The aging chairman and founder of the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari, probably never thought he’d set foot in Malacañan Palace. Not after six years of being ignored and marginalized by the government in Manila, which even blamed him for razing Zamboanga City three years ago, never mind if government bombs and soldiers did nearly all of the damage.
But there Misuari was, being received by no less than the president himself, who called him “brother” and a partner for peace in troubled Mindanao. And Misuari wasn’t even the first rebel leader to visit the presidential palace—his host had earlier welcomed to the palace nearly all the leaders of the local Communist movement, who like Misuari were vilified and excluded from the peace processes initiated by the thoroughly divisive Aquino administration.
What, exactly, is going on here? Why is the president that some, both here and abroad, have derided as a foul-mouthed, bloodthirsty warmonger, bringing Muslim and the Communist rebels back into the fold, breaking bread with them and honoring them like long-lost brethren?
Wasn’t Noynoy Aquino a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize, as his propagandists once so loudly proclaimed, despite his divide-and-conquer policy regarding the various rebel groups? And what business does Rodrigo Duterte have showing up Aquino as far as making peace is concerned, when he can’t even be “decent” like his predecessor?
It was only a few years, ago, after all, when the Yellow partisans were gushing about how Aquino was on the verge of convincing the Moro rebels of Mindanao to lay down their arms in exchange for huge chunks of land. Like Aquino himself, the Yellows chose to ignore the inconvenient fact that the government in Manila at the time had basically decided that only one group of rebels was worth talking to and that this was enough to make Aquino go down in history as a man of peace.
Misuari and his rebel force were the original Moro rebels, even if they were later eclipsed in size and importance by the breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front. They had both the Tripoli Agreement and the Jakarta Accords to back up their legitimacy; even Cory Aquino visited Misuari in Jolo when she sought to make peace with his group.
Of course, the Mamasapano massacre of 2015 showed just how different the situation was on the ground, compared to the flowery visions of lasting peace in Mindanao proclaimed by Aquino’s peace negotiators and their counterparts in the MILF. And two years earlier, in 2013, Zamboanga City was nearly obliterated from the map as a direct result of Aquino’s refusal to talk with Misuari’s MNLF.
That was when government aircraft bombed most of the city to flush out a small band of MNLF rebels. To this day, Zamboanga has not completely gotten back on its feet as a result of the government assault on the city considered Western Mindanao’s center of trade, culture and education.
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As for the other large rebel group, the New People’s Army, Aquino decided that they were not worth talking to, either. Like other presidents before him, Aquino was convinced early on that the Communists could never be brought to the negotiating table and merely continued the old policy of battling the NPA all over the country.
In the few months that Duterte has been president, he has gained the trust of the Communists, who are as a rule distrustful of any peace overtures made by the Manila government. The ceasefires declared unilaterally by the two sides has been holding up for the most part and two rounds of fruitful and encouraging negotiations have been completed in Norway after years of being stalled on the most minor of technicalities.
Meanwhile, it appears that the Moros of Central Mindanao who make up the MILF have decided to trust Duterte when he promised the passage of a Bangsamoro Basic Law that will not only satisfy the rebels but also the provisions of the 1987 Constitution. The only “dissident” organization that Duterte has left out is the Abu Sayyaf—and nobody can talk peace with this violent, money-mad gang of kidnappers, anyway.
I think that years from now, when all the partisan and foreign-funded bickering will have dissipated and given way to more objective historical evaluation, perhaps Filipinos will remember Duterte not as the bloodthirsty scourge of illegal drug syndicates and the potty-mouthed critic of meddling foreigners, as his critics portray him today, but as a true man of peace. And if Duterte succeeds in finally ending decades of armed strife with homegrown revolutionary movements like the MNLF, the MILF and the NPA during his term, he will have done more than any leader in the last 30 years to bring peace to our strife-torn land.
Personally, I’d rather have a president who talks tough and works to bring peace than a supposedly decent one who will think nothing of razing an entire city because he will not negotiate. Acting all decent and civilized is easy, after all, compared to the hard, long process of securing peace in the countryside.