Philippines: Interview with Moro liberation movement leader

Ghazali Jaafar (left). Photo by Jolly Lais.

Ghazali Jaafar, vice-chairperson for political affairs of the central committee of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), interviewed by Tony Iltis in Barangay Simuay, Maguindanao province

Introduction by Tony Iltis

April 10, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- The Moro people of the Philippines’ southern Mindanao Islands have never considered themselves Filipinos. The Spanish colonisers never succeeded in subjugating the Moro sultanates. However, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the US in 1898, the Moro homeland, Bangsamoro, was included.

In the ensuing war, which lasted until 1913, 20,000 Moros — fighters and civilians — were killed. The US set about integrating Bangsamoro to the Philippines through land ownership laws that delegitimised the communal land tenure systems of the Muslim Moro tribes and the non-Muslim indigenous tribes (sometimes called Lumads).

The US gave land to large landholders and multinational corporations for plantation agriculture and mining. It also encouraged the mass migration of Filipino settlers from the Luzon and Visayas islands. These policies continued after the Philippines gained formal independence in 1946, incorporating Bangsamoro against the wishes of the Moro people. Today, 80% of the population of Mindanao are Filipino settlers or their descendents.

Following the Jabidah Massacre in 1968, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) began an armed struggle for independence. The government responded with “scorched earth” military and police operations. It also sponsored armed vigilante groups based among the settler population and private armies of big landowners, both settler and Moro. By 1996, 120,000 people had been killed in the conflict.

In 1996, the MNLF signed a “Final Peace Agreement” with the Philippines government, under which the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), established six years earlier, was recognised.

However, the ARMM only covers four provinces and is dominated by large landowning families and their private armies, who act as local proxies for the Filipino political elite.

The 2009 Maguindanao massacre, in which more than 50 journalists were killed during an election campaign, graphically illustrated the dysfunctional politics of ARMM.

ARMM is the poorest region in the Philippines, with a poverty rate of more than 61%.

After the peace agreement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) emerged as the main expression of Moro aspirations.

In 2000, then-president Joseph Estrada declared all-out war on the MILF.

The MILF has been involved in peace negotiations with the government since Estrada was overthrown in 2001.

These repeatedly broke down because of military operations by government forces, usually officially targeting Abu Sayyaf (once an Islamist organisation but now more of a brand name used by kidnapping gangs).

The last time the peace talks broke down was in 2008, when fighting displaced more than half a million people. Most of those displaced are still languishing in squalid evacuation centres.

However, the talks have since resumed.

Ghazali Jaafar, vice-chairperson for political affairs of the central committee of the MILF, spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Tony Iltis in Barangay Simuay, Maguindanao province.

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I can say, without fear of contradiction, that the MILF, at this point of time, is functioning parallel with the government of the Republic of the Philippines.

All in all, we have more than 40 provincial committees. Under the committees we have organised municipal committees and under these, barangay (local) committees.

There are sectoral representatives in each province for businesspeople, fisherpeople, farmers, traditional leaders, women, youth, etc., in each province.

We also have organised our justice committees, which manage our justice system based on Islam.

Although the MILF has not yet reached the stage of a de facto government, we now manage the education of the children of the Bangsamoro people.

We also have a military organisation, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).

The MILF is a mass organisation. We have several million Bangsamoro people who are members or sympathisers of the MILF.The MILF is the most active and prominent mass-based organisation leading the struggle of the Bangsamoro people for self-determination.

This is the objective of the struggle — self-determination. We want to regain the right to govern ourselves in accordance with our way of life as Muslims.

We were once free people, prior to the coming of the Spaniards in 1521. Our ancestors fought the Spaniards for more than 300 years and they did not surrender.

In the history books, we are called pirates. When we were fighting in defence of our homeland, our ancestors had to use the tactics available to them against the modern weapons of the Spaniards.

Remember Spain was a superpower of that time, just like the US now.

We became victims of history. There was the Treaty of Paris, under which the Spaniards sold this country to the US for 50 million ducats. And they included in this sale our homeland, even though the Spaniards never successfully colonised us.

That is why there is the struggle of the Bangsamoro people now.

Our definition of Bangsamoro people is those who are native inhabitants of Mindanao, who have been living here since before the Spaniards came — regardless whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims.

The Muslim Bangsamoro people we refer to as Moro. The natives (or Lumads) are included in our definition of Bangsamoro people.

Our position vis-a-vis the Filipino settlers is that we will welcome them to stay in our homeland and to live among us. They are our brothers, although they are Filipino. They are not our enemy.

We are brothers because all the Filipino people in Luzon and Visayas were also once Bangsamoro. Manila was a Muslim kingdom, ruled by a Muslim king, Raja Suleiman, when the Spaniards came.

They fought, but unfortunately, after 10 years they succumbed to the Spanish blades. So they became Christians, and later on became Filipino.

We remain Bangsamoro and remain Muslims.

We aim to strengthen our Da’wah [the preaching of Islam], which means educating the Moro people on their religion, Islam, so that they become good Muslims.

They can individually become good Muslims and eventually we can establish good Muslim communities all over Mindanao. That is one way of achieving our mission.

This does not mean that non-Muslims cannot be members of the MILF. We have many members who are not Muslims. They are native Bangsamoros. And we also have Filipino members who are Christians.

Brotherhood, unity, solidarity and cooperation among and between members is very important to us. And we give importance to discipline.

We also give importance to the firmness of the leadership of the organisation and to a correct political line. Finally, we give importance to strength.

The strength we refer to is spiritual and moral strength. We have a saying here that to be militarily defeated is a temporary defeat, but to be morally defeated is a permanent defeat.

Another strength we consider, of course, is material strength: weapons.

When I say we are fighting for self-determination, for us the meaning of self-determination is full independence or full autonomy. We have agreed to negotiate with the government of the Republic of the Philippines for full autonomy, not independence.

That is the objective of the negotiations we are engaged in now in order to find a peaceful, just solution to the conflict, which will address the issues of the Bangsamoro people.

We hope to sign a “Comprehensive Compact Agreement” that will give us a fully democratic autonomous government. There will be free elections, and everyone who is qualified can run for political positions, including our Filipino brothers who are staying with us within the jurisdiction of a future Bangsamoro state.

The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao is not acceptable to most of the Bangsamoro people. The reason is because this is not real autonomy.

As a matter of fact even Malacanang [the office of the Filipino president] issued a statement this year, published in the national papers, that admitted the failure of ARMM. It did not change the conditions of the Bangsamoro people.

Because ARMM is not acceptable to most of the Bangsamoro people, the MILF, as a matter of policy, does not accept ARMM as a solution to the conflict.

Although we do not participate in ARMM politics, we support the idea of postponing ARMM elections — if only to give way to the ongoing peace process being undertaken by the government and the MILF.

Regarding the Abu Sayyaf, this is not an organisation. It is a group of people who have firearms, and they do their own business maybe to serve their interests. But we don’t care about them and they don’t fight us.

With regards to the MNLF, it has already concluded an agreement, the so-called Final Peace Agreement. We did not interfere with this but did not join it.

We continue negotiations with the government regardless, because this agreement lacks so many things. We are trying in our present negotiations to overcome the shortcomings of the agreement with the MNLF.

If we sign a Comprehensive Compact Agreement with the government, we will share power with everyone, including the MNLF.

The role of the MILF is only to lead the Bangsamoro struggle. This does not mean that we will monopolise power after signing the Comprehensive Compact Agreement. We do not have that intention.

In the proposed agreement, the wealth of the Bangsamoro homeland, above and below the soil, belongs to the Bangsamoro people. That means the right of the Bangsamoro people to decide which multinational corporation we want to operate our natural resources.

The reason why we want to exploit resources is for the betterment of our people who have been impoverished for so long. We want to improve their lives.

We have many different mineral resources: gold, copper, coal. This place is very rich. If we have in place a God-fearing and righteous leadership, there will be minimal corruption.

Mining revenue does not currently go to the people. Corruption is very rampant here.

The funds for building bridges and the construction of road networks are diverted to other purposes by the politicians. That is why you see the appalling situation of the Bangsamoro people.


I am a Filipino (based in US) and I only hope for peace and national unity. The Philippines used to be a great country rich in natural resources and peace-loving people. Times get harder and harder as tragedies after tragedies keep hitting the country. We can only hope for a better and brighter Philippines, we are relying on you Pres. Noynoy.