Nur Misuari’s last scream

It’s an outrageous way of calling attention to one’s lingering presence. But that is what the arrival the other day in Zamboanga City of armed groups identified with Nur Misuari, the founding leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), amounts to. The plan to march in formation through the city’s streets and hoist the MNLF flag in front of city hall is the desperate scream of someone who refuses to be sidelined as a spectator to an unfolding process in which he once staked his whole life.

Outnumbered and cornered in one coastal village in the city, Misuari’s men are in no position to take over any territory outside of the tiny slice of land in Indanan, Sulu, where they have their base. If they don’t voluntarily give up and march out of Zamboanga City peacefully, they may have to be forcefully flushed out by soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

The massacre and the burning that will likely result from an AFP assault are too grim to imagine. A violent end to this standoff will revive memories of past confrontations between past generations of Moro rebels and the Philippine government. It will activate impulses nurtured by historic resentments that successive governments in Manila have tried so many times to appease.

Watching the exhausted and ageing Misuari on TV last August, as he declared Bangsamoro independence for the nth time, transported me back to a late afternoon in early September 1972, just before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law.

Nur, an old friend, paid me and my wife, Karina, a surprise visit at the Faculty Center in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where he himself had once been a faculty member. He resigned from UP when the Jabidah massacre on Corregidor Island in 1968 was exposed. That gruesome incident, in which 28 Moro recruits were murdered to erase all traces of a Marcos plan to invade Sabah, rekindled Moro anger over the cynical and exploitative treatment of Muslims by the country’s politicians.

This was the spark that led to the formation of the MNLF. Nur decided to work full time to harness that anger to a unified movement for Moro independence. It was a time of turmoil in Mindanao. Paramilitary groups linked to Christian politicians and logging firms roamed the island, engaging various armed Moro groups in brutal skirmishes. In this period of ferment and violence, Misuari became, to the Moro struggle, what Yasser Arafat was to the Palestinian cause—a unifying figure and a credible voice in the international Islamic community.

He had come to Manila that day to check with old friends, how they were preparing themselves for what he saw as the impending declaration of martial law. He wanted to know, in particular, if we thought the New People’s Army was in any position to mount a counteroffensive against a looming Marcos dictatorship. I suspect he was in the middle of deciding whether to join forces with the CPP-NPA, with whose leadership he had had personal links, or to go it alone and focus on Mindanao.

As it turned out, the MNLF distanced itself from the Maoist-led revolution which, at best, only had an ambiguous position on the goal of a separate Moro state in Mindanao. But Nur’s dream remained an essentially secular quest.  Though he was aware that Islam formed a big part of the Moro identity and he was himself a Muslim, he was not an Islamist.

I always thought, for this reason, that if there was anyone who could lead the Moro people to independence and ease their transition toward modernity, that person had to be Nur. Marcos could not ignore the stature that he had gained among Islamic countries throughout the 1970s, when the Philippines urgently needed Arab oil and employment for its first batch of OFWs. And so, in December 1976, with the mediation of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, the Philippine government signed the Tripoli Agreement with Misuari, which pledged autonomy for 13 provinces and nine cities in Mindanao. A general ceasefire quickly followed.

But carrying out the agreement was another matter. In March 1977, Marcos issued Proclamation 1628 declaring an autonomous region in Mindanao, but he made its scope subject to the results of a plebiscite. Ten of the provinces chose autonomy. Marcos outwitted Misuari by splitting those 10 provinces into two—regions 9 and 12. In December that same year, the quiet Hashim Salamat, hitherto a loyal deputy to Misuari, declared his takeover of the MNLF leadership. The Islamic countries echoed this split. Egypt supported Salamat, while Libya stayed with Misuari. In 1984, Salamat’s group renamed itself the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

When Marcos was toppled in February 1986, the MILF, which had by then gained stature as the authentic voice of the Bangsamoro, signaled its readiness to talk peace with the government of Cory Aquino.  The MNLF agreed to join the MILF in this initiative. But in September 1986, Misuari seized upon Cory’s visit to his camp in Sulu to project the MNLF as the sole negotiating party in the talks with the new government. This had the effect of excluding the MILF.

On Sept. 2, 1996, Cory’s successor, Fidel V. Ramos signed the Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF. As expected, the MILF did not take part in this agreement and in the elections that followed. Misuari became the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, even as the MILF renewed its call for independence. For a host of reasons, Misuari failed to make this experiment work. Still, no one can deny him the vital role he has played in the Bangsamoro’s historic quest for self-determination. It is time for him to let other Moro leaders pick up the thread of freedom and honor that belongs to his people.