PHILIPPINES: Moro Islamic Liberation Front rejects 'terrorist' slander
Reihana Mohideen, North Cotabato City, Mindanao
The Bangsa Moro people of Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, are fighting for national self-determination. Before the 20th century, 98% of the land in Mindanao and Sulu belonged to the Moros. In the 1980s, they owned less than 17%, most of it in remote and infertile mountain areas, which lack basic infrastructure. More than 80% of the Muslim Moros have become landless tenants.
The Bangsa Moro people were never colonised by Spain, unlike the rest of the Philippines. The Spanish termed the Muslim population of Mindanao and Sulu, who resisted colonisation, the Moro — derived from the terms Mauris or Moors, a people who once occupied Spain. The name stuck, and became a rallying cry for the Moro nation, the Bangsa Moro.
In the December 10, 1898, Treaty of Paris, under which Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, Mindanao and Sulu were still marked as "foreign territory". US forces attempted to break the Moro people's resistance by pouring troops into Moro lands from 1898 until the Japanese invasion in 1942. The US occupation forces adopted a ruthless scorched-earth policy, killing all inhabitants and burning the villages of resisting Moros.
US colonial policy in Mindanao was subsequently overseen by the puppet neocolonial rulers of the Philippines, who continued the policy of land grabbing in Mindanao and Sulu, as well as trying to crush the Moro resistance. Today, some 90% of the Armed Forces of the Philippines's troops are stationed in Mindanao.
Currently, the Moro people's struggle is being waged primarily through armed resistance led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF was formed out of a split in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1977.
The MNLF led the Bangsa Moro people's resistance from the 1970s until it signed a peace agreement with the Philippines government on September 2, 1996. As a result, many of the MNLF's armed units were integrated into the AFP. The MNLF renounced the struggle for an independent Moro state, and Nur Misuari, chairperson of the MNLF central committee, was elected governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), based on four existing provinces in Mindanao.
The MILF was designated a "terrorist" organisation by Washington, but it was subsequently withdrawn from the US list of terrorist organisations after the resumption of peace talks with the Philippines government in 2001. But the MILF continues to be attacked by the Philippines and US governments as having "links" with the al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah terrorist outfits. MILF cadres continue to be harassed and arrested by the Philippines state as "terrorists".
I recently interviewed Ghazali Jaafar, vice-chairperson of the MILF, at an MILF satellite camp in North Cotabato.
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What are the implications of the US "war on terror" for the Bangsa Moro struggle?
It's a question of how you define "terrorism". According to some people, anybody who uses weapons to pursue a noble objective is a terrorist ... If you follow that line of argument, then Aguinaldo [the first president of the short-lived independent Philippines republic prior to the US occupation], who is a hero of the Philippines people, can be classified as a "terrorist". He and other heroes used weapons to pursue the independence under the Spanish and American regimes.
I don't think there is any difference between the leaders of the Bangsa Moro people now, and Andres Bonifacio [who led the 1896 Katipunan Revolution] or Aguinaldo, because we are fighting for the liberation of our people. We are pursuing a noble cause and we are free to use any weapons that we think suitable to win our struggle. So we are not terrorists. We are defenders of our freedom. We don't harm people without cause. We are the natives of this place and we were forcibly colonised.
The MILF condemned the 9/11 attacks.
There have been claims that the MILF is linked up with al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah. How do you respond to such claims?
This is not true. There is no need for us to counter these claims. There is no official link between the MILF and any of these organisations... Taking care of the Moro people's problem is enough for us. We can take care of ourselves because our people are supporting us. People from outside do not support us financially. Our people are 100% behind us and we continue to survive because of this support.
There is a tendency by the Philippines government to see the Moro question purely in terms of underdevelopment and poverty. How do you respond to that?
This is a misconception. The Moro problem as an economic problem, as a land problem, is a result of the Bangsa Moro people being colonised by the Philippines government. They plan programs for the Bangsa Moro people ... But only the Bangsa Moro people know what is good for themselves. We want to be left alone to plan for our development ... to plan for the education of our children. We should be free to decide what kind of government we want.
One of the main tactics you are pursuing at the moment is peace talks. Why have you included the US in the peace talks?
We did not invite the US to intervene. The US government sent a letter to the MILF, asking what the MILF's position would be if America came in [to the peace negotiations]. And the MILF said, "We welcome you if your intention is to solve the problem of the Bangsa Moro people".
But we also told the USA that, as far as we are concerned, it would be better for everybody if their participation was channelled through Malaysia. The present negotiations are being sponsored by Malaysia, and the government of the USA agreed to do that. That's why the help of the US [in the peace negotiations] is not separate from that of the efforts of Malaysia, Libya and other Muslim countries.
When you go into peace talks, it is expected that compromises will be made. So what can and can't you compromise on? What is the bottom line?
Our position is that any solution to the problems of the Bangsa Moro people must be just, it must be comprehensive, it must be lasting and, above all, it must be acceptable to the Bangsa Moro people. So whatever is put up, we will consult the people and they will have the final say.
How will the consultation take place?
It can be through a referendum supervised by the United Nations or the Organisation of Islamic Countries.
I was recently talking to a representative of the MNLF, who emphasised the unity between the MILF and the MNLF. He said that the two organisations now "speak as one". What is the status of your relationship with the MNLF?
Before the split in the 1970s we were one organisation. We are the ones that organised the MNLF, together with Nur Misuari and the rest. But later on there were disagreements that led to the formation of the MILF.
[Prior to the November 26, 2001, ARMM election, the first election of the ARMM since 1996, a pro-Manila faction of the MNLF in effect ousted Misuari as the front's leader, preventing him from being reelected ARMM governor. On November 19, supporters of Misuari attempted to disrupt the poll through a dramatic attack on the Philippines army's 104th Infantry Brigade headquarters in central Jolo. Combatants from Misuari's MNLF faction also laid siege to military outposts throughout western Mindanao before being suppressed by massive air and land bombardments. Misuari's spokesperson declared that the rebellion was a return to the struggle for an independent Moro state.]
When brother Nur Misuari was arrested by the Philippines government, we condemned it. We spoke very publicly against his arrest. There were people attacking brother Nur, but the MILF always defended him publicly. We see him as one of the great leaders of the Moro people.
And after the government arrested him [Misuari remains in prison], the MILF worked very hard to close the gap between the MILF and the MNLF. We consult our brothers in the MNLF. Not only that, we consult other leaders, even the politicians and the traditional leaders, the datus.
Our objective is to unite the Moro leaders in order to achieve a common solution to the common problems of the Bangsa Moro people. We believe that the reason we did not succeed in the MNLF struggle is because the Moro leaders were divided at that time and we want to solve this problem now. That is why we have initiated a dialogue with all leaders of the Bangsa Moro people. We have also initiated dialogue with the leaders of other groups in Mindanao, the church and the leaders of the [Christian] settlers from Luzon and the Visayas who are living here.
The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has visited us. Their concern is to end the problems in Mindanao peacefully. That is our goal also.
How do you see your relationship with the forces of the revolutionary left in the north of Mindanao?
Our relationship with the revolutionaries is good. We can see eye to eye, and we like to maintain good relationships with them. In Mindanao there are areas where we have our own operations and they also have their own operations. Because of this situation, there is a need for us to talk.
From Green Left Weekly, July 28, 2004.
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