THE GRP-MILF PEACE TALKS: Quo Vadis?

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

THE GRP-MILF PEACE TALKS: Quo Vadis?


Rizal G. Buendia

Introduction and Background The conclusion of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA)1 between the government of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) did not terminate the Muslim secessionist movement in the island of Mindanao and Sulu archipelago, in southern Philippines. Nur Misuari's (founder and chairman of the MNLF) assumption as regional governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)2 and as chairman of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD)3 for five years (1996-2001) has not brought about the promised peace and development in Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan.

The ignominious failure of Misuari to effectively wield governmental powers to attain Muslims' quest for lasting peace and sustained development led to his ouster not only as ARMM governor and SPCPD chairman but also as MNLF chairman. Misuari's expulsion from government was followed by his incarceration and is currently facing trial for charges of sedition4 and corruption.5

The MNLF, the revolutionary organization that Misuari led for thirty years both in war and peace, is now under a new leadership. Led by the "Council of 15",6 it "retired" Misuari and rendered him powerless by euphemistically naming him as "Chairman Emeritus". Through a resolution it issued on 29 April 2001, Misuari was declared as "incompetent" to remain as MNLF's chairman. The Council later proclaimed itself as the legitimate Central Committee of the MNLF7 which was eventually recognized both by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Philippine government. Support for the new MNLF leadership was reiterated in the OIC 10th summit meeting held in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on 15 October 2003, claiming it to be the sole "representative of Muslim community in the Philippines".8

Despite OIC's and the government's acknowledgement of MNLF and the ARMM as the Muslims' organizational expression and spokesperson in the Philippines, they nevertheless recognize that the Muslims' quest for political autonomy and self-governance has not been fully satisfied. The ARMM, even under the new breed of MNLF leadership, has yet to realize its mandated goals not only in alleviating Muslim socio-economic conditions but also in securing, preserving, and protecting the integrity of their identity, culture, and religion.

Moreover, the uncertainty and nebulousness of the autonomy package offered by the government failed to fully extinguish the cause of Muslim secessionist movement in the Philippines. Although the MNLF had relinquished its armed separatist struggle since the year 19769 before finally deciding to be part of the government in 1996, the Muslim independence movement has continued; this time, spearheaded by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF, a breakaway faction of the MNLF in 197710 chaired by Salamat Hashim until his death on 13 July 2003, had been sidelined by the Philippine government from the 1996 peace talks. Faced with legal and technical constraints to forge a separate peace agreement with the MILF, the government had no other recourse but to conclude the GRP-MNLF FPA before embarking on a new round of peace talks with the former.11 Similarly, the MILF adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude while the GRP-MNLF talks were in progress.12 Hence, the GRP-MILF peace process only began in 1997 though informal peace overtures started a year earlier.

As a party outside of the GRP-MNLF peace process, the MILF was able to focus its efforts in expanding and consolidating its military strength while awaiting the results of the FPA. In what seemed to be a minuscule armed-force when it severed from MNLF, the MILF has grown from 5,000 fighters (with some 3,000 firearms) in early 1980s to 15,000 fighters (with more than 11,000 firearms) by the end of 1999.13 A U.S. intelligence report estimates a stronger force, with 35,000 to 40,000 armed full-time guerrillas,14 while the MILF claims that its armed force (Bangsa Moro Islamic Armed Forces or BIAF) has about 120,000 fighters (80 per cent are armed) and 300,000 militiamen in the late 1990s.

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