seen this coming. Just last August 15, Misuari declared independence of the Bangsamoro Republik in Daira, Lupah Sug and made himself the president. He also proclaimed to be the commander-in-chief of the Bangsamoro Armed Forces (BAF). Justifying this, Misuari cited the United Nations Resolution 1514 which grants independence to any country that is still under colonial rule. Misuari failed to understand that Resolution 1514 only works if there is an overwhelming demand by the inhabitants of the supposed ‘colonized areas’ for self-determination. Yet, majority of the people inhabiting the 13 states claimed by Misuari consider themselves Filipino or Malaysians in the case of Sabah. In addition, majority of these citizens identify themselves as Christian.

This radical action by the Bangsamoros did not transpire out-of-the-blue. Misuari reneged on the 1996 Final Peace Agreement when he thought the treaty was being compromised by another manifesto the Aquino government signed last year, the Framework Agreement for the Bangsamoro.

You see, in order to make peace with Misuari and the MNLF the Ramos administration signed the Final Peace Agreement. The deal ensured the Bangsamoros autonomy of their ancestral lands and the establishment of Shari’ah courts, but this was not the original mission of the Bangsamoro movement. Secession was the ultimate ambition of the Moros and when this was compromised and made into autonomy instead, it left out a faction of the group that held out for an independent state instead and rejected the call to peace. Thus, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was born.

This separatist faction, a splinter group from the MNLF, emerged more brute and barbaric in its’ war with the government. At the height of their campaign they declared ‘jihad’ on the Philippine government of Joseph Estrada, while the latter initiated his infamous ‘all out war’ against them in 2001. These battles would involve battalions of Philippine troops and hundreds of American reinforcements sent by the US government as a retaliation for the kidnapping of two US nationals: the Burnhams. The MILF’s main camp, Camp Abubakar, fell and Estrada declared himself victorious over these men. The sad reality however, is that the group would only scatter into tiny fragment groups and engage the government in sporadic guerrilla wars for many more years.

During this time, the MNLF fighters had already disarmed themselves and most returned to a civilian lifestyle. Only a small proportion remained as standby combat troops or who served as Misuari’s personal guards. While they stood watch, and as Misuari became the ARMM governor in 2007, the MILF beheaded fourteen marines during an encounter in Mindanao.

MILF fighters prepared for combat.
MILF fighters prepared for combat.

Part of the MNLF’s lamentations was the failure of the government to fully implement the provisions of the 1996 Peace Treaty, the group became critical of  their lack of jurisdiction over the domain they have autonomy over. Yet, part of the same peace treaty was the safeguarding of their domain and the mandatory support of MNLF fighters for government troops in upholding the rule of law and pursuing lawless or unrecognized groups, such as the MILF. With the MILF, a rogue group, running wild in the region the MNLF fall short of their end of the deal as well.

This however, was not given considerations by Nur Misuari. And why would he? He probably sees the deal one-sided, favoring his own party. Despite the Bangsamoro Development Fund, the establishment of the sharia’ah courts or the autonomy given to the governor of ARMM he still had the audacity to seek more.

In fairness to him, on the other hand, the government fell short in sharing mining revenues with the Bangsamoro. But all these impartiality could have been ironed out by more dialogues, if they were the sole motives of the recent rampage of the MNLF that is. It is an overkill if they would burn villages and take hostages just for a few pieces of rocks.

The suspected motive of the rebels is to protest the government’s decision to make the MILF, whom they consider as traitors, a legitimate organization they would like to negotiate with. This indeed undermines the 1996 FPA, and the MNLF’s role as the sole Bangsamoro political entity as well, particularly since they are the only group recognized by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). This is where the government gets a share of the blame, why would you negotiate with another group on a territory already agreed with with another group? Was the government serious at all with the 1996 agreement?

The unpredictability and indecisiveness of the government’s policies also create conflicts as well. One cannot condone the actions of the rebels but you can clearly see where their frustrations take root from. The government would like to think that they can justify their actions by saying the ARMM was a failure and they are simply revising the Bangsamoro agreement; but why speak with the MILF? Why not re-open negotiations with Misuari and his MNLF?

The Zamboanga City mayor addressing the media on the crisis in her city.
The Zamboanga City mayor addressing the media on the crisis in her city.

It is also worth noting that on the side of the rebels, whether MNLF or MILF and even in the government’s negotiations with the communist NPA, the opposite party’s sincerity is usually in doubt.

For most of the time, these groups express strong conviction over their aims. But as the military gains ground in their campaigns, they quickly give in to peace talks – which usually stalls. The end result? During the cease fire they regain their strength and when the peace talks, inevitably, breaks down they are back fighting full force and with a renewed sense of motivation again.

Let’s analyze the facts, when the MNLF made a truce with the Ramos government the MILF emerged. When the MILF began peace talks with the Arroyo administration, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement emerged after. The Bangsamoro struggle looks like the mitosis of a cell, where it splits and creates an identical entity in the process. This should have been a sign by the government, that regardless of what they do, not everyone will be appeased. If for instance, they have settled everything with both MNLF and MILF, are they willing to deal with the BIFM too? And what happens if a splinter group comes out of it too? Are they also willing to negotiate with that group?

If this is the trend the government follows, there will come a time when there will be no more land left to give autonomy too. In the end, the Filipino people will be the ultimate loser. And just think how this would affect our standing in the international community – if we concede land and would admit the control of these domains to ragtag factions, who are we to tell China they cannot have the Spratlys?

If the government is clever enough, they should ask the MNLF to chase after the MILF when they wrecked havoc during the height of their rebellion. It was in the peace treaty after all. They should also make Nur Misuari responsible for any of his renegade commanders causing trouble; because what kind of legitimate entity would sit still while the name of his faction is being used to commit atrocities?

The situation in Mindanao is a very complicated one, a scenario with no win-win. In logical terminology, it is a catch-22 situation; a scenario when there won’t be a winning solution and any decision would lead to at least one negative. If we choose to enforce our 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF, the MILF becomes angry. If we were to appease the MILF, Nur Misuari is the casualty. If both sit down on the negotiating table, there’s the BIFF who would cause problems as well.

Part of the problem is that there are too many factions claiming to be authentic. If we would consider giving identity to the Bangsamoro people, they should put forward a single political entity that would be their legitimate representative, the group that embodies their people as a whole. This should be the only group the government deals with, and any group that springs out should be considered an enemy and illegitimate. That group should be aggressively pursued regardless of the odds – we might as well put the Armed Forces of the Philippines to good use.

The government now has a headache in Nur Misuari’s latest fiasco in Zamboanga. It is a sensitive situation that the government should thoroughly study before making any drastic move. This is Nur Misuari we are talking about, after all. Let us not forget that 170 innocent civilians are being held captive by these forces.

There is no time to be complacent or be idle, however. The MNLF are reportedly burning villages and planning more attacks – not to mention, beefing up their numbers with forces coming in the city from nearby provinces. The AFP should also do the same, this is no longer a rural rebel attack, but a genuine attempt to take over a major Philippine city; that should be a cause for an alarm.

This is a crisis indeed, one that needs to be resolved immediately. It is a catch-22, but we should discard all thoughts of a negative and not hesitate to defend Zamboanga at all costs because if we did, who knows where the MNLF will strike next? And most importantly, at all costs they should never – by all means – allow the rebels to raise their flag and replace the sovereign Philippine flag in the city hall. It will not only be a ceremonious defeat, but a nightmare as well and would certainly boost morale of the rebels to takeover more cities as well.

The MNLF must be stopped.

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