Philippines: MILF Head Seeks End To Decades Of Struggle

As the Philippines prepares to hold a plebiscite in January on the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which is expected to bring greater autonomy to the predominantly Muslim region of Bangsamoro on Mindanao island, Turkish aid agency the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) hosted the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Istanbul.

Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, 70, who has played a key role in building trust between the central government and MILF, delivered remarks Sunday on the protracted conflict in the southern Philippines, the peace processes of the past four decades and Turkey’s support for the region.

Ebrahim spoke exclusively to our correspondent on the sidelines of the event.

Could you please summarize MILF’s nearly 40-year conflict with the government?

The struggle of Bangsamoro dates back to the colonial period. But this (present) struggle we started more than 40 years ago, when the Philippine government launched a genocidal campaign against the Bangsamoro people in 1968. There were many Bangsamoro civilians massacred, so we were forced to defend ourselves. That led to the current struggle. And then things worsened in 1972, when President [Ferdinand] Marcos declared Martial Law and the number of atrocities against our people was very high. Therefore, we had to form an organization.

The first one we (as the MILF leadership) formed together was the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1972. This became the main organization for advancing the struggle of the Bangsamoro people for secession. Then in 1974, the Organization of Islamic Conference started to intervene, and one of the resolutions called on the Moro National Liberation Front and the Philippine government to sit down and negotiate. So in 1975, negotiations started between the government and the MNLF. MNLF had that time a unified structure consisting also Moro Islamic Liberation Front leadership. After the negotiations, which were spearheaded by Colonel [Muammar] Qaddafi of Libya, He succeeded in forging an agreement. We call it the 1976 Tripoli Peace Agreement.

Upon the intervention of the Organization of Islamic Conference, we gave up our objective of having a separate country. We acceded to have (autonomy). As long as we had a genuine autonomy, our own self-government, which is an autonomous government still under the Philippine government, then we were willing to accept that. In 1976, the Tripoli Agreement provided for the establishment of a Bangsamoro autonomous government in the southern Philippines, which is inclusive to all Bangsamoro people.

The problem came with its implementation. Marcos did not faithfully implement the provisions of the agreement, so there was disagreement over the implementation. Then the government unilaterally implemented its own version of the agreement, so we did not accept it. There was a resumption of hostilities in 1977-78. After that, Marcos was deposed by the People’s Power Revolution in 1986. With the election of Corazon Aquino (as president), negotiations were revived, but they weren’t successful.

Afterward, President [Fidel] Ramos took over. Shortly after, there was also a split in the MNLF into two factions: one led by [Nur] Misuari and the other led by Ustadz Hashim Salamat due to internal differences in the administration of the MNLF. After that, at the time of Ramos, Misuari was able to sign an agreement with the Ramos administration in Jakarta. This was known as the final peace agreement for the implementation of the Tripoli Peace Agreement. But we did not accept the agreement because we felt it would not really solve the problem.

Is this linked with the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)?

Yes, that (agreement) created the ARMM.

We did not join and instead adopted a wait-and-see stance.

But after implementation (of the agreement) failed during Ramos, he invited us for another round of negotiations. The faction of MNLF under Salamat, which is now MILF, was invited for negotiations in 1997. We started negotiating with the Ramos administration in 1997 under the name of MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Then Ramos’ term expired.

We continued the negotiations with President Joseph Estrada. Amid the talks, Estrada launched an all-out war against MILF. The negotiations were stopped. Again, Estrada, that was in year the 2000, Estrada also was removed from power.

He was succeeded by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. When she assumed office as president, she invited us for negotiations, and we agreed to negotiate with her administration provided it was through a third-party facilitator. That is where Malaysia was invited to serve as a third-party facilitator in the negotiations between MILF and the Philippine government. We started our negotiations in 2001. We were able to sign a framework agreement we called the Tripoli Agreement for Peace in 2001, which was signed in Tripoli, Libya. So we continued to negotiate the details of that agreement in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There were several issues. It was a challenging process. They were up-and-down negotiations which sometimes went good and sometimes not. Then we reached another agreement. We almost signed that agreement, which we called the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).

This agreement was supposed to be signed, but some Christian leaders in Manila filed a petition to the Philippine Supreme Court. Before the signing of the MOA-AD, the Supreme Court issued a restraining order, meaning to stop the signing (of agreement). So the document wasn’t signed, and there was another outbreak of hostilities and fighting.

Later on, President Arroyo convinced us to return to the negotiations. The Supreme Court also issued a ruling that the MOA-AD would be acceptable if it was reframed. So we continued negotiations with reframing the MOA-AD. Then, in order for the process to move forward, we had a personal meeting with President [Benigno] Aquino.

Do you mean President Arroyo?

Aquino, because it (presidency) was already transferred to him — to the son of Corazon Aquino. We met him in Tokyo, Japan, and from there we agreed to continue to fast-track the process — that was in 2008, meeting in Tokyo. We continued the negotiations, but only in 2014 did we sign the final agreement. We called it the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. The agreement was translated into law. We called it the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). We tried to pass it in the Congress and Senate during the time of Aquino. Unfortunately, it did not pass. So many prejudices and biases surfaced against the Moro people, so it didn’t succeed.

Then, there was the (Mamapasano) incident where there was an encounter between our troops and government special forces where 44 of them were killed.

The Philippine forces did not abide by the engagement rules?

Yes, because, they conducted an operation without coordination, which was provided in the ceasefire agreement. So, that was the reason why there was a misencounter. Forty-four special forces of the Philippine government were killed in that battle.

Were there any foreign casualties?

On our side, we also had casualties. We had seven martyrs as well and some wounded.

Were there any U.S. soldiers involved?

Yes, we noticed that, because allegedly, the target of the operation was a known Malaysian terrorist leader hiding in the area.

What was his name?

(Bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as) Marwan, a Malaysian terrorist leader.

He was spotted by the military hiding in nearby areas. There was the encounter because they didn’t coordinate before entering (our areas). Many soldiers died, and that also affected passage of the BBL. It didn’t pass in Congress and all the biases came up.

The term of President Aquino expired without passing the BBL.

Now, after Aquino, there was the election, and fortunately President (Rodrigo Duterte) that won is from Mindanao, from the Bangsamoro area. President Duterte even claims to have Moro blood from his mother’s side. He understands well the problems of the Bangsamoro. Immediately when he took office, one of his projects was the Bangsamoro Basic Law. So he formed a group from MILF and other sectors to craft another law similar to the BBL minus all those (articles) that were considered unconstitutional (by critics). After a series of engagements with the Office of the President and the Senate Representative Office, finally, after so many engagements, the law was passed in Congress in July (2018).

The BBL had now become the BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law).

What is the difference between the BBL and the BOL?

As far as the name is concerned, a very minor difference. But there are provisions of the BBL which were not carried in the BOL. Around 15 percent of the provisions of the BBL were excluded in the BOL. But from what we see, all the substantive issues are already included. The only one remaining is the police issue. That we have to discuss further.

The Bangsamoro Organic Law was passed, even though it was not the complete provision of the agreement because there were still some issues that were not included. But substantive issues were already included, so we accepted the law.

Now the next process will be holding a plebiscite or referendum to ask the people whether they will accept the law. For all those already under the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) area, the autonomous government established by (former President) Ramos, the question is only whether they will accept the law. There are additional areas to be added, and there will be among those that will be having a plebiscite, and the question is whether they want to be included in the Bangsamoro government. If the plebiscite which will be held, Insha’Allah, on Jan. 21, 2019 will finally succeed and a ‘yes’ vote prevails over the ‘no’ vote, then the Bangsamoro government will be immediately established through the appointment of the president (of the Philippines).

The first government that will be established is a transitional government. We call it the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA). This government will be led by MILF. The majority of them will be coming from MILF, and the rest will be selected by the president (of the Philippines) from other sectors. So the Transitional Authority will be up until 2022. Then there will be an election of the members of parliament of the government, and whoever gains the majority will be forming the government. As MILF, we have already established our own political party. We call it the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP). It will start to contest elections in January 2022.

Will there be any other party than the UBJP?

Yes, (there will be) multiparty (elections).

Now, we are focused on how the plebiscite succeeds. We see that the people are very overwhelmed in accepting the BOL, although there are still some, mostly politicians, Bangsamoro politicians, who feel that if the BOL is passed, there positions will be threatened and they might be replaced. That’s why they are not supporting the BOL. Other than this, people are very supportive.

What are the chances of passing the plebiscite?

Our feeling is that chances are 80 percent.

Is there any public poll on the plebiscite?

On Dec. 7, we will officially start campaigning for the plebiscite, which will be held on Jan. 21.

We hope for the entire ARMM area. We are quite confident that all of it will be included. One of the challenges we face is that we are trying to include six municipalities from Lanao Del Norte because these are majority Muslim and very supportive of the peace process.

The other area is Isabela. It is not included in the present ARMM. It is near Basilan on Zamboanga. The population is 50-50 Muslim and Christian. So the chances are still very challenging because the chances of being included (in ARMM) are still around 50-50. Also, there is the issue of Cotabato City. Despite ARMM main office in Cotabato, it is not part of ARRM. So, we need to include it in the plebiscite. In Cotabato City, the situation is only about the political leaders, especially the president of the local government, who is opposing the plebiscite. The entire population is very acceptable towards it. Another area is the different villages included in the municipalities of North Cotabato, which wants to be part of Bangsamoro. So, they will be included in the plebiscite. Now the main issue for us is we need to work very hard in order to win the plebiscite, especially in these areas to be added.

What is the position of other groups like MNLF and its factions?

The MNLF is divided into several groups. All the groups, except for the group remaining with Nur Misuari, are supportive. But they [referring to Misuari’s group] are not supportive. But they didn’t issue any statements against the BOL, so we are hoping that even though they will not participate, we hope they will not become an obstacle to the plebiscite.

Do you hope the plebiscite will pass with a big majority, as you said 80 percent?

Yes, (it will pass) by about that (percentage).

What happens if the plebiscite’s outcome is ‘no’?

What will happen in case of ‘no’ is that the ARRM will continue to exist. There will be an election in 2019 for the ARRM.

And then, what will happen to BOL? BOL will be renegotiated.

What is the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision of denial? We will reform, revise and maybe it could be agreed that there will be another plebiscite.

After long negotiations, you signed an autonomy agreement with the Philippine government. How do the Moro people benefit from this? What kind of future promises does this agreement hold?

Well, there are several advantages that we see. First of all, under the law, it recognizes the Bangsamoro people as one people, separate from the Filipino people. So our identity as Bangsamoro is already officially recognized. The second advantage is that under this Bangsamoro government, we will be enjoying a fiscal autonomy, meaning that we will have our definite source from which we could get money from the government. One is the block grant as provided in BOL. It will be five percent of the total internal revenue collection of the Philippine government. For now, the competition is around 65 to 67 billion pesos this year.

Another benefit is that we are already authorized to set up aside from the civil courts. We will be establishing a Sharia court. Every district will have a Sharia court, and there will be a higher Sharia court.

Do you have the manpower for establishing and running the courts?

For now, we have the manpower, but we need to reorganize so we can acquire more qualified people. Because among the qualifications set by the government is that in order for the Sharia court to become part of the (Philippine) court, the lawyers must have a license, meaning they have to pass a bar examination. So they have to complete a course of four years on Sharia. For now, we are asking for the requirement to be postponed for five years in order to allow those who are qualified to work to be able to complete their qualifications. Because there are some Sharia graduates, but they are not lawyers and didn’t pass the bar examination. We need for them to pass the bar examination. For those Bangsamoro who are already lawyers, they need to study Sharia law for four years.

The fourth advantage is that the government is more Islamic in its nature due to the ministerial form, unlike the Philippine government, as it is a government of a unitary system controlled by executives. (Ours is) in a ministerial form. The executives come from the members of the parliament. Therefore, it is more in line with the teachings of Islam.

Another source we have also is natural resources. There are more than 20 types of natural resources found in the Bangsamoro area. In the exploitation of natural resources, the average percentage of splitting is like 75 percent for the Bangsamoro government and 25 percent for the central government.

So all these are advantages for the people of Bangsamoro in the area.

Does the Philippine government comply with its commitments to implement the agreement? How long do we expect this process to take?

That is the problem we have been facing with past administrations — since Marcos and seven other presidents. It is in the implementation process. But now we will make sure that this agreement will be implemented. That’s why we mobilized so many international organizations and agencies and the UN to be part of the process in order to ensure that whatever is agreed upon will be implemented by the government. We have a third-party monitoring team. One of its members and now acting chairman is nominated by the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation based in Turkey). There are other structures we need to build in order to continue our functioning with the government.

Are there any international guarantors for the agreement?

When the agreement we were supposed to sign was not signed, we resumed negotiations on the condition that there would be an international source of guarantee. We have organized the international contact group. It is composed of four state and four non-state actors. The plebiscite will be conducted. When the plebiscite is passed, both will be there, and the BTA (Bangsamoro Transitional Authority) will be established immediately.

What are the challenges facing the implementation of the agreement? Are there strong voices that object to the agreement on both sides?

The first challenge we are facing now in the plebiscite is that there will be a campaign period, and during this period, the government did not allocate funds for us for the MILF to compete. We need funds and contributions from sympathetic groups in order to be able to conduct the campaign during the plebiscite. There are also some politicians, also Moro politicians, who feel that once the BOL is passed, their positions will be threatened and they will lose their benefits. These politicians are all personally motivated, so they are attempting to oppose it. One of them already went to the Supreme Court and filed a petition against the BOL. However, we feel confident that the Supreme Court will not declare it unconstitutional because it was reviewed several times by legal luminaries. They are aware that all these are still constitutional.

What do you think about President Duterte and do you think it is possible for his successor to refuse the agreement, as was the case in the past?

Duterte is the only president who seems to really push very hard for the implementation of the agreement. That’s because he is from Mindanao. He understands the root of the problem and he is very sympathetic with the implementation. Hence, we are holding on to him. Now what matters is that the law will already be ratified. Because once it is ratified, the next president cannot change it anymore. That is why we are trying our best within the term set for Jan. 21, 2019, the plebiscite, the law will be ratified so that it will no longer be changed by even a new politician, no administration.

At what level is your relationship and communication with Turkey? What can be done to further develop relations?

Turkey is a member of the international contact group [which also includes the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Japan] that we have set up under the peace process. Their role is to ensure that both parties will implement the agreement. There are also some other structures like a third-party monitoring team. The third-party monitoring team is also composed of people from the MILF, the Philippine government and international NGOs. In this case, we also nominated IHH as a member of this international contact group. They are functioning well, and we are also hoping that these countries will continue to help us in the development program during the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority. Because we need the help of the international community to immediately help for the development programs in the area.

Any special expectation from Turkey?

We know that the government of Turkey, through different agencies like TIKA, Diyanet and others, are already giving their support. Also, the people of Turkey, many people, especially those with good sources, have been supportive of the Bangsamoro people. We hope that this support will be sustained and will also be increased because we need more at this time when the government is already set up.

In this connection, do you need also support for expertise?

Yes. The first challenge we will be facing is transforming our organization from a revolutionary organization to a government. In this connection, we’ll need our people to be capacitated. We also feel that it is very important that the government of Turkey and the international civil societies help us in order to capacitate our people.

What are the needs of the Moro people and their expectations from the International community?

Actually, the situation in the Bangsamoro area is very grave. Compared to the other regions, the Bangsamoro area is the poorest and least developed region with the most uneducated people. These are all among our priorities. We want our supporters, both inside and outside, to focus on these programs we are trying to undertake. Our top priority is education. We need to have educational institutions like universities. We also need immediately grants of scholarship for our students studying abroad, especially in Turkey. Now we have already got 200 students studying in Turkey. We need the support of our brothers and sisters in Turkey on these aspects.

As for the final question, what is your message to the Turkish people?

First, we’d like to extend our appreciation for the support you have been extending us through international NGO’s, the government. As far as the IHH is concerned, they have implemented several programs, especially orphanages and the distribution of Qurban for our area, one of those that has helped very much during our past. We call upon our brothers and sisters in Turkey to continue helping us. We very much appreciate the help you have extended and we look forward to more because we need more now, more than what we need during this time. When we start to govern, then we need more help in order to effectively govern our area. Thank you very much.
-Anadolu

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