Faced with an unfavorable election outcome, Nur Misuari staged a violent tantrum. He declared a break with the Philippine government; his loyal followers attacked Army positions; scores of people died in weeks of fighting. That was November 2001, the tail-end of Misuari’s disastrous term as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Unable to run in the special elections scheduled for the 26th of that month—and worse, rejected in insulting terms by the so-called Council of 15 of the Moro National Liberation Front, the separatist movement he had founded—the old warrior turned failed administrator sought to reclaim relevance the best way he knew how: through organized violence.
Thus was born the Misuari Breakaway Group of the MNLF. Many media reports to the contrary, this is the same group responsible for the mayhem in Zamboanga City. The mainstream MNLF, or the various rivulets and tributaries that make up the non-Misuari faction, have rejected Misuari’s capricious approach to politics, to governance, to the so-called Moro question itself.
(This is not to say that none of these other MNLF groups could be drawn to sympathize with Misuari; the national government must not make the mistake of belittling the MNLF’s role in history, or of conducting a personal vendetta against the person many MNLF ex-members even today still call, simply, the Old Man.)
The situation in Zamboanga City remains unclear. The precise sequence of events, beginning Sunday night, remains murky. (If the military knew about the breakaway group’s plans for a “peace rally” three days earlier and had braced for it, why did the initial casualty list identify mostly government troops?) The exact number of hostages, and the nature of their captivity, is still undetermined. (A picture of a number of civilians tied by rope as a group has gone viral, but other reports say that the hostages have been spotted moving freely about.) Above all, the right way to resolve the tension still seems out of reach. (The Armed Forces seems to have succeeded in containing the breakaway group, but the question of how best to free the hostages is up in the air.)
But let us point out what should be obvious. Misuari ran for governor of ARMM again, last May. He lost badly, winning only 10 percent of the vote (about a fifth of the total received by the winning candidate, Mujiv Hataman). Then he declared “independence” on Aug. 12.
Would he have made the declaration if he had won the governorship again? Conversely: If he had truly desired independence, why did he run in an election that periodically legitimizes the polity he wants to be independent of? The conclusion is inescapable: As in 2001, the outbreak of violence in Zamboanga City over the weekend is yet another of Misuari’s costly tantrums.
It is no secret that Misuari is hostile to the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front; but his assertion (and that of his spokesmen) that the MNLF has been ignored in the peace talks or that the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF has been sidelined is not only based on the wrong facts; it is based on an attempt to revise history—specifically, his own time at the helm of the ARMM and of the original MNLF.
Members of the ARMM Legislative Assembly calling for an “immediate end to military hostilities” in Zamboanga base their call in part on the following crucial Whereas clause: “the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the GRP and MNLF is still being upheld by a greater number of MNLF rank-and-file, and that the Tripartite Review of the said Agreement is almost at its closing stage.” In other words, and despite Misuari’s evident failure at the ARMM, the work on the 1996 peace compact continues.
It is work, however, that renders Misuari essentially irrelevant. Hence this attempt, made just as the government and MILF peace panels resume down-the-homestretch negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, to throw a spanner into the peace process. Hence, this calculated strike in media-accessible Zamboanga, rather than in his own stronghold in Sulu. Hence, this cruel gamble with his own followers’ lives, and of those of many, innocent others.
If he proves to form, Misuari will deny any part in the violence. History’s spoiled child, he will leave it to others to clean his mess.