By Arjay L. Balinbin
NEGOTIATIONS on federalism between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari may revive discussions on the Philippines’ claim over Sabah, analysts sought for comment said.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte last week said Mr. Misuari warned that he “will go to war” if the government fails to pursue federalism.
The President’s spokesman, Salvador S. Panelo, said the two leaders agreed to form a panel, which according to Mr. Duterte, would discuss how the MNLF leader wants the system to be applied, “whether it is similar to the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) or a different type.”
Asked if Mr. Misuari talked about “owning territories,” the President told reporters: “We’ll just have to craft something there that would be allowed by the Constitution.”
In contrast to the MNLF’s breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Mr. Misuari has stuck to the Sabah claim as formerly pursued by the Philippine government.
The MILF now dominates the transition body of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) that was established following the ratification of the BOL last January.
Analysts were asked whether Mr. Misuari’s push for federalism will revive discussions on the Philippines’ claim over Sabah, or North Borneo.
Lawyer and Ateneo Policy Center senior research fellow Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said via e-mail on Sunday: “I know for a fact that the Malaysian government takes note every time a politician openly declares that Sabah is part of the Philippines. But as to whether the Malaysians will go beyond just merely noting down, that depends on who the politician is making the declaration. Right now, I doubt if the Malaysian government will be overly concerned with Nur Misuari’s re-emergence in the federalism discourse, which may include claims over Sabah.” He also noted that Malaysia and “other nations in our region” are “fully” supportive of the BARMM.
“Their willingness to invest in the autonomous region means they see the success of the BARMM as the priority. Rumblings from [Mr.] Misuari and his group, while (these) should not be simply shrugged off, are not the main concern for the moment,” Mr. Yusingco said.
Also sought for comment, political history assistant professor Marlon B. Lopez of the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography said via chat that possible negotiations between Mr. Duterte’s government and the MNLF on federalism “may revive the Sabah claim; however, it might be toned down due to our close cooperation with Malaysia as our foreign policy is being friendly to all nations, especially to our ASEAN neighbors. Claiming Sabah again is a blow to this policy.”
For his part, University of Santo Tomas (UST) political science professor Marlon M. Villarin said: “Yang (The) Sabah noise can be the last resort by Mr. Misuari but, for sure, the Malaysian government will not make the MNLF unhappy with their lack of support considering that Mr. Misuari is the only Muslim leader recognized by the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation). So, his personality is both politically and diplomatically important to our country, and that is why President Duterte is making him feel included within his administration.”
Mr. Lopez added that “this might be viewed as unfriendly to this historical claim but President Duterte is very charismatic and close to the traditional elites of the Bangsamoro that he might be able to do this very tricky political labyrinth.”
Mr. Yusingco said Mr. Misuari’s “vision of a federal Philippines is still unclear.”
“I think he is more concerned about what the Sulu sub-state should look like. This would be most likely be made up of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, at the very least. It may include the entire Zamboanga Peninsula and Palawan, if his nostalgic imagination of the Sultanate of Sulu will prevail.”
But the reality, he also said, is that “what a Moro sub-state would look like in a federal Philippines is still unsettled.”
“It could be the current BARMM. Or it could also be divided between the mainland provinces (Maguindanao and Lanao) and the island provinces (BaSulTa). The configuration of a Moro sub-state is still to be subjected to a serious discussion because, right now, the administration is not facilitating any public discourse on the planned shift to a federal system. Currently, the discussion about this move is limited to local government officials and national agencies.”
When the Task Force on Federalism opens the discussion to the public, “then how the BARMM fits into a federal system will surely be a priority issue. But right now, there is still no clear and singular vision of a Moro sub-state, be it the MILF, MNLF or any group’s imagination of what it should be,” Mr. Yusingco explained.
Sabah, which is said to be part of the Sultanate of Sulu, was leased to the British North Borneo in the 18th century under the North Borneo Chartered Company.
In 2012, MILF chief Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim and the government under president Benigno S. C. Aquino III inked the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro that would pave the way for the establishment of the new autonomous political entity, the Bangsamoro, to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Mr. Misuari criticized the said agreement. In his interview with the dzMM, as reported by the ABS-CBN News on Oct. 15, 2012, he said the framework agreement, which was silent on Sabah, was arranged by Kuala Lumpur with the Philippine government and the MILF to prevent the implementation of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement that would supposedly cover Sabah and Sarawak of Malaysia.
“Alam ko iyan (I know that) because they are expecting their colonization of our homeland Sabah and Sarawak. Iyan ay lupain ng aking (those are owned by my) great, great grandfather. [They brokered the peace deal] para we cannot have the luxury of time to look into our problem in Sabah and Sarawak. Iyan ang (These are) tactics ng (of) Malaysia. They are very smart,” the MNLF chairman was quoted as saying.
In his interview with Aljazeera in 2013, Mr. Misuari accused the MILF of being an “instrument” of Malaysia’s “interference” in Mindanao.
In 1967, the government under president Ferdinand E. Marcos ordered a military training for Muslim army recruits called the “Jabidah” fighters whose mission was “to start trouble in Malaysia, in the guise of soldiers of the Sultan of Sulu,” according to a graphic “Timeline of the Jabidah Massacre” posted on the government’s Official Gazette.
The Timeline also said that the soldiers’ task was “to invade Sabah, which the Philippines claimed as part of its territory.”
March 18, 1968, in Corrigidor, as said in the Timeline, “The training officers of the Jabidah Unit opened fire at the remaining recruits before dawn in response to the unit’s previous attempt to air grievances. This is the date of what has come to be known as the Jabidah Massacre.”
In opposition to the Marcos government, the MNLF, which also called for an independent state, was established.
For his part, Mr. Misuari’s spokesperson, lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla, played down the MNLF leader’s threat of war.
“Hindi yun pananakot (It was not a threat), it’s just a sign of frustration from the part of MNLF,” Mr. Fontanilla said in a phone interview.
“Pero in real politics, hindi naman basta basta mag-declare ng war kasi mayroon OIC, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (we cannot just simply declare war because of the OIC, and we have an agreement. In other words, ‘yung sinabi ni Chairman Misuari (what Chairman Misuari said) is simply making the situation serious.”
Mr. Fontanilla said the government should understand where Mr. Misuari is coming from.
“Let’s go to his historical perspective….MNLF fought for independence and later on there were promises, the autonomous government, we came up with the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. Tapos si Cory Aquino nag-promise din ng federal government. In other words, almost a span of 50 years, nag-antay ang MNLF (The MNLF waited for almost a span of 50 years),” he said.
Mr. Fontanilla said the MNLF is looking forward to a discussion with the government: “On the part of President Duterte, he already declared that he will convene negotiations with the new panels between the government and MNLF. Maganda po yan, kami po ay naniniwala, at sabi rin po ni Chairman Misuari (That’s good, we believe and Chairman Misuari said) that we have to really solve a problem through negotiation.”
Sought for comment, Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana said Mr. Misuari should adapt to the newly-established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao: “If he wants to be relevant in this new setup he should work within the BARMM to make it successful. He has the stature and influence that could make a big difference to the BARMM.” — with Vince Angelo C. Ferreras