This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 print edition, which can be found here.
The Bangsamoro region of the Southern Philippines has seen a great deal of turmoil over the past few decades as Muslims fight for greater autonomy and independence. The Southern Philippines has seen houses burn and cities terrorized in a decades-long struggle for independence. More recently military might has resurged in a high profile way. On September 9th, armed Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) insurgents took to the streets of the Philippines town of Zamboanga. Largely eclipsed by the international news media’s coverage of the Syrian Civil War, the conflict that ensued over the following weeks claimed the lives of 100 and displaced an estimated 112,000 people. More recently the conflict has tapered off as government forces have been able to rescue hostages and disarm MNLF rebels. The Philippines Department of Justice is already preparing legal charges against Nur Misuari, the leader of the MNLF. Despite a relatively quick resolution, the question as to why Misuari decided to mobilize violence still remains. Although some observers might attribute the use of violence in this case to the recent economic downturn or religious ideology, the particulars of this incident indicate elite interests, Misuari’s political interests specifically, has caused the MNLF to engage in acts of terror over civilian populations.
Over the past few decades, the Philippines government saw the MNLF and Misuari as the most important force in negotiations with Muslim separatists. Although separatist sentiments were widespread, the organization of these sentiments into a unified social movement was elusive. What set the MNLF apart was Nur Misuari’s ability to marshal violence to gain the attention and respect of the Marcos regime. Funding from international actors, like Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, allowed the MNLF to establish a paramilitary strong enough to counter the state through a decade of martial law. Those who study the area have argued that it was ability of the MNLF to respond to the imposition of martial law that gave it legitimacy. The high cost nature of conflict with the MNLF made the Philippines government open to talks for increased autonomy and incorporation of the MNLF into government.
However, discussions through the late 70s and early 80s yielded mixed success; even though autonomy was not realized and the MNLF ultimately was unhappy with the outcome, there were prolonged periods of peace and stability. An agreement between Misuari and the Ramos government in 1996 gave observers a great deal of hope. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was given a greater degree of independence, and Nur Misuari was appointed governor of the region. Furthermore, the MNLF paramilitary was incorporated into the Philippines Armed Forces as a regional branch in an attempt to prevent future violence from being employed. But despite a great deal of idealism and excitement, Misuari failed to bring an end to violence by other Muslim separatist groups vying for power, and quickly lost favor after the Ramos government’s tenure ended. Misuari was removed from office in 2001 and has been embroiled in a protracted legal war with the Philippines government. Misuari’s tarnished reputation, coupled with a drying up of international funds has relegated the MNLF further and further into irrelevance from the popular political discourse.
The MNLF’s downfall as a legitimate political actor reached an all-time low recently with a tentative agreement struck between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a group that formed as an offshoot of the MNLF. If Misuari was truly primarily concerned with autonomy, he should be pleased with the agreement. But for elites like Misuari, politics is often a game of maximizing privilege and power. Misuari enjoyed the power that he had, obtained by terror and violence. Of course ethnoreligious and economic rhetoric are important tools for Misuari to use to mobilize mass discontent, but Misuari isn’t quite as interested in the ideals he espouses as he is in political power.
Research by Martha Crenshaw, a pioneer in terrorism studies, suggests this is typical of a variety of terrorist groups. Crenshaw argues that, “More often [terrorism] represents the disaffection of a fragment of the elite, who may take it upon themselves to act on behalf of the majority unaware of its plight.” Perhaps then, this case is not atypical. The use of violence for political purposes is not a product of irrational religious motivations, or even disaffection by have-nots with the political economic system, but rather a mass mobilization for elite interests.
Prior to this September there was a strong case for any of these causes, but the unwillingness of Misuari to relent while on the precipice of an agreement that would achieve the ideals he espouses indicates that he is merely a self-interested elite using popular concerns to legitimize his use of violence and claim to power.