Southern Philippines: Echoes of peace

The Muslim struggle for autonomy seemed to reach its peak in the 70s when the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, under Nur Misuari signed a peace deal with the Philippine government then led by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Photo by EPA
Photo by EPA

“They say so much… and accomplish nothing …”

The almost-whispered words of the weary 24-year-old warrior reverberated in the sweltering heat of the marshland morning, its hollow echo like ghosts of all the fallen in this scarred land … striking in their silence.

He looked away, but his words hung in the air like flies around a corpse.

As a Muslim, Norodin feels he was born into this war in the southern Philippines. His father was a separatist fighter before him, so he too joined the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. 

He knew little else. 

Many others share his story. Feeling victim to an inherited conflict.

Oldest battles

It’s one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world – nearly 40 years of struggling for an autonomous Islamic region within the majority Christian nation. The battle itself is even older than he is.

And it didn’t start with the MILF. 

There have been Muslims in the Philippines since long before the archipelagic nation was put together under Spanish colonial rule in the 16th century. That’s also when Christianity was brought to the islands. The faiths co-existed for centuries … then the armed separatist conflict broke out when the country, as a whole, headed towards independence from colonial rule. 

The Muslim struggle for autonomy seemed to reach its peak in the 70s when the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, under Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal with the Philippine government then led by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That same deal has yet to be fully implemented, and is still facing revisions.

It was in the 70s that the MILF was born – splintering off from Misuari, unhappy with the details of his brokered peace. 

Now the MILF itself has been trying to strike its own agreement with the government. 
It’s been trying for more than 10 years. In that time, its original leader passed away, and his successor appears unable to keep the group together.  When the last round of talks fell through in 2008, men called “rogue elements” of the MILF went on a rampage through several Christian villages.  The government has been unable to arrest the perpetrators, and the MILF, promising to deal with it an as internal matter, has also failed to do much about it.


Tired and confused yet? Many Filipinos are. The 20th round of peace talks began on February 7, and it barely even hit the local news … exacerbating not just rampant ignorance of the issues, but also many Filipino Muslims’ feelings of isolation and insignificance.

But Misuari, still the MNLF chairman, told Al Jazeera the fact that the government is even negotiating a peace with the splinter group is “an absurdity”.  He acknowledged the failures of his own more than 30-year-old peace deal, but says it seemed designed that way on purpose by the government. 

To “confuse” the Bangsamoro (Muslim) nation, and make it impossible for autonomy to ever work. 
Misuari tells the story of how on the day they finally agreed a deal, the government negotiator told him separate talks would be started with the off-shoot MILF. “It was tantamount to sabotage,” Misuari said.

The government has denied this and insists it is serious about establishing a sustainable peace in the most restive, and underdeveloped, region of the country. But fewer and fewer of the Bangsamoro believe it.

Diminishing returns

Norodin definitely doesn’t. He doesn’t believe in the leaders of the MILF any more either … calling them “detached” and “ineffective”.  Feeling disheartened and frustrated, he turned his back on the MILF and pledged his allegiance to Misuari’s MNLF. Some 300 of his men went with him. “Returned to the fold,” as Misuari sees it. 

The seeming crisis of confidence is believed to have emaciated the MILF’s 12,000 ground troops by three-fourths … half allegedly re-joining the MNLF.   The rest are said to have taken advantage of the disorder and turned their guns on each other … fighting age-old family feuds instead of wider political ones.

“What is this?” Norodin asked himself when his comrades ran amok in 2008.  “How are we going to be peaceful if we can’t stop this?  Our other colleagues were destructive – how will we have peace here if we ourselves don’t have any unity in what we do?”

The MILF insists it has the situation “under control”, that there is “no problem” with its ground forces … and that there is no threat of a vacuum in the group’s leadership. Not helping matters is the recurring rumour of the MILF leader’s ailing health.
Question and answer

When the MILF leaders are asked how many troops they have under their command, they rarely give a straight answer – for security reasons, they say.  But it seems the truth is more likely that they no longer know. 

Misuari believes painful lessons have finally been learned by the returnees. Among them that it is better to work towards implementing a peace already signed as opposed to struggling to forge a new one.

A vacuum may indeed be developing within the MILF – but it may not be from on top, as many had feared, but from lower in the organisation.  Soon, the group’s leaders may find themselves standing alone … and if that is the case – Misuari’s questions remain: who exactly is the government talking peace with?  And why?

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