September 23, 2013
Betraying the Moro cause
by Bunn Nagara (09-15-13)
When the founder of a movement begins to act against its own interest, despair is at hand.
NEWS reports and analyses are supposed to inform and explain, but sometimes they do the opposite.Recent events in the southern Philippines are a case in point. These events sometimes involve Sabah nearby, with the geographical factor tending to complicate some issues.
The east coast of the East Malaysian state is about as far as it is possible to get from Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya while still remaining in the same country. The southernmost tip of southern Mindanao also represents the furthest reach of the Philippine government in Manila on northern Luzon island.
When descendants of the former heirs of the Sultan of Sulu invaded and occupied eastern Sabah earlier this year, foreign news media reported that they were staking a claim to (disputed) territory because they felt “left out” of ongoing talks between the Philippine government and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) on governance in Mindanao.
Any differences between Manila and the Sulu clan is an entirely Philippine matter that does not concern Sabah or the Malaysian Government.As for the territory of the former British North Borneo (north-eastern Sabah), it was settled when the Sulu Sultan then ceded the land to British agents in 1878.
Then last Monday morning, when MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) rebels opened fire in Zamboanga City following a “declaration of independence” for a so-called Bangsamoro Republik, foreign news again said it had resulted from the MNLF feeling “left out” of recent talks between the Philippine government and the MILF.
Instead, it was more a case of the MNLF – or a faction in it – taking itself out of the spirit of an agreement it had reached with Manila decades ago.
The MNLF was founded in 1969 by Nur Misuari and, following talks with the Philippine government, the Tripoli Agreement was signed in 1976 for the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Then an internal split over his leadership erupted in 1977, and a rival faction established itself as the MILF under Hashim Salamat in 1984. As the ARMM took shape in 1989-90 with Nur as its governor in 1996, the MILF began talks with Manila.
Those on-off talks dragged on until its latest phase from last October, with Malaysia brokering a “framework agreement”. Notwithstanding some choreographed pally scenes between Hashim and Nur such as in 1999, their differences simmered just below the surface.
A zero-sum relationship appeared to exist between the two Moro groups in relation to the Philippine government and Mindanao’s administration, just when a win-win alternative is needed. Personality and leadership issues that made for the initial factionalism would seem to linger.
Nur keenly encouraged the self-styled Royal Army of Sulu’s intrusion into Sabah in February this year, as he personally conferred with chief instigator “Sultan” Jamalul Kiram III. He even tried to ingratiate himself with Sulu’s Tausug community by claiming a Tausug linkage through one of his wives.
The MNLF leader’s role in the latest conflict is patently obvious. However, everything else seems shrouded in uncertainty, contradiction or confusion.
MNLF claims of having mobilised 4,000 Tausug warriors from Sabah and Sarawak to its cause are plainly ridiculous, and Malaysia said so. The Philippine government likewise called the bluff.
In Nur’s August 12 proclamation of the Bangsamoro Republik’s independence, he also appointed himself Commander-in-Chief of the Bangsamoro Armed Forces. Then, just as his chief of staff Murshi Ibrahim pledged that the struggle would be peaceful, fighting broke out and they took hundreds of hostages.
As Nur’s responsibility for the violent actions spread, a local mayor said he disowned those actions and disagreed with them. Next, Nur responded that he indeed agreed with and supported those actions.
Even the cause of the violence is in doubt. One version says that a misunderstanding had occurred between MNLF fighters and government officials over an attempt to raise the rebel flag at city hall, while another insists that the fighting had initially involved only Abu Sayyaf bandits.
Meanwhile, unidentified persons had reportedly been spreading anonymous text messages inciting people to rise and take advantage of the situation by presenting various security threats.
Nur’s initial declaration claimed “independence” under MNLF rule for Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu in the Philippines as well as Sabah in Malaysia. Within days, this spread of territory was stretched to cover Tawi-Tawi and Basilan provinces in the Philippines and Sarawak in Malaysia also.
This latest announcement takes previous demands for autonomy further to full independence. It also enlarges the territories being claimed to the most extensive yet in decades.
Both the Philippine and Malaysian governments are having nothing of it. The whole ludicrous episode would be laughable except for the acts of these grown men playing at soldiers actually causing deaths and destruction.
Nur’s desperation is evident: one town or village after another falls to his brand of mayhem amid futile declarations of “independence”. This is no way for a former governor to behave, much less one still aspiring to a distinguished and legitimate position of power.
His conduct as governor was no way for a public official to behave either. He is cited for having spent only 187 days in six years (two terms) in his office, with most of the time jetting between world capitals like an all-powerful potentate.
His development plans for sleepy rural village communities included grandiose multiple-lane highways and spaghetti junctions as in an ultra-modern urban environment, costing many millions. He complains of blocked plans as a result of having no financial muscle, but it might just have been a lack of trust in his financial management.
With the millions that had been proposed at stake and virtually no oversight, donors and investors would have to be mythical beings. But myth had always been a part of his style.
Nur was never the same after he was sidelined by rival faction leader Muslimen Sema, MNLF executive council chairman and former Cotabato mayor.Another MNLF faction is led by Habib Muhahab Hashim, its Islamic Command Council’s chairman.
Perhaps Nur as MNLF founder should be gratified that the movement has grown so much as to split and then fray. The MNLF-MILF dispute has developed into disputes also between different MNLF factions.
The MILF remains hopeful of ultimately working out a settlement with the Philippine government acceptable to all. Its leaders find Nur’s violent posturing a distracting and unwelcome irritant, even a betrayal.
But Nur is not about to be discouraged. He is leveraging on the OIC and the “five (West Asian) countries” he says already recognises the Bangsamoro Republik.He also claims to have filed the independence of the “new country” with the United Nations the day after his official declaration. The possibilities are endless in the Twilight Zone.
The latest problems therefore are not so much about the Moro community or the MNLF, or even Nur Misuari’s faction. They are more about Nur himself or, more specifically, a Nur Misuari in his twilight years fantasising about a new dawn for his leadership.
They are about a mindset and an inclination motivated more by military manoeuvres in the field than by competent civil administration.In the process, a community’s legitimate interests become trapped as a hostage to one man’s inadequacies, excesses and delusions.
Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia