Dealing with Misuari

Published : Jan 05, 2002 00:00 IST

Manila's inability to play straight in the matter of deporting Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari indicates that it is still not clear on how to tackle separatism in Mindanao.

NUR MISUARI and his Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are in the news once again. A peace accord that Misuari signed with the Philippines government in 1996 came unstuck and his followers staged a rebellion at the end of November.

On November 24, Misuari, 60, was detained in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island after he fled the southern Philippines, and since then Manila and Kuala Lumpur have been engaged in a ping-pong battle on his deportation.

More than 100 people were killed in clashes between MNLF supporters and government troops after the Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo decided to dump Misuari and support one of his opponents for the post of Governor of the Muslim autonomous region on Mindanao island. Arroyo is also engaged in peace talks, facilitated by Malaysia, with the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

One would have expected that Manila, which has charged Misuari with rebellion, would be keen on getting the Moro leader back from Malaysia as soon as possible. But that was not to be. Filipino leaders sent out conflicting statements on whether or not they wanted him back, giving rise to speculation that Arroyo would prefer to let Misuari remain outside the Philippines.

The Misuari issue has put some strain on the Philippines' cordial ties with Malaysia; it led to statements from Kuala Lumpur that Misuari may have to be sent to a third country if Manila refused to take him back. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, however, put the blame for the problem on Misuari rather than on Manila: "It is Misuari who has put Malaysia in a spot. Why can't he run away somewhere else... It (his presence) sours relations with neighbours."

Manila's flip-flop on Misuari, however, was in a special category. After Misuari was arrested on Arrival at Sabah, the Malaysian authorities stated that he was not wanted for any crime. The only charge, a minor one, was of entering the country without valid travel documents.

On December 11 Arroyo made a strange statement: "What the (Malaysian) police said is they don't have enough evidence. (The report) doesn't say they cleared him... We also checked with Malaysia last night. That (report) is at the level of the police. That's not at the level of the Prime Minister." She went on: "I have said before that we are ready to take Misuari back... we are already preparing his jail cell, his charges and the mode of arresting him."

The statement can only be interpreted as one full of hope. That Mahathir Mohamad would disagree with his police officers and arrest Misuari on some charge appeared to be Arroyo's fervent hope.

For reasons not yet spelt out, the Philippines government is of the view that Misuari at home can be a bigger problem than Misuari abroad. The government possibly believes that Misuari's return could lead to more violence and a trial could be used for political purposes. However, after linking Misuari with terrorist Abu Sayyaf, it is surprising that the Arroyo government does not want him back. Without doubt, the Philippines under Arroyo is a leading partner of the United States in countering terrorism and U.S. military advisers are working closely with Filipino security forces.

Misuari's links with Abu Sayyaf are doubtful, and if he does have any ties with Sayyaf, should not Arroyo and her government be keen on securing his immediate deportation to Manila? Finally, after even considering Libya as a possible asylum destination for Misuari, the Foreign Ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines met in Manila on December 20 and agreed that the MNLF leader should be returned to the Philippines.

A joint statement issued by the three Foreign Ministers said: "The Philippines recognises the need to treat Nur Misuari with humanitarian consideration that he deserves as a signatory to the 1996 peace accord, even as he will be subject to the judicial process."

Just before the solution was announced, Roilo Golez, National Security Adviser to the Philippines President, said Libya was seen as a possible destination for Misuari. It is apparent that a "law and order" approach to the issue of 'Muslim' separatism in the southern Philippines has not worked. Playing one group against another has not worked' nor has it led to the creation of a viable authority in Mindanao in which the Moro people have trust.

By opening talks with the MILF, the Arroyo government has taken a positive, first step. But the 1996 peace accord with Misuari and his MNLF is dead. That is not a good sign for the Philippines - the November violence would indicate that Misuari and his supporters still have fight left in them.

While Misuari's critics say that he has achieved very little for the Moro people in the years he served as Governor, others believe that the "Christian" government in Manila did not provide sufficient resources to the autonomous authority. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that the Arroyo government continues to face a serious challenge to its authority in Mindanao. A political settlement must be inclusive, one which includes all factions to the conflict barring Abu Sayyaf's, which specialises in kidnapping, extortion and murder.

A distinction must be made between the terrorism of Abu Sayyaf and the problems of the Moro people. The movement for autonomy and a genuine demand for rights cannot be treated as a law and order problem.

Waffling on Misuari has revealed the contradictions in Manila's approach. Its inability to play straight in dealing with the Misuari issue reveals that the Philippines is still not clear how to tackle separatism in Mindanao.

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