Were one to look at a regional map, one would notice the proximity of Muslim Mindanao to Malaysia, Malaysia’s annexed province of Sabah, Indonesia, Brunei, and so on – all of them places where extremism is present, and all of these areas under the sovereignty of governments with big headaches on their hands. Bonds of religion and ideology, if not actual ties of friendship or ethnicity, tie the extremists together. The problem, therefore, of what the Philippine government has done with Nur Misuari must be viewed in the context of the Philippines and its sovereignty, and that of security and relations among Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front, was brought back from impotent exile by President Cory Aquino and given every chance to give his people, with the support of the national government, autonomy and a bigger share of the pie than was ever devoted to Muslim Mindanao. In return he was expected to live up to his, by all accounts, impressive rhetoric and political charm. Short of independence – the dropping of the desire to establish a Bangsa Moro independent state being the quid pro quo for all these goodies, naturally — he had everything going for him.
The only problem was that, in a nutshell, the Nur Misuari turned out a parvenu Sultan presiding over semi-royal court that squandered money, gloried in rank and the pretensions of power, and gave very little, if anything at all, to its constituency. The proof of this is that even among his constituents, Muslim Filipinos voted against the concept of an autonomous region, preferring, with very few exceptions, the provincial status quo. So Misuari found himself a discredited politician with a dwindling following, hounded by allegations of imprudent spending of funds earmarked for the development of impoverished Muslim Filipino areas, until at last, as it must with all politicians who fail to produce results, both his constituents and his government decided he had outlived his usefulness.
Misuari and his dwindling band of followers then mounted an open rebellion, resulting in many deaths, and the scrapping of all the agreements dating back to the Tripoli agreement brokered by Libya.
In a nutshell, what happened was his revolt in 2001 proved a failure and he fled. His opponents sent intelligence to their allies regarding his location in an attempt to liquidate him. Malaysia, wanting neither his assassination by extremists in Sabah nor his lionization by extremists in his alliance, picked him up off a boat off the coast and shipped him secretly to Kuala Lumpur to be detained.
Then Malaysia attended to the problem of what to do with a discredited ex-rebel turned ex-politician. Meanwhile, the Philippines was busy trying to find out where Misuari had ended up, then playing for time while it figured out what to do with Misuari after Malaysia said it had him in custody and wanted him out of Kuala Lumpur as soon as possible. The Malaysians had obviously looked at their options and decided on a strategy: To isolate Misuari from like-minded radicals, while doing the Philippine a favor to be returned on a rainy day. Manila, on the other hand, exasperated Kuala Lumpur by agonizing over what to do, and thereby upsetting the neat calculations of Malaysia. Finally, Manila got its act together and asked for Misuari’s deportation, which the Malaysians gladly did.
The Philippine government then threw the book at Misuari. He was charged with rebellion, and in typically Philippine fashion, his trial has creaked along, as he remains detained. Recently, the Manila media have been suggesting that Misuari would be released as part of a peace deal with the remnants of Misuari’s rebel group. In the case of Misuari, is he more accountable for rebellion against the Philippine state, or must he be made to account for the fact that he could have done much for Muslim Mindanao but did not? Or, in the name of peace, should be released, perhaps to go into exile?
To let Misuari go into exile would mean giving him yet another lease on life as a symbol for extremists throughout the region. Even as extremist parties make inroads in previously moderate and fairly secular Muslim nations, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, there remains a network of like-minded, rebellion-oriented ideologues who could be used by, or decide to use, Misuari. At the very least, one country letting a rebel go would gladden the hearts of extremists even as it undercut the positions of the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and even Brunei, which have helped the Philippines in trying to resolve the problem of Muslim secessionism in the past.
Manila’s dragging its heels while Kuala Lumpur was saddled with detaining and feeding Misuari has added insult to injury. After all, Malaysia could have easily solved the situation by sinking Misuari’s boat and pretending nothing happened.
But the Malaysian government chose not to blast Misuari’s boat out of the water because it knows, as the Philippine government must realize, that Misuari is far more useful behind bars as a discredited hack than decaying in the waves as a dead martyr. The only real problem the government has is making sure its cases are pursued with dispatch and Misuari convicted. It should be easy to convict him. And there are precedents aplenty to ensure the man does not have media access detrimental to the image of the administration or the country.
One wonders if a man brought back from political limbo by Cory Aquino, who was coddled by Fidel Ramos – even pretending he was important under Joseph Estrada – only to be rejected by his own Muslim constituents deserves anything at all.
Though perhaps justice would mean letting him loose among his co-religionists, since it is primarily Misuari’s constituents that suffered at the hands of his followers. Perhaps they would know best what to do with him, while the Philippine government could always do with an excuse to trumpet a peace deal with his followers.