The recent attack on government installations by armed guerillas identified with Nur Misuari in Jolo closes another chapter in the episodic effort to find a lasting solution to the so-called Mindanao problem. It marks the formal breakdown of the peace accord signed with so much hope by the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front in September 1996.
The government of course insists that the peace agreement with the MNLF endures, and that only Misuari and his minority band of “renegades” and “bribed outsiders” have declared a return to the path of war. Proof of this, says the government, is the support being given by the administration to the candidacy of Parouk Hussin for the governorship of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Hussin is one of the leaders of the MNLF’s Council of 15, that recently expelled Misuari as Chairman.
In an interview for the TV program “Off the record” in early November, Misuari complained against government meddling in the affairs of the MNLF. He denounced in particular the active participation of Presidential Assistant Bert Gonzalez in the conspiracy to ease him out of the MNLF leadership and subsequently out of ARMM as well. He said that the president’s men were engaged in political maneuvers that would install to power pliant Muslim leaders who would support President Macapagal in the 2004 elections.
Misuari had earlier been very vocal in his objections to the holding of the referendum in August which asked voters in provinces and cities in Mindanao with large Muslim populations to decide if they wished to be part of an expanded autonomous region. He argued that the concept of autonomy had not been given sufficient time to demonstrate its feasibility. The results of the referendum confirmed his worst expectations. ARMM will henceforth include only the 5 provinces of Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, and Maguindanao, and the lone city of Marawi. It is in these places that the election for the governorship of ARMM will be held.
Those who have followed the struggle for an independent Bangsamoro state from the late ‘60s onwards will understand the depth of the frustration and the sense of betrayal that Moros feel over this turn of events. They will recall the principal provisions of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, which, in exchange for the goal of a separate state, would establish a region of autonomy consisting of 13 provinces in Mindanao and all the cities within these provinces. These provinces were Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, South Cotabato, and Palawan.
The agreement was signed during Martial Law. Realizing the farreaching implications of the Tripoli Accord, Marcos later tried to blunt its force by making its implementation subject to the processes of the Philippine Constitution. With the solid backing of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the MNLF objected to various attempts to water down the substance of Moro autonomy. Subsequent changes in government, however, starting with the overthrow of Marcos in 1986, marginalized the Tripoli Accord. The 1987 Constitution did provide for the creation of autonomous regions through the enactment of an organic act for each autonomous region, but neither the Constitution nor the Organic Act for Muslim Mindanao ever came close to the categorical language of the original Tripoli agreement.
The principle that ultimately prevailed is that inclusion in an autonomous region must be based on the explicit consent of voters freely exercising their right of choice in a referendum. In accepting the peace accord brokered by the OIC in 1996, Misuari had hoped that given the chance to lead an experimental autonomous government, he would be able to persuade Muslims and Christians alike about the advantages and benefits of autonomy. He had 5 years in which to do that, and he has run out of time.
Needless to say, Misuari was a miserable failure. He was thoroughly unprepared for the job. Many say he is also corrupt. Yet, to be fair, it is difficult to see how a better and more capable leader, working in the most ideal circumstances and with unlimited funds, could have succeeded. The job assigned to Misuari was not just to build roads, bridges and schools. It was also to form the institutions of a modern autonomous nation. No single leader can do that overnight, especially not when he must work with a people whose growth has been arrested by war, plunder, neglect, and co-optation over long periods of colonial domination.
I think we Filipinos have been far more patient with our own leaders. We have been in the business of nation building for more than a hundred years now. If, like autonomy, the right to independence were to be made contingent upon the performance of leaders, I think the situation of our nation today would not make it easy for us to justify remaining an independent state.
In short, Misuari agreed to take a test no one could have passed. But this is not a brief for Misuari. The man had huge personal shortcomings that prevented him from properly discharging the duties of an effective leader. But knowing this should not blind us to the complex circumstances in which local leaders like Misuari attempt to achieve the gigantic task of creating an autonomous Moro state.
Misuari’s failure is also our failure.
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