Libyan firebrand Nur Misuari, who heads the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), backed off from his plan to declare independence in the southern Filipino province of Sulu, but hundreds of his followers, many of them armed, showed up to support their ageing leader.
And the military did nothing and failed to prevent the daring public display of weapons and forces, fearing any attempt to stop them would trigger a fierce battle.
Misuari, who met with his commanders in the town of Indanan on July 29, almost declared independence, but changed his mind, saying he still needs to consult with his senior leaders before making the announcement in the right time.
Surrounded by his most trusted leaders and loyal lieutenants—Ustadz Habier Malik and Khaid Ajibun—Misuari was many times interrupted by the huge crowd of MNLF members chanting “Allahu Akbar” and raising their weapons in the air as a show of support to his cause.
“We are going to find the right time to for the formal declaration [of independence]. I still need to communicate with the OIC so we still have to discuss this with among us leaders,” he said in the local Tausug dialect.
OIC refers to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation which helped broker the peace talks between the MNLF and the Philippines that led to the eventual signing of the agreement in September 1996.
Misuari said it has been three decades now since the OIC mediated in the peace talks, but Manila has failed to comply with the provisions in the accord.
“It is more than 30 years now since the OIC mediated in the peace talks and up to now nothing has been achieved. And that’s why we need to carefully plan on what steps to take. Let us wait, we cannot just jump into something which will not bring good to us,” he said.
Misuari said Filipino government officials scrambled to meet with Indonesian leaders in Jakarta to ask them to intercede and stop him from declaring independence.
“I tell you Indonesia and the Philippines will again talk to us and try to stop our determination and this is to declare independence, complete, pure independence of our nation,” he said.
Misuari has accused Manila of trying to abrogate the peace accord it forged with the MNLF. He also denounced the peace talks between the Aquino government and rival rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front after negotiators signed an accord that would create the Bangsamoro state, saying it violated the MNLF-Philippines agreement.
The Muslim homeland would replace the existing Muslim autonomous region which is composed of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao provinces, including the cities of Marawi and Lamitan. And several more areas in the provinces of Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato would also be included in the new autonomous region.
But Teresita Deles, the Presidential peace adviser, denied Misuari’s allegations that Manila wanted to abrogate the peace accord.
Deles explained that while the government’s position is to bring the tripartite review process to a proper completion, she said the Aquino administration will continue to engage relevant parties of the MNLF, through the existing mechanism, to find a just and comprehensive political solution in the Mindanao conflict.
Deles said after almost six years of tripartite review, a joint review process had already established consensus points and some joint mechanisms and actions particularly between MNLF representatives and the Muslim autonomous regional government.
“From the start, what the government proposed to complete was the review process, not the closure of the peace process or the abrogation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement,” she said.
The review process is being facilitated by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, specifically its Peace Committee for the Southern Philippines which is headed by Indonesia.
Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa advised Manila to continue to exercise patience even in the face of provocation as he reiterated Jakarta’s support for the peace process in Mindanao.
The MILF, a breakaway faction of the MNLF, previously branded the Muslim autonomous region as a failure. The region has been rocked by corruption scandals and remains as one of the poorest in the country.
It previously called on the government to amend the Constitution that would allow the creation of a Muslim sub-state in Mindanao. President Benigno Aquino’s allies in Congress are now pushing for the amendment of the Constitution, saying, there is a need to change many provisions in the Charter that would benefit the country’s economy, among others.
After the 1996 peace accord with the MNLF, Misuari became the governor of autonomous region. But many former rebels were disgruntled with the accord, saying, the government failed to uplift their standards of living.
They accused the government of failing to develop the war-torn areas in the South, which remain in mired in poverty, heavily militarized and dependent financially on Manila.
In November 2001, on the eve of the elections in the Muslim autonomous region, Misuari accused the government of reneging on the peace agreement, and his followers launched a new rebellion in Sulu and Zamboanga City, where more than 100 people were killed.
Misuari escaped by boat to Malaysia, but was arrested there and deported to the Philippines. He was eventually freed in 2008 after Manila dropped all charges against him for lack of sufficient evidence. He was also ousted by Muslimin Sema, the MNLF Secretary-General, but Misuari maintained that he is the true leader of the former rebel group.