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The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is a nationalist political organization which has been waging an armed struggle against the Philippine state since its establishment in 1969.
It struggles for the independence of the Bangsamoro Land. As defined by the MNLF, the territory of Bangsamoro Land covers Sulu, Mindanao and Palawan, otherwise known as MINSUPALA, they are some of the poorest areas of the Philippines.
Unlike its Islamic offshoot, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)), MNLF is not a religious organization, and it styles its ideology as Egalitarianism. MNLF is racially and religiously inclusive and it calls for independence and social justice for the exploited and most discriminated sector of the Philippines population – a country where some 20.5%, or about 4.1 million families go hungry while 51%, or some 10.4 million families, consider themselves poor, according to a 2011 survey by the pollster, Social Weather Stations (SWS, April, 2011).
A member of the Central Committee of MNLF, Commander Haji Ibrahim “Bambi”, 67 years old, met with the author for an interview in January 2013, at an undisclosed location in Sabah, Malaysia.
AV (Andre Vltchek): Peace process, peace agreements, broken peace agreements and more processes… It appears a never-ending saga. You are facing the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), one of the most brutal and corrupt armies in the world; the army, which is determinedly supported by the former colonizers of the Philippines, the United States, Spain, and indeed Europe. Do you have any chance of winning the war and consequently independence for your people?
CB (Commander “Bambi”): It would not be easy. We would all have to unite: MNLF, MILF, and the Marxist groups. MILF would have to agree to join the constitutional process and agree to negotiate; something they are refusing to do. We all have to sit down and talk.
The United States, Europe, the entire West would then have to join our efforts to implement, and then support, a real peace agreement.
The peace process is in danger, because most of the terms agreed on during the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, and later the Jeddah Accord in 1987, were never implemented. The government is now busy dealing with MILF. On top of it, the peace process would have to go through the constitutional procedure, within the Government of the Philippines. It would have to go through the Senate and through the Congress. And the fact that there are more Christians than Muslims in both institutions, even in the Mindanao local Senate, would further complicate things.
Once I attended a meeting sponsored by one of the EU countries. There were also representatives of Colombia there, of Indonesia, as well as 3 people from the US; probably CIA. I told them “American brothers, you are not our enemies, are you? You were preaching to us about freedom for so many years and decades. But when you are here, you are not seeking peace, instead you are siding with the Philippines government against the will of the people.”
AV: What exactly is the United States trying to achieve by supporting the Philippine regime?
CB: The US goal is to control the entire Pacific. It wants to prevent China from playing any significant role in this part of the world.
The US is playing a very dangerous game by training the Philippine military, justifying it by the ‘search’ for Abu Sayyaf fighters. All this is against the Philippine Constitution – the US military is not allowed to operate on the territory of the Philippines. But conducting joined exercises – Balikatan – is supposed to give ‘legitimacy’ to illegal military acts.
AV: Is the US using propaganda to justify its presence in the Philippines?
CB: Yes, the propaganda is used all over the Philippines. The US is always portrayed as liberators, as good guys. Actually, it portrays itself as such. People are flooded with movies, books, and shows… Douglas MacArthur is presented as liberator, and people actually believe it, after all those years and decades of propaganda.
And then the story of liberating us from the Japanese! Of course old people in the Philippines were not used to the character of the Japanese, when they occupied the country—like bowing. There were cultural misunderstandings, and even crimes committed by the Japanese. But the Japanese invaders never perpetrated any mass slaughter of the Philippine civilians, while the US did. What is guarded as a secret, is that the US was much more brutal than Japan in this part of the world – and that brutality was occurring even before the Japanese occupation. Just recall the Balangiga massacre.
AV: I heard, from Philippine academics, that the US is igniting the conflict between several regional players in Southeast Asia and China, over the Spratly Islands. It apparently found exceptionally willing collaborators in the latest Philippine administrations.
CB: Once again: the US wants to have full control over the Pacific. For that it needs countries like the Philippines – the client states.
We provoked the problem of the Spratly islands; our government dares to play this game because it knows that it has the US behind it.
It is worth mentioning that the Spratlys were historically part of the Sulu Sultanate. The islands are called, in the local language, “Manangkayan”, “a Giant Clam”. Sulu sultans were extremely close to China. There are graveyards of Chinese people, all over Sulu. Chinese emissaries were living right next to the Sultan’s palace. China was the closest ally of Sulu before the Spanish conquerors arrived. What followed, you know: things were turned upside down and the Spaniards massacred around 10 thousand Chinese people in one go, just because they did not want to abandon their culture, to change their names…
But in the Philippines, very little is know about the history of the region.
I always say: “Why provoke China? The government is spending so much money on modernizing warships. For what purpose? Is it to go to war with China on someone else’s behalf? Why not improve the Philippines, instead? There is so much misery here.
AV: Let’s talk about your movement now: you were one of the leaders of MNLF for so many years and decades… Did things change? Is the MNLF aiming at autonomy now?
CB: First we called for independence. Then Islamic countries pressed us. They told us: try autonomy first and go from there.
Ideally, we wanted independence for all Mindanao. We felt that this is an essential goal, as we were kept behind by Manila – absolutely behind. I personally would have settled in the past for Mindanao being first just one state inside the country – similar to the arrangement they have here in Malaysia. You give the capital 20% to 30% of the natural resources, etc. But after achieving such an arrangement, I would still be pushing for full independence.
AV: Would it be a Muslim or a secular state?
CB: It would be, and would have to be, a secular state. There are now more Christians in Mindanao, than Muslims. It would be a state for all of us: for Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, and for Chinese people. In our ranks, we have Christians, and many Chinese support us.
AV: What about the Marxists, Commander? Would you cooperate with the Marxist guerillas in Mindanao?
CB: Of course! Around 1976, I met and incorporated some of their fighters. More precisely – we joined forces. At that time I was in command of some 70 men, and their group in that particular area had only 7 or 8 people. We always see them as our allies. Those who are fighting against the Philippine government – that brutal and corrupt power – are our allies.
AV: When you say “brutal and corrupt power”, do you have in mind the Maguindanao Massacre, as an example?
CB: Exactly – that was one of the most terrible examples of how corrupt and brutal the power in the Philippines is. It was a terrible story of the Ampatuan clan trying to demonstrate to President Arroyo just what it could do in ‘its own’ province. And the message was: we can do anything! Because, although the West calls the Philippines a ‘democracy’, it is one of the countries where the rulers can do anything they feel like to their own people. In Maguindanao, the people who went against the Ampatuan clan got massacred; women including journalists, were raped before being murdered, all women shot in their genitals, and then decapitated… 57 people, including 34 journalists died. Once you go against the rulers, this is what happens to you in the Philippines.
AV: I once worked in Gingook and Cagayan de Oro, in Mindanao. I was invited by one of the mightiest ruling clans in the country, because I was a friend of one of the greatest Philippine musicians, who happens to belong to it. At a dinner party, members of the clan began discussing the upcoming elections: who they are going to pay; who they are going to bribe and how much money will be involved. They knew who I was: some even read my books before they invited me; they read my articles and reports. But they had no fear. They were totally certain that nothing could endanger their power and their plans. They were even naming names of their allies in the government, at the table, in front of me.
CB: You are right: they have absolutely no fear! They buy votes, openly. Everybody knows how much is paid and by whom. It is utter madness.
AV: How many people in Mindanao support you – MNLF?
CB: 99% of the Muslims. Now we are in the process of explaining to our Christian brothers that ours is not a Muslim cause, and that not all the Muslims are bad.
AV: How bad is anti-Muslim propaganda and discrimination in the Philippines?
CB: Bad, very bad. And it has been spread for centuries.
What they don’t say, is that before the Spaniards came to colonize us, all these were actually Muslim lands, even what is now Manila. Then they began destroying our culture, attacking our religion. They were forcing us to become Pablo or Pedro, instead of Ibrahim or Abdullah. In the past, Spanish people called us ‘pirates’. But who are really the pirates here? Aren’t pirates those who invade your country and then plunder it?
During Marcos, Christian militias called Ilaga, began chasing Muslim people away from their homes in Mindanao.
There were also large resettlement schemes and many land grabs of Muslim lands, designed to make Muslims a minority in their own areas.
AV: So what is it going to happen now, Commander – a war or negotiations?
CB: We have to join forces – all of us who are fighting for independence and justice. But we have already fought so much! We fought during Marcos; once I fought for 6 months, day and night, without any rest.
I am tired. I am tired of fighting. I am 67 years old. I know that this war could go on and on, for another 100 years.
I know the culture of the people in this part of the world. What frightens me is that one day some religious fanatics could influence our young boys. It can happen, you know, if there is no solution to the conflict. It would be an extremely dangerous scenario.
AV: The conflict is also economic and social, not just political, isn’t it? When I worked on Basilan Island, I once stumbled on a provincial hospital, one ‘renovated’ by US aid. The operating theater there was terrible, and when I entered the dental department, I was told that there were no drills, just instruments to extract the teeth.
CB: And I am sure they had any anesthesia, either – for those extractions.
It is a social issue. Our people are living in terrible conditions. In much worse, far worse conditions, than those people in Luzon and elsewhere in Philippines. By the way: I hate the name of the country. You know why it is called that? After King Philip II!
AV: How many people died in the war, so far?
CB: We don’t have exact numbers, but even a long time ago, we calculated that well over 100,000 civilians must have died. Often we had no time to bury our dead – they were sometimes eaten by dogs; it was terrible. So just in the 70’s – over 100,000 people died.
In 1976 – in Zamboanga Norte, I once counted human heads only- 68 heads in total – because the government forces had burned the bodies. All of the victims were highlanders – from the Kalibugan Tribe. Some skulls were big – those of adult men and women –but some were tiny; those of the babies. And this was just one massacre of so, so many!
Marcos introduced Martial Law during his administration. We lost more fighters during that period, but the government of Philippines had 3 times heavier losses than we did.
AV: What are you called by the US?
CB: In the past, they used to call us Maoists or Communists.
We are not on that terrorist list of theirs. But they consider us their main enemies.
Abu Sayyaf is on their terrorist list, of course. But the CIA created Abu Sayyaf during the government of Ramos, to undermine the MNLF. Both the US and Philippine governments needed more bombs to explode, more weapons to be used; in order to have their military budgets approved. It is also no secret that during the wave of kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf, 80-90% of the ransom money used to go directly to the military leaders.
And the US is ‘too far away’, and ‘it does not see’. Well, it simply doesn’t want to see, that’s all. If it wanted to see, it would see very clearly what is going on.
The government and the US say to the MNLF: “Oh, you can’t control your own people – Abu Sayyaf!” They say no peace can be reached if we can’t control Abu Sayyaf. It is undeniable that some Abu Sayyaf fighters are former members of MNLF – including Commander Nur.
But what they refuse to say and acknowledge, is that we hate Abu Sayyaf! We have nothing to do with them. All over Mindanao, people are distancing themselves from them, seeing them as clients of the US forces… Abu Sayyaf has such a bad image!
I would like to say that the MNLF even fought Abu Sayyaf. Once they kidnapped a female medic, from our ranks. We attacked their camp and freed the medic.
AV: As in so many similar situations, are Saudis involved?
CB: In the past, the Saudis made several attempts to participate, but not now, not at this time.
AV: This time we are meeting in Sabah State, in Malaysia. This state used to belong to the Philippines; or as you will correctly point out – to the Sulu Sultanate.
CB: For centuries, the Sultanates of Sulu and Sabah were one. At one point Sabah was pawned; given to the British. But for us – we don’t want Sabah to go to the Philippines, as Malaysia is a much better country. I once told the Sultan of Sulu: “If you will insist that Sabah should be included in the Philippines, we will fight you!”
During the brutal dictatorship of Marcos, Mindanao was the worst affected. Around one million migrated here, to Sabah, from Zamboanga, Sulu and Basilan.
AV: At 67, are you still actively involved in the struggle?
CB: Yes, I am still a Member of the Central Committee and Commander of the Special Forces of MNLF.
But I am now actively looking for peaceful solutions. The peace agreements we had are not solid. I want all the opposition to join, to unite, to negotiate.
AV: A secular state, you said. But what political and economic system are you envisioning for it?
CB: A mixed system. Definitely not a purely capitalist system – look at the Philippines – we don’t want that. I wish for open socialism.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Expathos. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.