Never-ending quest for peace

 SINCE the period of Spanish colonization to the present, Mindanao has never really known peace. This is very lamentable considering that Mindanao is very rich in mineral resources and the land is fertile. One reason Mindanao lags behind Luzon and the Visayas in terms of economic development is that it is a troubled region.

As students in the University of the Philippines, Nur Misuari often discussed the problems that beset Mindanao with our small group of classmates, composed of Edcel Lagman, Manuel Yngzon, Rogelio Subong and Voltaire Garcia. Misuari told us that the Philippine government perpetuated the iniquities and the oppression of the Spanish and American colonizers.

Soon after President Ramon Magsaysay declared Mindanao as the "promised land," there was an exodus of Filipinos from Luzon and the Visayas to the region, resulting in the displacement of Muslims from their land. In the 1950s, the communist-led rebellion in Luzon and the Visayas was also about land ownership. The Muslims, Misuari told us, had no concept of land titling at that time. The Christian settlers, who were more educated than the natives, knew how to secure Torrens titles.

Misuari told us that the Tausug Maas Kamlon rebellion in the late 1940s up to the 1950s was really about land ownership in Sulu. Misuari is a Tausug as well. Even during our student days, Misuari was entertaining the idea that the oppression of Muslims in Mindanao could only be resolved through an armed struggle.

In 1968, Misuari founded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) with the principal goal of separating Mindanao from the Philippines and forming an independent republic. Shortly after martial law was declared by Ferdinand Marcos, Misuari commenced his armed uprising to attain the MNLF's central goal of independence from the Philippines. The armed rebellion of the MNLF persisted until the signing of the peace agreement in 1996 and Misuari became the elected governor of the new Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

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Even as the MNLF was waging its war for independence under Nur Misuari, the group's vice chairman, Hashim Salamat, broke away from the MNLF in 1978 and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). This new rebel group wanted to establish a Islamic state in the Southern Philippines through an armed rebellion as well. After a peace agreement with the MNLF, the government had to contend with the rebellion of the MILF.

In August 1996, an emissary of the MILF visited me in my office in Malacañang, with a message that the MNLF chairman, Hashim Salamat, was interested in exploring the possibility of peace talks. I brought up the matter with President Fidel Ramos and he told me to proceed with the exploration talks. Two weeks thereafter, MNLF Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar, together with four members of the MILF central committee, met with me at the Insular Hotel in Davao to discuss and agree on the composition of each negotiating panel and the procedures to be followed.

The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which is the final peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and the MILF, was signed on March 27, 2014. The Congress of the Philippines subsequently passed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which, among others, created the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, (BARRM).

The MILF is now in control of the BARRM with its erstwhile chairman Murad Ebrahim as the governor.

The peace agreements with the MNLF and the MILF did not mean that peace had finally dawned in Mindanao. Even before the Philippine government-MILF agreement was signed and the enabling legislation passed, a splinter group from the MILF, called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), carried out atrocities in the province where it operates. The BIFF, which is alleged as having pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, is now the main threat to peace in Mindanao. The BIFF was the rebel group that killed 44 Special Action Forces in Mamasapano. In response to the recent attacks of the BIFF, President Duterte ordered an "all-out offensive against the BIFF."

Compounding the problems that threaten the fragile peace in Mindanao is the alleged dissatisfaction of a faction of a significant number of MILF combatants, who feel that they have not benefited from the peace agreement. These disenchanted MILF combatants are now threatening to organize another rebel group.

Should the military fail to succeed in dismantling the BIFF in the all-out war ordered by its commander in chief, President Duterte, and if the BARMM governor Murad fails to dissuade his dissatisfied comrades from leaving the MILF, it is doubtful that Mindanao will ever know peace. There is still the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army, which remains very active in the region.

It seems there can never be an end to the quest for peace in Mindanao.

Ruben Torres was labor secretary in the Corazon Aquino administration and executive secretary to President Fidel Ramos. At present, he is the general secretary of the Asean Trade Union Council. His email address is Follow him @RubenDTorres4.



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