By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Streetwise | BusinessWorld

The humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of civilians in Zamboanga City in the wake of the eruption of hostilities between armed Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces under Chairman Nur Misuari and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) looms as a dark and ominous cloud, a portent of what the people of Mindanao are bound to suffer regardless of the outcome of the ongoing peace negotiations between the Philippine Government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

For the road towards a just and lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao remains convoluted and strewn with obstacles and pitfalls despite rosy pronouncements by the GPH and MILF. What emerges is the truism that the stilling of guns per se do not make for an enduring, much less a just peace; especially if it merely signifies pacification and cooptation, not a genuine resolution of the underlying socio-economic and political roots of armed conflict and social unrest.

It is not as though the MNLF had pulled a complete surprise. Mr. Misuari has long been fulminating and complaining about the MNLF being left out in the current GPH-MILF negotiations to establish a new Bangsamoro autonomous region in practically the same territory carved out as a result of the 1976 and 1996 GRP-MNLF peace agreements.

In fact the government had even accused Misuari of having conspired with the Sultan of Sulu early this year, in instigating the entry of armed men (said to be mainly MNLF fighters) into the disputed territory of Sabah in order to assert the Sultanate’s historical claim and thereby throw a monkey wrench into the GPH-MILF peace negotiations being brokered by Malaysia (which currently exercises de facto sovereignty over Sabah).

With the apparent GPH snub of the MNLF while continuing to plod through the crafting and signing of the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement annexes, Misuari last August 12 made good his threat to declare an independent Bangsamoro Republik (which he first did forty years ago). The Zamboanga City push is evidently an attempt to show that the declaration was no bluff.

What is not clear at this point is whether the declaration of independence was indeed a signal for the renewal of armed struggle, or a mere tactic to call the attention of the Aquino government and the MNLF’s foreign backers in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that the MNLF is not a spent force.

The bad news for Misuari and the MNLF, and in all likelihood for the Bangsamoro people as a whole, is that both the 1996 GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement and the 2012 GPH-MILF Framework Agreement are irretrievably and irreversibly caught in the ambit of the Philippine Republic’s constitutional and legal processes.

This, said the late Hashim Salamat (who was then MNLF Vice-Chair and Chair of the MNLF Negotiating Panel), would certainly solve the problems of the Philippine government but not of the Bangsamoro.

Objecting to and rejecting the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, Salamat first set up his own Kotawato Faction within the MNLF but eventually broke away and founded the MILF. The MILF then continued the armed struggle for the Moro people’s right to self-determination until it entered into peace negotiations and a general cessation of hostilities with the GPH under the Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III administrations. These ceasefires have nonetheless been marked on many occasions by armed skirmishes, major battles and even full-blown war.

Ironically, it is now Misuari and the MNLF rejecting the GPH-MILF peace agreement, declaring independence, and fighting a shooting war with the GPH forces to make its point.

Of course, Mr. Misuari has credibility problems, whether he and his MNLF faction indeed have the interests of the Moro people at heart or are merely angling to better position themselves in light of the political re-arrangement and reapportioning of resources under the new Bangsamoro authority being given the finishing touches by the GPH and MILF.

More than simply Mr. Misuari’s reported malgovernance, the failure of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) can be traced to Mr. Misuari’s key error in the 1976 and 1997 GHP-MNLF peace agreements. The MNLF gave up the struggle for self-determination and settled for pseudo-autonomy in a much-reduced territory, under the auspices and control of an essentially elite, anti-people and anti-Moro state. It was a political swindle engineered by the Ramos government that the MNLF swallowed hook, line and sinker. In time the MNLF leadership’s cooptation and degeneration became complete with the elite feudal clans seen jockeying for position in every ARMM election.

Mr. Misuari must first come clean as to how he regards the GPH-MNLF peace agreements, whether he acknowledges their fatal infirmities. His current pronouncements lack integrity and substance when he says his main problem is the alleged scuttling of the GPH-MNLF peace agreements. This lends credence to the widely held perception that he merely wants his share of the pie that will be the outcome of the GPH-MILF peace settlement. Independent observers wryly observe that Mr. Misuari has already had his turn to corner a major share of that pie.

Peace advocates have been calling on both sides for an immediate ceasefire to put a stop to further bloodshed and destruction of property, to mitigate the sufferings of the civilian population and to give a chance for peaceful negotiations but this appeal has become mired in early partisan politicking involving the Vice-President and declared 2016 presidential candidate, Jejomar Binay, and the President’s Liberal Party candidate, Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas.

Meanwhile the Aquino government is holding fast to a purely military solution to the Zamboanga stand-off with the MNLF. Despite continuous government propaganda uncritically reported by mainstream media that the civilians caught in the crossfire or being used as “human shields” by the MNLF have been rescued by state forces and that the remnants of the MNLF hold-outs are being cornered, captured or killed, the crisis does not appear to be nearing an end any time soon.

Like a festering wound, the deep-seated problems of the Moro people will persist and provide the objective basis for the continuation of both armed and unarmed struggles no matter each ruling regime’s attempt at pacification and cooptation.

Published in Business World
September 20, 2013

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