Euphoria erupted nationwide when the Philippines government and a former separatist Filipino-Muslim rebel group announced last Sunday that they had agreed to strengthen the autonomous area for Filipino-Muslims in Mindanao, southern Philippines. The excitement did not die down even if the Philippines overnment and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — after holding talks in Malaysia from October 2-6 — delayed the signing of the agreement for another week to Monday.
Romanticising peace in war-torn Mindanao lured everyone to believe in miracles, even if debates raged left and right that also praised and damned the “dream-like” provisions of the accord — following its leakage to the media. Indeed, Mindanao’s Muslim Spring has become the Philippines’ soft version of the Arab Spring in the Middle East.
When asked if the agreement was a win-win solution for both parties, if it could truly guarantee a larger homeland for Filipino-Muslims in Mindanao, three years after a transition period, Marvic Leonen, the government’s chief negotiator, told the Inquirer: “They [MILF] changed their positions; we conceded a lot of language.” His counterpart, MILF chief negotiator, Mohaqher Iqbal, an MILF warrior, ”shed tears”. Leonen said, adding that all negotiators in Malaysia gave President Benign Aquino a standing ovation when he announced a successful peace agreement on TV.
However, the size of the autonomous area for Filipino-Muslims in the south never radically increased in the 35 years since former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, first envisioned it. That made him look delusional — in the eyes of his Christian friends and critics.
During the heydays of the Moro National Liberation Front (MLF), its founding chairman, Nur Misuari, then 34, waged a separatist war that killed 150,000 people in Mindanao in the early ‘70s. Marcos, then 59, and former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who was quite young then, made Misuari sit down for peace talks. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) brokered the initial negotiations between the Philippines government and the MNLF peace in Jeddah in 1975, prior to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement in Libya on December 23, 1976. The accord granted full autonomy to Filipino-Muslims in 13 southern provinces (Basilan, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, South and North Cotabato, Laneo del Sur, Maguindanao, Palawan, Sultan Kudarat, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte), nine cities and all the villages in the 13 provinces.
The accord’s provisions were too good to be true. Although they were never realised, they haunted all subsequent presidents after Marcos, who tried to solve the problem of Filipino-Muslims in the south.
Moreover, majority of Christian residents in Mindanao, in a plebiscite on April 17, 1977, did not vote for Marcos’ presidential proclamation issued on March 25, 1977, which called for the formation of autonomous region for Filipino-Muslims in Mindanao. When Marcos issued another presidential proclamation on July 25 in the same year that entailed the creation of the Regional Autonomous Government for western and central Mindanao, the MNLF was split into three with the emergence of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front under Hashim Salamat and MNLF-Reformist under Dimas Pundatu.
When former president, Corazon Aquino, established a revolutionary government, following the ouster of Marcos in 1986, she held a special meeting with Misuari in Paimbung, Sulu, the following year. Her aim was to get an input on the Muslim problem while the lawmakers she appointed were drafting the 1987 Constitution. As a result, Misuari and Aquilino Pimentel, Aquino’s negotiator, held talks in Jeddah from January 3-4, 1987. The Jeddah Accord they signed allowed the MNLF to hold “democratic consultations with the people in Mindanao and called on Aquino to issue an executive order, suspending the granting of autonomy to Filipino-Muslims in the south, in the draft of the new constitution.
Peace talks between the Philippines government and the MNLF never materialised during Aquino’s time. However, her 1987 constitution provided autonomy by referendum in 13 provinces, for the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). In a plebiscite in 1989, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi voted to be part of the ARMM. The score was 13-4 provinces in favour of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement.
The peace talks held by the Philippines government and the MNLF in 1992, during the time of former president, Fidel Ramos, ended with a pro-autonomy peace settlement in 1996. Misuari was elected ARMM governor in 1996. A friendly Congress amended the law behind ARMM’s creation and allowed a second referendum for autonomy in 2001. Basilan and Marawi City voted to be part of the ARMM. The score was 13 to 6 provinces in favour of the Tripoli Agreement.
Unfortunately, Misuari and his supporters took up arms in protest of holding the ARMM elections in 2001. Malaysian authorities repatriated them from Jampira Island where they fled after escaping from Philippines authorities. Upon his return to Manila, he was imprisoned in 2001 and allowed to post bail only in 2007.
In 2001, former president Gloria Arroyo continued holding peace talks with the MILF, which began in 1997, during the time of Ramos. Both government and MILF negotiators boldly agreed to expand ARMM with 800 Muslim-dominated villages. But the Supreme Court issued a dampener on the proposed expansion, terming it unconstitutional. The score remained at 13-6.
The 2012 peace accord between the Philippines government and the MILF, which resumed in 2010, called for ARMM’s expansion — with five existing ARMM provinces, three cities (including two new ones), six municipalities or towns of Baloi, Munai, Nunungan, Pantar, Tagoloan and Tangkal in Lanao del Norte province; all villages in the municipalities (towns) of Kabacan, Carmen, Aleosan, Pigkawayan, Pikit and Midsayap that voted for ARMM inclusion in 2001 plebiscite. It is believed that this time, the score will definitely be higher as reflected in the prevailing sentiments ahead of a plebiscite, following congressional approval for another referendum for autonomy in 2016. After 35 years devoted to on-and-off peace talks aimed at solving the problems of Filipino-Muslims in the south, peace is not far away, even if it materialises in three years.