Friday, March 29, 2013

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and its struggle against the Philippines (1981-2009)

By Art Villasanta  

(Written in 2009)

A Nation in search of a State
For the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the armed conflict in Mindanao has never been an insurgency as the Philippine government keeps on insisting.

Instead, the MILF sees its 28-year old fight as a just war for independence to establish the “Bangsamoro” homeland against an occupying enemy state, the Republic of the Philippines.

The MILF perceives itself as “freedom fighters” spearheading the four centuries-old war for independence by the Bangsamoro people, a struggle described by the website, Islam Online, as “. . . the longest and most enduring war in the history of the world.”

The MILF holds fast to its basic belief the Philippines is an Occupying Power and its armed forces in Mindanao and Sulu, an Army of Occupation. The humiliating Military Occupation of the Bangsamoro homeland, therefore, has reduced the Bangsamoro Nation to the status of a colonized people.

Hence, the reason for being of the MILF, and the “jihad” by its “mujahideen” to liberate the Bangsamoro from the Philippines’ military occupation through diplomatic and military action.

A problem begun by the U.S.
In the MILF’s worldview, the independence granted the Philippines on July 4, 1946 by the United States had the effect of depriving the Moro Nation of its “inalienable right to self-determination."

“Were it not for the outbreak of the Pacific War, the Moro Nation would have been granted trust territory status like any of the Pacific islands states who are now independent or in free association with the United States of America,” explained Ustaz Hashim Salamat, late founder and Chairman of the MILF, in a letter to former U.S. President George Bush in 2003.


Salamat reminded Bush that in 1900, the U.S. “treated the Moro Nation initially as a Dependent Nation similar to North American Indian Nations under treaty relations with the US Federal Government. Subsequently, the Moro Nation was accorded the political status of a US protectorate under the Kiram-Bates Treaty of 1899, confirming the Treaty of 1878 between Sultan of Sulu and Spain.”

The U.S. policy of considering the Philippines an “unincorporated territory of the United States” resulted in the U.S. administering the affairs in the Moro territories “under a separate political form of governance under the Moro Province from the rest of the Philippine Islands.”

He claims the U.S. treated the Moro Nation and the Philippines as two separate entities. The U.S.’ error was granting independence to the Philippines in 1946 without holding a referendum that would have determined whether the Moro Nation wanted to remain a territory administered by the U. S., or granted separate independence 50 years from the grant of Philippine independence.

Had this aborted referendum chosen independence as was likely, Bangsamoro would have become a separate State by 1996, at the earliest.

He appealed to the United States to rectify this error "that continues to negate and derogate the Bangsamoro People’s fundamental right to seek decolonization under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960. For this purpose, we are amenable to inviting and giving you the opportunity to assist in resolving this predicament of the Bangsamoro People.”

Bush did not reply to the letter.

The Bangsamoro remains a Nation in search of a State.

No other solution
“I am very sure that the (Bangsamoro) people will not accept any solution to the (Moro) problem other than independence,” Salamat told a foreign Muslim journalist in 2001.

His view was seconded in subsequent years by his peers in the Central Committee, the MILF equivalent of a “General Staff.”

MILF Central Committee member and vice-chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar said in Aug. 2008 that the referendum provided in the aborted Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) was a way of asking the Bangsamoro people once and for all if they wanted freedom from the Philippines.

Jaafar felt this referendum among Muslims in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) would have resulted in a separate republic for the Bangsamoro—and victory for the MILF.

This has not come to pass, however, since the Philippine Supreme Court declared the MoA-AD unconstitutional on Oct. 14, 2008.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu has always said the MILF wants independence.

“That is the only real solution that this region should have in order to end this long conflict. I think there should be nothing less than independence, and this is what we are going to ask for in the upcoming negotiations.”

Kabalu made these remarks in 2001, and the MILF’s subsequent actions have shown the organization’s commitment to its goal of independence for the Bangsamoro, especially through diplomacy.

Peace talks between the Philippines and the MILF resulted in the “Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001” that defined the guiding principles of the peace negotiations (including its mechanisms and talking points).

These subsequently became the bases for the MoA-AD.


A triumph for MILF diplomacy
The 10-year long talks that led to both the MILF and the Philippine government initialing the final draft of the controversial MoA-AD on July 27, 2008 in Malaysia is a triumph for MILF diplomacy.

The initialing, which former Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Hermogenes Esperon described as a “breakthrough,” was to have led to the signing of the MoA-AD on Aug. 5 in Kuala Lumpur. Although the Philippine Supreme Court on Oct. 3 ruled the MoA-AD as unconstitutional and therefore, void, the agreement was the closest the MILF has gotten to its ultimate aim of independence for the Bangsamoro.

The MILF’s preference for diplomacy and negotiation over unrelenting military action (as in the case of Taliban insurgents, for example) reflects a reality accepted by the Central Committee.

This reality is that the MILF’s army, the “Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces” (BIAF), cannot by itself wrest independence through military force alone. BIAF neither has the manpower nor resources to prevail on the battlefield.

MILF fighters

Its fighting strength, variously estimated at anywhere from 7,500 to 12,000 men of whom about two-thirds are armed, is inferior to that of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The Philippine Army has some 30-40 battalions (each of 500 men) in Mindanao, most of whom are positioned against the MILF in the ARMM.

In addition, there are 10 battalions from the Philippines Marines in the Mindanao area, but these units are confined to the islands of Basilan and Sulu, and face both the MILF and the bandit Abu Sayyaf Group.

These government troops have been heavily reinforced in the months since Aug. 2008 following punitive attacks by “rogue” MILF troops in reaction to a temporary restraining order against the MoA-AD issued by the Supreme Court on Aug 4.

The high court issued the TRO after officials of North Cotabato and Zamboanga City filed petitions against the MoA-AD. The officials said they had not been consulted about the provisions that would include their territories in the expanded ARMM to be created under the agreement.

“A done deal”
The MILF initially described the TRO as a setback. On Aug. 5, the MILF said the MoA-AD was “a done deal” that became binding when it was initialed on July 27, and that the aborted ceremony in Malaysia of Aug. 5 was merely a formality.

Jaafar said the MILF’s official position is that the MoA-AD has been signed, so it’s a done deal. He dismissed as “purely an internal problem of the government” the Supreme Court’s TRO.

“We are not bound by that order,” Jaafar said. “It’s an internal process in the government. What was committed by the government cannot be taken back.”

MILF chief peace negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said the act of initialing the agreed text of MoA-AD by the parties “constitutes a signature of the Philippine government and MILF. Initialing was in fact done with a credible third-party witness, the Malaysian government as facilitator of the talks since 2001.”

Iqbal re-stated the MILF line that the MoA-AD was a “done deal” and that there was nothing to re-negotiate.

“We will not agree to any renegotiation,” Iqbal said.

As it will not renegotiate the MoA-AD, the MILF was ready for war, said Iqbal. Peace talks can only re-start with the signing of the MoA-AD.

With the Supreme Court decision finally ruling the MoA-AD unconstitutional, however, the MILF reluctantly accepted that its best chance at independence had fallen short thanks to the “treachery” of the government and the complicity of the Supreme Court.

By a vote of 8-7 on Oct. 14, the Supreme Court declared the MoA-AD contrary to law and the Constitution and against the Tripoli Agreement of 2001. The 89-page decision said Esperon “. . . committed grave abuse of discretion when he failed to carry out the pertinent consultation process, as mandated by EO No. 3, RA 7160 and RA 8371.

Philippine Army soldiers

“The furtive process by which the MOA-AD was designed and crafted runs contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise thereof. It illustrates a gross evasion of positive duty and a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined.”

The MILF vented its anger in a sarcastic “Letter to the Supreme Court” on its website (

“Your decision vindicated what they have always believed from the very beginning -- that this government will never be sincere in talking peace with the Bangsamoro people. Now we are faced with the world's longest running armed conflict that sees no resolution in sight. Thank you for condemning Mindanao as the next Afghanistan or Darfur in Asia.”

It also “thanked” the Supreme Court for “. . . making us understand that the minority definitely has no place in this country.”

BJE: a step closer to independence?
The anger of the MILF at the demise of the MoA-AD is understandable.

The MoA-AD would have paved the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), which would have expanded the current ARMM (consisting of Sulu, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and Marawi City) to include more than 700 villages in the provinces of Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato, but subject to a plebiscite.

The MoA-AD would have granted the BJE its own internal security force, a system of banking and finance, civil service, education and legislative institutions, full authority to develop and dispose of minerals and natural resources.
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim

In 2005, MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told thousands of supporters gathered in Maguindanao for a three-day consultative assembly that a “just, honorable and lasting peace is partly at hand,” obviously referring to negotiations leading to the MoA-AD.

Critics, however, feared the MoA could have led to an independent Bangsamoro state.

Former Senate president Franklin Drilon said the MoA-AD clearly violated the 1987 Constitution because it granted the BJE the status of belligerency, which is a step closer to granting it international recognition as a separate and independent state.

North Cotabato Vice-Gov. Emmanuel Piñol said that if the government had signed the MoA-AD, it would allow the MILF to claim that they “have already established a state.”

Fr. Eliseo Mercado, a former member of the government negotiating panel with the MILF, said with the MoA-AD one has all the elements of a state.

“That entitles the Bangsamoro to a self-declaration (of independence). Because it’s all there: you’ve been recognized, you have territory, you have self-determination, your ancestral domain is your birthright, it’s not part of the public domain.”

To avoid a situation that would push the MILF to declare independence, Mercado said the Arroyo administration must implement the next steps of the accord, particularly the plebiscite that would expand the ARMM.

Fr. Joaquin Bernas, dean emeritus of the Ateneo Law School, however, said the MoA-AD “doesn’t mean anything” until Congress acted on it and a plebiscite was held.

“But legally, there is nothing to it,” he said. “There is nothing to implement. (The negotiating parties) cannot move without Congress.”

“It’s just a piece of paper. There’s nothing to worry about,” he said.

A return to negotiations
Since the start of 2009, however, both sides have publicly indicated a willingness to resume the peace talks derailed by the political controversy and military action stemming from the non-signing of the MoA-AD.

In January, the MILF agreed to resume the stalled peace talks with the government if an international party of sovereign states ensures that both the government and MILF complied with the agreements they signed.

Murad said the MILF is open to resume the “collapsed or stalled” peace talks.

“To show that the MILF is committed to the peace talks, the MILF peace panel has not been disbanded despite the hasty exit of the GRP peace panel," Murad said.

He said that the MILF continues observing the ceasefire despite the sustained, massive offensive by the military against the three rogue MILF commanders, widening the war in Mindanao and triggering a massive "humanitarian crisis."

In March, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Avelino Razon Jr. said the government “. . . is ready (to resume the peace negotiations). We will never give up on peace…I know there will be obstacles along the way, but I am confident that we can resolve our differences," he added.

Razon asked the MILF to "bury animosity for the sake of our children and our children's children." He said this is only possible if both parties work together toward a "lasting and genuine" peace in Mindanao.

Despite the renewed calls for peace talks, the MILF remains highly suspicious of the government.

Khaled Musa, deputy chairman of the MILF committee on information, said it is very easy to resume the stalled peace talks with Philippine government “. . . but are we going to solve anything or fall prey to the fooling around scheme of the Arroyo administration”?

Musa said that as long as men like Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and Secretary Ronaldo Puno of the Department of the Interior and Local Government have a hand in directing the peace process, nothing can be expected from the exercise.

“See what happened to MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari? He is a protégé of the government short of puppetry,” he stated.

Misuari was one of the founders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that sought the independence of the Bangsamoro in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan.

The MNLF fought a war against the Philippines from 1972 to 1976 with Misuari as Chairman. Fighting came to a halt as a result of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976.

The agreement provided for the creation of an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, which was officially inaugurated in 1990 in Cotabato City. Misuari subsequently became Governor of the ARMM.

It was the MNLF’s abandonment of the armed struggle for independence in favor of autonomy that caused the creation of the MILF in 1981. Led by Salamat, disgruntled MNLF leaders broke away from the MNLF and formed the MILF to continue the fight for complete independence for the Bangsamoro.

No, to autonomy
Besides its commitment to independence, the MILF has always taken the view that the autonomy gained by the MNLF is a mistake and remains a failed exercise.

“Obviously, the present formula — autonomy — is not working,” Kabalu said in 2005 during a.consultative assembly at an MILF base camp in Maguindanao.

Here, the MILF again pushed for independence, saying they wanted more than autonomy in exchange for ending three decades of conflict.

In an interview in 2001, Kabalu said under three successive Philippine Presidents (Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada) “. . . the Bangsamoro people had experienced what autonomy means.”

“Our people suffered tremendously under the formula that did not work. It tested the autonomy, and the autonomy formula has failed,” Kabalu said.

“This is not a solution to the problems in Mindanao. The Bangsamoro people are showing increased signs of mistrust and showing reserves about autonomy.

“There are no solutions to this conflict but independence, and the majority of the Bangsamoro people supports our initiatives.”

While the Philippine government has remained resolute in denying independence to the Bangsamoro, it has, nevertheless, taken steps to meet the Muslim desire for a Bangsamoro homeland halfway.

The latest of these is the proposed creation of a federal state for the Bangsamoro people. This was envisioned in the suspended peace talks between the government and the MILF and is one of the objectives of the Charter Change movement, according to Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita.

Any talk of Charter Change, however, is being violently opposed by political foes of Pres. Gloria Arroyo who contend it will become a means for retaining her in office beyond 2010.

One of these critics, the National Union of People's Lawyers, on Aug. 12 said the Constitutional amendments Pres. Arroyo advocates allegedly to bring peace to Mindanao were “insincere” and a “ploy” to perpetuate her in power.

Despite widespread criticism, Pres. Arroyo is determined to set in place a federal form of government through Charter Change before the end of her term in 2010, according to Ermita.

“Hopefully, yes,” Ermita said when asked whether the administration wants Charter Change before 2010.

Time, however, is not on the side of the administration since there is only a year left before the Presidential elections in May 2009.

A murderous message
The immediate effect of the Supreme Court’s TRO against the MoA-AD on Aug. 4 was felt the next day by civilians and government soldiers in Mindanao. MILF fighters belonging to two base commands attacked Philippine Army positions around Midsayap, North Cotabato with mortar fire and occupied the town's outskirts in violation of the 2003 ceasefire accord.

That force of 300 was later increased to some 800 men who occupied the towns of Aleosan, Libungan and Midsayap, burning homes, murdering civilians and forcing residents to flee.

News reports said Umbra Kato, commander of the MILF’s 105th Base Command, ordered the attacks in an angry response to the Supreme Court TRO.

On Aug. 7, the Army began operations to evict the MILF’s 105th Base Command, which it described as a bandit group, from the 15 towns it occupied. On Aug. 13, the MILF force began withdrawing from the occupied towns pursued by the Army.

The MILF command took pains to say the 105th Base Command is not a lost command or a renegade unit. Kabalu said Kato is a legitimate MILF leader, and thus the attack on the North Cotabato villages was directed by the MILF Central Committee.

The week-long military engagement resulted in military casualties on both sides and displaced some 160,000 persons, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC).

On Aug. 22, the AFP drove out Moro rebels from one of their camps in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao province supported by intense aerial attacks, and fighting raged in other locations. Some 30 rebels and one soldier have been killed since Aug. 20 and more than 70,000 villagers have fled their homes, government officials said.

The MILF has refused to surrender Kato and Abdurahman Macapaar alias Bravo (each initially with a bounty of P5 million) and clashes continued despite appeals from politicians, and Christian, Muslim and civil society groups for an end to the fighting.

Murad said the MILF’s position is that Bravo and Kato are "revolutionaries” and, as such, are outside the coverage of existing Philippine laws.

By December, the Philippine Army had five brigades involved in the hunt for MILF renegade commanders Kato in Central Mindanao; Bravo and Aleem Sulaiman Pangalian in the two Lanao provinces and in Sarangani province. All three have not been caught.

While MILF casualties can only be guessed at, the AFP has admitted to losing 40 men killed and over 150 wounded in action against the MILF from Aug. to Dec. 2008. In addition, the AFP spent over P500 million in this military operation.

Throughout the campaign against these three MILF commanders and their men, the MILF claimed their men avoided attacking government soldiers.

“It’s our forces that are being chased by soldiers in areas where these hostilities are happening, not MILF forces attacking the military,” Jaafar said.

He added that thousands of MILF fighters in Central Mindanao, Zamboanga, Sulu and in Basilan remain confined in their camps during the clashes with the AFP.

As of April 2009, the hunt for the three rogue MILF leaders continues, but its intensity is apparently waning.

Intensified combat
The rise in casualties for both the AFP and the MILF is an extraordinary reversal of the routine “live and let live” attitude adopted by both sides in “calmer” times.

The MILF’s partiality towards negotiation and its apparent respect for the ceasefire has meant that violent incidents against the government are the exception and not the rule. As in previous cases of punitive government campaigns against the MILF (the attack on the Buliok complex in 2003 and the “All out war” against the MILF in 2000, for example), a tapering off in hostilities is to be expected in the present case.

What is unique about the military actions sparked by the MoA-AD, however, is the intensity and length of the fighting.

Records from the “International Monitoring Team” supervising the ceasefire between the MILF and the government show a marked increase in fighting. Whereas only seven violent incidents were recorded from Jan. to July. 2008, 77 were noted in August and 39 in September. Clashes continued into the remaining months of the year and spread to Basilan and Sulu. The number of armed encounters is on the decline, however.

Monitors in the IMT (there have been four batches since 2004) have come mostly from Malaysia, Brunei and Libya.


A dangerous time
The MILF remains stoutly committed to independence for the Bangsamoro people. Despite the recent surge in violence, it apparently also remains committed to using negotiation as the primary means to achieve this end.

Patience, however, has its limits. And so do the lives of leaders.

The MILF Central Committee is a gerontocracy dominated by old men, some in their 60s. While these men have shown a surprising degree of collective patience over the past three decades, time is not on their side.

The failure of the MoA-AD, which would have put the MILF within a hairsbreadth of independence, was undoubtedly a bitter blow to the Central Committee.

Its failure means a return to Square One on the negotiating table, or failing this, a return to the battlefield to “fast track” independence.

The attacks by Kato, Bravo and Pangalian initially led the government to brand these leaders as “rogue” commanders who staged the bloody attacks in August 2008 without the foreknowledge of the Central Committee. To distinguish these “rogue” commanders from the rest of the MILF, the government described them as “Lawless MILF Elements” (LMEs).

This perception led the Philippine Army to claim renewed factionalism among the MILF leadership, and that the impulsive Kato had plotted to overthrow Murad in October to protest Murad’s not taking tougher action against the Supreme Court’s decision nullifying the MoA-AD.

The MILF, naturally, denied these claims, saying Kato and the other LME commanders remained true to the leadership of Murad.

A clear indication of the Central Committee’s thinking will come when a definite date is set for the resumption of the aborted peace talks.

The MILF’s unyielding push for independence through diplomacy will mean that another long and perilous road lies ahead. In time and with new and younger leaders, that devotion to independence above all else may be modified to accept the limits of the possible within the confines of diplomacy.

If not, then another full scale war is in the making.