“IF all political initiatives are exhausted, then we will take up arms again,” the diminutive man in the bush jacket says in a measured tone, softly but firmly.
His words sent a chill down my spine because Ghazali Jaafar, the vice chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), made his point in a heavily fortified compound, surrounded by his militia, all armed to the teeth.
The group of 12 international journalists, The Star included, have been invited by Ghazali to be given a briefing on MILF’s struggle and the peace process in Southern Philippines. The fortified compound is about 30 minutes away by car on narrow roads from Cotabato City, the capital of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Ghazali and his group are currently in advanced negotiations with the Philippines government to once and for all bring peace to this poverty and war-stricken region. The key to this process is the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), a Bill currently being debated in congress that if passed, will create a new autonomous political entity that will replace the ARMM, basically giving the Moro the right to govern their own lands.
While President Rodrigo Duterte has pledged his support for the BBL, there is a possibility that Congress will not support the Bill: hence, Ghazali’s insistence that the MILF will be forced to take up arms again.
Our group has been welcomed with warmth and kindness, but there is no mistaking the tension in the air. To get to the compound we had to pass a number of checkpoints, manned by soldiers carrying M16s. Along the way, there were signboards identifying the Philippines’ most wanted terrorists, mostly from the Maute Group currently doing battle with the Philippines armed forces in Marawi City, about four hours to the north of Cotabato.
“We are totally against the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group and in fact we are helping the armed forces by creating a ‘peace corridor’ to help people escape from the war zone. We have also mobilised our troops to provide clothes and supplies to victims of the war,” Ghazali told us.
The war in Marawi has now breached the four-month mark, despite President Duterte’s assurances that it would end in September. More than 800 people have been killed in the fighting, which has also left much of the urban centre in ruins, with buildings either burned to the ground or damaged in fire fights. It has also spawned a humanitarian crisis, with more than 400,000 people displaced from Marawi and nearby towns.
But Marawi is just the latest flashpoint in Mindanao, an area that has seen armed conflict intermittently for the last 400 years. Islam had already taken root then, with a governance structure in the form of sultanates, and this was the only region that thwarted attempts by the Spanish colonial forces to subjugate them in the 16th century.
The Spanish-American War in 1898 did little to improve the situation in Mindanao. The Americans passed a series of land laws that favoured settlers and private corporations at the expense of the Moros.
After the Philippines gained independence, a series of land resettlement programmes further accelerated the dispossession. The declaration of martial law in 1972 by President Ferdinand Marcos transformed the conflict from a simmering rebellion into a full-blown war.
Ghazali himself, and MILF chairman Hashim Selamat, were part of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that took up arms at that time, but dissatisfied with the direction of the MNLF under Nur Misuari, Hashim and Ghazali broke away in 1977 to form the MILF.
Since then, they have been involved in intermittent conflict with the armed forces, probably peaking in 2000, when then-President Joseph Estrada declared all-out war against the MILF, which resulted in the displacement of more than a million people.
Since 2010, the MILF has observed a ceasefire, but dissatisfaction with the slow process towards full autonomy has led to other rebel groups emerging – notably, the aforementioned Maute Group, the al-Qaeda-inspired Abu Sayyaf Group, an MILF-offshoot the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.
But Ghazali is convinced that the other rebel groups will lay down their arms once the Bangsamoro Basic Law is passed in congress.
“We are already in negotiations with the leadership of these groups. Once the Bill is passed, our plan is to disband all groups and merge with the MILF to form a United Bangsamoro Justice Party that will provide political leadership for Mindanao,” he told us.
Ghazali’s confidence, though, appears to be misplaced. The Islamic State influence has grown considerably in Southern Philippines since 2014 and in fact, the Government has identified 20 other terrorist cells inspired by Islamic State that are now operating there.
Solicitor-General Jose Calida was quoted by the Philippines Inquirer as saying these terror cells have already launched attacks in Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga and Davao, and their main objective is to remove the whole of Mindanao from its allegiance to the Philippine Government.
“This alone is proof enough that the goal of these lawless elements is not merely to sow fear and panic to the populace but to actually establish a stronghold in the Mindanao region,” Calida said, justifying the imposition of martial law in the whole of Mindanao until the end of the year.
This writer believes that the end of armed conflict in Southern Philippines does not completely hinge on the passing of the BBL. It will take years before IS-inspired terror cells are rooted out and lasting peace is finally achieved.