AFTER three years in hiding over rebellion charges, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founding chairman Nur Misuari set foot in Malacañang on Thursday for a surprise meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, promising to cooperate in the pursuit of peace.
With his arrest warrants suspended at Duterte’s behest, Misuari was flown on a government-commissioned plane more than 900 kilometers from his Jolo, Sulu jungle stronghold to Manila for the Palace meeting.
Speaking from the presidential podium, Misuari described Duterte, a fellow Mindanaoan, as “the man whom I respect and trust.”
“I came here to thank him, first also for restoring my freedom, if only partially … I am so happy to be free again, owing to the initiative of our President,” he said.
“I believe, as I said during the campaign, that this one single man can provide solution to the problem of peace and order in our homeland,” Misuari said. “I promise that should he need our cooperation in his campaign for peace, you can count on us, Mr. President.”
Misuari, 77, had been in hiding since his forces allegedly launched attacks on civilians in Zamboanga City in 2013, leading to a three-week battle against the military that claimed about 200 lives.
The government of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino 3rd, filed rebellion charges against Misuari, but he was able to remain on his southern island stronghold of Jolo under the protection of his armed followers.
Misuari signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996 in return for the establishment of a Muslim autonomous area of which he became governor.
However the conflict persisted as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter organization with more than 10,000 armed followers, continued the rebellion. The MILF in recent years also began negotiating for peace.
Misuari allegedly orchestrated the 2013 Zamboanga attacks because he felt the MNLF was being sidelined under the planned MILF peace deal with Aquino.
Misuari, a charismatic scholar, founded the MNLF in 1972 to wage a guerrilla war for a separate Islamic state in the south of mainly Catholic Philippines. Most of the nation’s Muslim minority live in the southern region of Mindanao.
The conflict, which also involved other rebel groups, is believed to have claimed more than 120,000 lives and contributed to Mindanao remaining the nation’s poorest region.
Referring to Misuari as “Brother Nur” and “Chairman Misuari,” Duterte said he had ordered the rebellion charges in a Pasig City court suspended.
“I would like to assure Nur, brother Nur, that there was never any intention to deprive you of your liberty,” he said, as he recalled his meeting with Misuari when he was vice mayor of Davao City.
“It is with great happiness that I announce to the nation that Chairman Nur Misuari, our brother who heads the MNLF, has finally decided to just accept my invitation for him to talk to us,” the President said.
In his remarks, Duterte mentioned the “Bangsamoro Authority” as a “modality” for self-rule by the Moros, as well as his government’s planned shift to a federal form of government.
Duterte said he would resign once the shift to federalism is completed to pave the way for a new government with a “strong president but equally strong national parliamentary, subject to the rules of federalism which will provide a greater leeway, elbow room for governance for our people.”
Judge Maria Rowena San Pedro signed the order lifting the warrants against Misuari on October 27. Court proceedings will be suspended for six months.
Armed with the court order, Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza flew by jet to Jolo, Sulu on Thursday to bring Misuari to Manila on instructions from President Duterte.
Not a ‘spent force’
The former University of the Philippines professor expressed misgivings against media for supposedly reporting that the MNLF was a spent force.
“I’m not happy with the performance of some media people. They distort my statement. And some of them are insisting, before they used to insist, MNLF is a spent force,’” he said.
Misuari claims to control a bigger number of troops, including the rogue Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
But Misuari said: “I came here, foremost in my mind is how can we help our President finish his job through to the end of his six-year term. Because I know for a fact, he will not abandon his pledge to the people.”
Misuari said he had heeded the President’s request to “move against the Abu Sayyaf.”
Prior to the reunion with Duterte, Misuari helped secure the release of foreigners and locals kidnapped by the terrorist Abu Sayyaf group, including the Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad in September.
“I sent one battalion of my forces. So they (Abu Sayyaf) had no choice but to give [Sekkingstad] to us,” Misuari said.
Drug war backed
Misuari then assured Duterte he had MNLF backing in the administration’s war on drugs, which has been criticized by the US and other quarters because of the spate of extrajudicial killings linked to campaign.
“They are destroying our children, our youths. Who will succeed us after this, when our citizens are already destroyed by these drugs?” he said.
Duterte told Misuari about his tirades against the US, mentioning American atrocities during the Filipino-American war, which he said had contributed to “a lot of injustice.”
“So we would like to ask that we work together with our Moro brothers and create a country that is really, that is just and that is good and that would be for the next generations to come.”