A lot of blood has been shed in the last few weeks: suicide bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; shootings in Chicago, Kashmir, and Washington, DC; and hostage crises in Kenya and the Philippines. Some of these conflicts are well-known and well-publicized. Over 200 members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) entered Zamboanga City and seven neighboring districts, taking hostages and boarding themselves up in government buildings. The historical background of this conflict is less well-known but no less important.
The fighting between rebel groups, based in Mindanao, and the Filipino government has been going on since the late 1960s. Then-President (and future dictator) Ferdinand Marcos had soldiers from the southern region of Mindanao trained in secret for an invasion of neighboring Malaysia to reclaim the contested territory of Sabah. Some of the recruits, upon discovering the true purpose for their training, refused to participate for fear of having to kill friends and family living there. Some of the recruits were then rounded up and brought to a remote airstrip and executed. Almost all of them were Moro Muslims from the Mindanao region.
Once word about the massacre started to leak out, old tensions between the predominantly Roman Catholic north and the mostly Muslim south started to boil. Moros in the south had complained of discrimination by Manila for years, evident in government policies encouraging Christians from the north to settle in the south. Student protesters took cue from Nur Misuari, a former professor, as he declared a call to arms to fight against the national government. Under his tutelage, hundreds of disgruntled young men came together to form the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and proceeded to engage in open war with national government forces as they sought independence from Manila.
The fighting displaced millions from their homes in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago as government troops fought back against the insurgency and rebels engaged in guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics. After a peace accord brokered by Muammar Gaddafi in 1976 was signed, divisions within the MNLF over the role of Islam in a future autonomous region based in Mindanao led to the splintering off of a new rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). While the MNLF came to an agreement that established the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1989, the MILF rejected it. Fighting continued to wrack the region, limiting economic development and encouraging a trend of migration towards Manila and Muslim countries near and far.
The intensity of the conflict has ebbed and flowed over the intervening years but a lasting peace has always seemed elusive. The United States began stationing counter-terrorist units in Zamboanga as a result of the emergence of a small terrorist outfit called the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) with links to al-Qaeda. The ASG orchestrated the 2004 bombing of Superferry 14, killing 114 people, as well as numerous kidnappings and beheadings of Americans, foreign nationals, and government forces. In 2008, the Supreme Court of the Philippines struck down the act that established the ARMM as unconstitutional. Tribal politics has begotten much corruption and a lack of accountability, most notably in the Maguindanao Massacre of 2009, which wiped out an entire political caravan during a campaign for local office.
Yet with the election of President Benigno Aquino III in 2010, a new effort towards peace began. After years of talks and negotiations, the MILF and the Philippine government found enough common ground to establish the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2012. The peace process is moving slowly but addressing the mistakes of the past that led to the ruling against the ARMM and many grievances from the communities of Mindanao.
This brings us to today. While the government has focused on reaching an agreement with the MILF, the MNLF has been left out of the process. Most of this is due to the fact that they already have a peace accord with the local government. However, many outfits are keen to disrupt the current Framework, with spoiler attacks expected from a relatively new breakaway faction of the MILF called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM). On top of that, clan confrontations in Mindanao threaten stability, with “lost commands” such as the Pentagon Gang and Abu Sofia roaming the countryside using violence to extort funds and goods from local communities.
Why did the MNLF seek to raid Zamboanga, resulting in the siege by government forces? It surely wasn’t an expectation of holding territory, since the helicopter gunships at Pres. Aquino’s disposal were no secret to the rebels. The limited number of MNLF forces involved suggest that they were trying to send the message that just because the MILF is getting all the attention today, the MNLF has been around for years as the pioneer of the fight for the rights of the Moros of Mindanao. The attack and hostage crisis very well may be more aimed at reminding the local populace of their significance, and striking down any talk of impotence on the part of the MNLF. In speaking with government officials about the implications of the attacks on the Framework, they have made it clear that it won’t affect the talks, since the framework is still ongoing. The peace process moves incrementally but that may be its strength. Moving too quickly may leave the framework vulnerable to the volatility of sudden events – like trying to take a city hostage.
Moving forward, the government would be best suited to focusing on fleshing out the Framework started in 2012. There is a lot of promise in the agreement, and stakeholders on both sides are eager for an effective document to implement. Responding to the MNLF hostage crisis in Zamboanga, the government would be best suited to declare its intent to prosecute those responsible. It should also make it clear that it’s not looking to escalate hostilities against the MNLF as a form or retaliation. This would effectively destroy the MNLF peace accord completely, which might take another decade to replace. Should the Aquino administration find there to be inadequate political space to renegotiate, they could extend an invitation to the Malaysian, or more likely the Indonesian, government to help mediate. Their success with helping to usher in the 2012 Framework could prove useful should relations with the MNLF completely deteriorate. While the BIFM threat remains to be seen, the government would do well to ally with MILF and MNLF forces to eradicate it should it follow a path similar to the ASG or the Jemaah Islamiyah in neighboring Indonesia. Slow and steady will win the peace, which is desperately needed for the development and prosperity of the people of Bangsamoro and the Philippines.