Sometime in 1969 the first major armed rebellion led by Nur Misuari under the name National Moro Liberation Front (MNLF) erupted, and since then efforts to bring lasting peace in Mindanao has proven to be elusive. For almost half a century of conflict and desire to find lasting peace, all sides have failed to come-up with a solution that addresses the Mindanao problem.
When President Benigno Aquino came into power in 2010, one of his major agenda was to forge peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter group of the MNLF. MILF was formed in opposition to the MNLF’s decision to enter into a peace deal with the government and settle for autonomy instead of an independent state. The President unilaterally declared that the Autonomous Region as a result of the peace deal with the MNLF concluded by the signing of the Final Peace Agreement in 1996 has failed and that a new agreement is to be adopted-this time with the MILF. Such a declaration led to resumption of skirmishes by the MNLF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) a new splinter group from the MILF.
For almost half a century of conflict and struggle for peace, the government seems NOT to have grasped the basic reality in Mindanao’s diversity of tribes. According to the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP), Mindanao consists of at least 18 indigenous but non-Muslim/Christian tribes commonly referred to as the Lumads and 13 Moro tribes (Islamic Tribes). The reality concerning these tribes was that they were never united under one banner but rather constantly involved in tribal wars. Probably the only prominent leadership back then was the Sultanate of Sulu and the Sultanate of Maguindanao, both of which considerably declined to the point they ceased to exist at the dawn of a new era.
With this basic fact and reality, it is a false hope, as peddled by the current Administration that the adoption of the Bangsamoro Basic Law will finally end the half century of bloodshed in Mindanao. The government has made the same mistake committed by the former Administration when it negotiated with the MNLF. It negotiated an exclusive peace agreement. The realization of the ideals of the peace deal with the MNLF failed because it was a peace deal with a minority. MNLF headed by its founding chairman Nur Misuari, is a Tausug-Samal so that MNLF as an organization is dominantly Tausug. When internal strife emerged in the MNLF, the new factions formed further demonstrated the strong influence of tribal identity; Hasim Salamat, a Maguindanaoan, then formed the MILF and another group mainly Maranaos formed the MNLF-Reformist Group.
The reality is that MNLF before, and now the MILF are but only stanzas in the whole Mindanao poetry. They do not represent nor speak for the entire tribes of Mindanao. What is true to both groups is that they possess the firepower but not the mandate of all the tribal groups and other stakeholders in Mindanao. To empower only one or few tribes and charge them to head all the others is a problem in its self not a solution. Dissension from the other tribes will naturally emerge as witnessed in the past and as it is today.
Real Comprehensive Agreement
The government should understand that Mindanao is characterized by tribal diversity. The solution to the long-standing struggle in Mindanao is a true comprehensive agreement; an agreement that involves all the tribes and stakeholders. An agreement, founded on the basis of cultural and tribal identity not only on the ability to wage war.
It is true that the problem cannot be resolved purely by military action but rather political, however, negotiators are missing yet another important ingredient in the whole menu of peace seeking -tribal and cultural identity. The rise of armed struggle in Mindanao was a call to respect their unique identities so that any agreement, though political in character, must not deviate from the very reason of the uprising that is truly about tribal identity. The government should forge an agreement that takes into account the tribal and cultural diversity in the region.
The Aquino administration committed a fatal mistake when it isolated the MNLF, the Sultanate of Sulu and collectively the Lumad tribes in the current peace process. To negotiate only with the MILF, the product of which will inevitably affect the interest and rights of all the other tribal groups is not comprehensive but rather selective if not oppressive to the others.
The existence of numerous armed groups in Mindanao further exacerbates the problem. Lawlessness plague the land as armed groups further their own interest by violence. Terrorism, banditry, and all other criminal activities flourished in the region because of ease in obtaining firearms and impunity. The success of any peace agreement will rely also on the success of disarming all the groups including the MILF. When the last renegade gun finally comes to a deep slumber only then when the agreements adopted by all the stakeholders for the creation of a political entity unique for the people of Mindanao will sprout towards the light of a new morning, the dawn of a peaceful home for all the tribes in Mindanao.
The road to peace is a journey across treacherous waters. A journey, the success of which relies on the careful assessment and consideration of the diverse parties and complex problems. It maybe a slow process but most importantly it must be a careful journey. Pursuit of peace is not a sprint to the finish line as the current Administration wants it to be. It is not important if whose administration it was forged or who will get the credit. What is important is an assurance that after the long journey, at the end, the conflicting voices will cease to exist, and the different beats of drums for marchers of different paths will finally beat as one to which all will march towards a new Mindanao.