Is Misuari Finished? Former Muslim Rebel, Mindanao Governor Fails to Extend His Reign

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Islam and the Middle East in the Far East

Over 100 people were killed in the southern Philippines when rebels assaulted an army brigade headquarters and other military and police posts on Nov. 19. Guerrilla attacks on government forces in that area are nothing new: for the past 30 years, Muslim and communist militants each have waged low-level wars against the central government. The activities of the communist-led New People's Army in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, are part of a wider campaign across the country. Muslim groups in the region have fought for a separate republic for the Moros, as the Muslims of this part of the Philippines are known. Of the country's approximately five million Muslims, the great majority live in Mindanao and the chain of small islands to its southwest known as the Sulu Archipelago.

What made the Nov. 19 attacks different was that they were instigated by Nur Misuari, who was the governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and so, in theory, part of the governing apparatus. Misuari had founded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1971 and led it in a war for independence until, following the downfall of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in 1986, he decided to seek a negotiated settlement with the central government. The process was long and drawn out, but a ceasefire was agreed upon and, finally, a peace accord signed in 1996. The MNLF agreed to accept autonomy for Muslim Mindanao, and the central government committed itself to provide development aid. Half the MNLF's fighters were integrated into the Philippines army and police force and Misuari was elected governor of the autonomous region.

Some in the MNLF who disagreed with Misuari's moves to negotiate a settlement based upon autonomy broke away to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which continued to fight the central government. A far smaller group, known as Abu Sayyaf, based on Basilan and several other small islands to the west of Mindanao, also battled the government, but increasingly turned into a criminal rather than political organization, engaging in extortion and kidnapping for money. The MILF has some 15,000 fighters; estimates of Abu Sayyaf strength range from 200 to at most 500.

The Philippine army seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the armed conflict early this year. It hit the Abu Sayyaf rebels hard after they had kidnapped and murdered a number of hostages being held for ransom. It overran most of the bases of the MILF, which then, in April, agreed to a cease-fire and to hold negotiations with the country's new president, Gloria Arroyo. In spite of problems along the way, both parties stuck to their intention of negotiating a peace settlement.

Although a negotiated settlement between the government and the MILF would have meant that the predominantly Muslim areas of the Philippines would have known peace for the first time in 30 years, Misuari did not react positively to the prospect. He appears to have seen it as part of a process by which his own personal status was being eroded. Manila would have had to come up with a peace offer for the MILF which improved upon what Misuari had negotiated, and this would have enhanced the MILF's standing at his expense.

Misuari had good reason to fear his own political eclipse. After he became governor of the autonomous region, he had at his disposal, in addition to foreign aid, a development budget totaling nearly $600 million, allocated by the central government for the country's poorest region. Very little of this was spent on education or basic infrastructure projects such as roads. Instead, Misuari focused upon prestige projects, such as an international airport for his home island of Jolo. Worse still, money was spent to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle for the governor and his companions: it was reported that, on trips to Manila, Misuari would rent blocks of rooms at five-star hotels for himself and his retinue. …