“Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible render violent revolutions inevitable.”
-President John Fitzgerald Kennedy
EVERY revolutionary has dreams. In the case of Chairman Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), he dreams of Mindanao independence. Chairman Nur is a Tausug, the Mindanao tribe that rules the provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan—all island-provinces in Southern Mindanao.
I did not have the opportunity to meet Nur Misuari either in the University of the Philippines at the Diliman campus or in Mindanao. While I read about him in the Manila dailies and saw him in Philippine television, our paths never crossed until late 1986.
It was Abul Khayr Alonto, scion of the legendary Alonto family of Lanao, who created the opportunity for me to meet with Nur Misuari outside the country. Abul, a Maranao, which is the Mindanao tribe that controls the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, was once the vice-chairman of the MNLF under Misuari. He is the son of then-Gov. Madki Alonto, who was appointed by President Cory Aquino as Philippine Ambassador to Libya.
Abul Khayr was one of the staunchest and youngest opposition leaders in Mindanao and he organized and headed the Muslim Federal Party based in Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur. As regional chairman of the united opposition in the country, popularly known as the United Democratic Opposition (UNIDO), I and Abul became the closest of friends.
After Cory Aquino was installed President of the Philippines, I asked Abul to place me in touch with Misuari, considering that as a kid and editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of the University of the Philippines (UP), I also dreamed of seeing Mindanao independent from the Republic of the Philippines.
Why should Misuari and I, and other dreamers from Mindanao, want Mindanao independence? There are several incontestable reasons why, we believe, Mindanao should be independent from the Republic of the Philippines. First, one national administration after another come and go, yet none of them gives us adequate representation in the highest councils of government—from the executive to Congress and the judiciary. In the history of the Republic of the Philippines, 12 Presidents come from Luzon—Emilio Aguinaldo of Cavite, Manuel Luis Quezon of Quezon province (formerly Tayabas), Jose P. Laurel of Batangas, Elpidio Quirino of Ilocos Norte, Ramon Magsaysay of Zambales, Diosdado Macapagal of Pampanga, Ferdinand E. Marcos of Ilocos Norte, Corazon Aquino of Tarlac, Fidel V. Ramos of Pangasinan , Joseph Estrada of Metro Manila, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of Pampanga, and Benigno Aquino III of Tarlac; three from the Visayas—Sergio Osmena, Sr. of Cebu; Manuel Acuña Roxas of Capiz, and Carlos P. Garcia of Bohol; none from Mindanao.
Second, Mindanao is one of the richest islands in the Philippines, considering its vast natural resources. Almost all minerals in the Mendelyev scale are in Mindanao—gold, copper, nickel, iron, manganese, silver. It contributes a lot to the national treasury yet it does not have enough share of national development.
Third, Mindanaoans have no participation in defining national policies, including those that affect Mindanao and the lives of millions of Midanaoans, concrete example of this is the recently concluded establishment of Bangsa Moro, which benefits only a minority within a minority in the Maguindanao provinces.
Fourth, the continuing pursuit of the divide and rule policy in Mindanao by the national government—pitting Christians against Muslims; lumads—the native Mindanaoans—against Muslims and Christians; driving a wedge among differing Muslim tribes.
Fifth, discrimination against Mindanaoans.
With these arguments alone, Nur Misuari has every right to rebel against the national government and move for Mindanao independence. But Misuari’s problem has always been an error in the choice of strategy and tactics, the same errors that the other rebel movements in this country continue to commit.
Since the Muslim population of Mindanao is only about 15 percent of the whole area, it is irrational to imagine that a Muslim will be the leader of Mindanao, at least initially. It is unthinkable. There is no charismatic Muslim leader who could be an instrument in uniting the various contending elements on the islands, Nur Misuari including.
Nur could not unite the various tribes of Muslims in Mindanao. The big ones are Maranao, Maguindanao and Tausug. There is always a battle of supremacy among these tribes. The best time for Chairman Misuari to have united the Muslims in Mindanao was when Abul Khayr Alonto became the vice-chairman of the MNLF. But that was short-lived. While Abul Khayr joined the political mainstream, Nur Misuari continued with his revolutionary war against the Philippine national government. But considering his diminishing living space in his area of operations, he had to go to Muslim foreign countries to escape capture and to have a base to launch his international propaganda campaign.
As a credit to the intelligence and creativity of Chairman Misuari, he managed to get support from the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). While MNLF could not secure membership in the OIC, Chairman Misuari secured an observer status for his revolutionary organization. Not any Muslim leader has done this precedent-setting achievement. Only Nur did it and he loomed large in Muslim Mindanao and the international Muslim community. Countries like Malaysia and Libya gave Misuari active and meaningful support, including refuge and freedom of movement in their territories, despite their continuing diplomatic relations with the Republic of the Philippines.
It was in this setting that I decided to see Misuari, courtesy of Abul Khayr Alonto. While Abul was no longer vice-chairman of the MNLF, still he had continuing linkages with Nur.
So Abul and I planned this trip to the Middle East via London, England. What was the rationale behind the trip? It was to find ways of agreement to forge an alliance between the Muslims and Christians in Mindanao.
The plan was to see each other in Saudi Arabia. Abul and I flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the scheduled appointment and stayed at the Marriott Hotel. Chairman Misuari failed to make the appointment as he was not granted a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, considering he was based in Tripoli, Libya, and the rulers of Saudi Arabia wanted to be away from any controversial connections.
We flew back to London to wait for Misuari’s notice on the time and place where we could meet. Misuari told Abul it would be in Damascus, Syria. We flew to Damascus and stayed at the Sheraton Hotel, where Nur met us in our room. After the usual greetings, Nur opened the conversation, saying; “It’s good of you to come all the way from the other side of the world.”
“Well, for Mindanao, I’ll fly to the ends of the Earth,” I answered.
“What can we do now to bring about Christian-Muslim unity in Mindanao?” he asked.
“Simple, we design a common plan of action. Then we implement it and determine the mechanics of power-sharing. Let me be frank with you, though. As of now, we do not have funds to pursue revolutionary action. Since you have access to funds, you must help us,” I replied.
“What do you need?” he asked.
“Well, we need to arm our people now,” I answered.
“How many arms do you need?” Nur asked.
“Ten thousand Armalites,” I said.
“That’s not difficult to produce. I’ll get in touch with you when I’m ready,” he answered.
We parted ways after that and I saw Nur drive away from Sheraton in a limousine with a flag, which I assumed was that of the MNLF.
It was years later that I met Nur Misuari again. He was facing charges of rebellion, which is non-bailable. He was confined in Fort Sto. Domingo, Laguna, in the same cottage that was home of President Joseph Estrada when he was charged with plunder, another non-bailable offense. Nur decided to get me as one of his lawyers.
The trial was in Fort Sto. Domingo. This was to ensure the safety of Nur and eliminate the possibility of escape. We filed a petition for bail on the ground that the evidence of guilt was not strong. When such petition is filed by the defense, under the rules in our courts, the prosecution must present evidence proving the guilt of the accused is strong to prevent bail from being granted. In the course of the presentation of evidence for the prosecution, election fever in 2004 was beginning to intervene in the case of Nur.
One uneventful morning, I saw buried in the inside pages of a Manila daily a story that Chairman Misuari was endorsing the candidacy of President Gloria Arroyo for another run of the presidency. I was disturbed and flabbergasted by the news of Nur’s endorsement of Gloria’s bid as she was running a graft-ridden and immoral administration.
I rushed to Fort Sto. Domingo to get Nur’s confirmation or denial of the news report.
When I arrived at Nur’s cottage, I immediately asked him, “Is the news story correct you endorsed Gloria’s candidacy?”
“Yes, Bono, I did,” he meekly answered.
“Why? I thought Gloria brought you here and, therefore, she is your enemy.” I asked him in a very emphatic language.
“You know, Bono, Speaker Joe de Venecia and National Security Adviser Bert Gonzales came to see me here telling me that if I endorse Gloria for President, I will be ordered released before the May 2004 elections,” he answered in his usual modulated and unpretentious words.
“And you believed them?” I asked Nur, unbelieving in what I heard.
“Yes, Bono. These two people are gentlemen. I expect them to live up to their commitment,” Nur answered, the gentleman that he is.
“You know Nur, in this game, in the words of Ninoy Aquino, there are no gentlemen because gentlemen finish last. This is war, Nur, and in war there is no room for gentlemen,” I commented.
“Bono, I cannot help but believe in them. I have been here for two years and I’m already tired. I’m growing old,” he said very sadly.
“But, are you a revolutionary?” I asked, a little irritated by his reply.
“Of course, I am,” he replied, maintaining his composure as a gentleman.
“If that is the case, you still have 26 years in prison because that is the time Nelson Mandela spent in the apartheid prisons to build a new South Africa,” I told Nur, half jokingly.
Almost immediately and seriously, he answered, “Bono, I don’t think I can survive that long in prison.”
In an effort to lighten the seriousness of the conversation, I asked Nur, “Did you finish at UP and taught there too?”
“Yes, I did. Why?” Nur answered, probably noticing the impish look in my face.
“You know, Nur, you did something which a UP student of your caliber should never have done. The UP student of your intelligence would only have given an endorsement of the candidacy of Gloria at the gate of this Fort while her representative was handing you the release order. Kaliwaan ‘yan (which means, simultaneous exchange of documents).
Nur just smiled and our conversation on his endorsement of Gloria’s presidential candidacy ended there. But not quite! A week later, I received a phone call from Nur asking me to go to Fort Sto. Domingo on a very urgent matter. As soon as I was seated in his cottage, he said: “Bono, I’m sorry. I have to ask you to come here because Mike Arroyo told me I could not be released unless I drop you as my lawyer.”
“Then, why did you not dismiss me as your lawyer? As a friend I want you to be free.
Dropping me as your lawyer makes no difference to me as long as you’ll immediately go free. But, let me tell you this, I don’t think they’ll set you free,” I told him very seriously.
“I can’t dismiss you, I owe you a lot. Just withdraw your appearance, please,” he replied. I withdrew my appearance the following day but Nur was not released even after the court received my withdrawal. I was right. It took his new lawyers to pursue his motion for bail for about five years before he was released by the court, not because of the commitment of Speaker de Venecia, NSA Bert Gonzales or Mike Arroyo, the controversial husband of the equally controversial President Gloria Arroyo.
When I heard Chairman Nur was released, I sought him out and I found him in a rented
apartment at one of the side streets of Tomas Morato Avenue, Quezon City. He had grown old, with graying hair. I greeted him, saying, “Mr. Chairman, you look good.”
“I’m OK,” he replied with the same unfading gentlemanly and friendly smile.” By the way, Bono, can you get me a copy of General Abat’s book, The Day We Almost Lost Mindanao,” Nur continued.
“Yes, I will,” I assured him, considering that General Fortunato “Tony” Abat, former secretary of National Defense and commanding general of the Philippine Army gave me a copy of his book.
“By the way, Nur, I hope you don’t mind if I suggest to you to change your strategy and tactics in your war for Mindanao independence,” I told him.
“No, I don’t,” he immediately replied.
“I suppose you know how to kill a snake?” I asked Nur.
“Of course, everybody does—by cutting the head,” he answered with authority.
“What is the head of the snake that is the Philippines? It’s Manila. Then, why are you waging the war for independence in Mindanao? That is the tail! You should wage it in Manila. By waging the war for independence in Mindanao, you bring death and destruction to Mindanao and Mindanaoans. This is not the way to win Mindanao independence!” I categorically told Nur!
Chairman Nur Misuari’s reply was neither approval nor dissent. It was a warning. “You know, Bono, you are a dangerous man! Don’t tell anybody about that.” We ended the conversation with that note.
I was quite amused by Nur’s warning. Why should I be a dangerous man when I am not the head of the MNLF? I am only a political theoretician—analyzing movements and events; probing strategies and tactics; and trying to read the minds and feel the hearts of participating personalities. But Nur must have aged. No wonder his followers call him Maas, a Cebuano-Visayan term for someone who is very old or aged. When one has grown very old, one is afraid of the dark or even the light. When one is afraid of the dark or even the light and feels aging, one ceases to be a revolutionary in the real sense of the term. Revolutionaries are not afraid. They do not age. When you are afraid, you cannot wage revolutions because courage is a major component of a revolution, especially of revolutionary leadership. It is also a crime for a revolutionary to grow old. Revolutionary dreams never die, they do not fade away—they survive time and circumstance.
That was the last time I talked with Nur. The next time I saw him was on television, charged with having ordered and orchestrated the siege of Zamboanga City by MNLF troopers. If true, then Chairman Nur has not integrated into his system a change of strategy and tactics in the war for Mindanao independence. He was still enmeshed in old, hackneyed and antediluvian strategy and tactics which never worked in the past; not working in the present; and doomed to fail in the future. The recent MNLF experience in the Zamboanga City siege shows, beyond doubt, the inutility of the MNLF strategy and tactics in trying to win the war for Mindanao independence. The MNLF failure is doubly the failure of Chairman Nur Misuari.
Life is a continuing learning process. The moment the process stops, the memorial park or the dustbin of history is just around the corner. Is Chairman Nur Misuari’s waiting for that moment, so typical of those who have failed? Will Misuari ever learn? It is not impossible for him to learn, after all he graduated and taught at the University of the Philippines—the university that champions excellence and effective leadership. Probably it is about time he reviewed his George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, who is credited to have said: “Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” What a pity if Chairman Nur Misuari does not learn the lessons of history or if he does, when events have already overtaken him.