Philippines: Duterte, Misuari Agree to Form Committee to Bring Wider Peace to South

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
2019-08-27
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190827-PH-MISUARI-1000final.jpg Released Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad (second from right) stands next to then-Moro National Liberation Front Chairman Nur Misuari (right) after being turned over by ransom-seeking Abu Sayyaf extremists in Indanan town on Jolo island in the southern Philippines, Sept. 18, 2016.
AP

President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to set up a “coordinating committee” composed of government representatives and leaders of former Muslim guerrilla leader Nur Misuari’s armed group as part of wider efforts to bring peace to the southern Mindanao region, a presidential spokesman said Tuesday.

The Philippine leader met Misuari last Friday in Duterte’s hometown of Davao City, five months after the 80-year-old ex-guerrilla threatened to go to war again if Manila did not change its system of government to federalism from the current presidential form.

“President Duterte had a productive meeting with Mr. Misuari in discussing peace efforts in Mindanao,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters. “The president relayed to Mr. Misuari his desire to immediately form a coordinating committee between the government of the Philippines and the MNLF.”

In the mid-1990s, Misuari and his Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace deal with Manila, under which he became the leader of an autonomous region in the southern Philippines.

However, the government later acknowledged that it was largely a failed experiment, with many parts of the region failing to improve despite millions of dollars in largesse invested by Manila for the area’s development.

In 2013, MNLF members laid siege to Zamboanga City in the south, engaging troops in fierce battles that left more than 200 people dead. Thousands of homes were also burned down and Misuari went into hiding.

But when Duterte became president in 2016, one of his first acts was to order the government to drop charges of rebellion against Misuari. The president also worked towards the signing of a new law that expanded the autonomy and placed the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in charge. MILF is a splinter group of the MNLF, but its leaders enjoy close ties.

Panelo said further discussions about the committee would take place in the second week of September to set the agenda.

He quoted Misuari as telling Duterte that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which consists of 57 member states, should be part of the discussions. BenarNews could not immediately confirm Panelo’s statement.

The coordinating committee “will serve as a venue for the cooperation of the MNLF to achieve immediate peace” in the south, particularly its far-flung Sulu region and Misuari’s hometown, where years of rebellion also spawned smaller and more brutal groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf, Panelo said.

The committee “can expect the full support of the office of the president as we move toward our common goal of resolving the conflict that have caused deaths, and dislocation among the Muslims and Christians alike,” Panelo said.

“In resolving the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao, every undertaking that may lead to a lasting peace and prosperity to that region must be tried and tested until its fruition,” he said.

Misuari sidelined

Misuari was the founder of the MNLF, the forerunner of the MILF, which broke off after Misuari’s group wanted to settle for limited autonomy as opposed to the latter’s fight for full independence.

The MILF was left out of the original peace deal signed by Misuari and the government that saw him become the governor of a Muslim region.

But while Misuari’s MNLF faltered in keeping its end of the bargain, the government subsequently signed a peace deal with MILF. As part of that peace accord, the 12,000-strong MILF dropped its bid for self-rule and settled for an autonomous region in the south.

Fearing that he would be left out of the new power structure, Misuari staged the failed Zamboanga siege.

Misuari had initially opposed the deal with the MILF, under which Muslims in the south were granted an expanded autonomous area and offered self-determination. Some four million Filipino Muslims were also empowered to elect their own parliament.

However, it also appears to have sidelined Misuari as many local government functions are now led by the MILF.

Duterte, however, has continued to engage Misuari, who in March said he wanted the system of government changed to federalism in which he envisions himself a regional political player. But Congress has so far rejected such suggestions.

Joseph Jubelag in General Santos city contributed to this report.

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