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PHILIPPINES: Muslim Unrest ‘A Political Problem in Religious Garb’

Johanna Son interviews NASSER MAROHOMSALIC, convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy

MANILA, Oct 2 2009 (IPS) - Pushing Muslims’ long-held aspirations for genuine self-determination in mainly Catholic Philippines is a complicated struggle “because we are not a priority issue” for the central government.

Thus argues Nasser Marohomsalic, an activist and convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy.

Author of the book ‘Aristocrats of the Malay Race: A History of the Bangsa Moro in the Philippines’, Marohomsalic speaks candidly in this interview about the struggle of Filipino Muslims, one that he calls a political problem with “religious undertones”.

Among the factors that complicate the issue are a lack of understanding of the ‘Bangsa Moro’ (Moro or Muslim people) identity by the majority of 92 million Filipinos, a lack of priority by national governments and corruption among some of the Muslim community’s own leaders, says Marohomsalic, a former member of the Philippine Human Rights Commission. (Muslims are estimated to make up some 5 percent of the Philippine population.)

Unrest in the Philippine South goes back a long way, starting from Muslim resistance against the Spanish conquest in the 16th century and later on inclusion in the Philippine republic. Armed conflict raged in the seventies, led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that had sought a separate homeland for Filipino Muslims.

Several attempts have been undertaken to address the insurgency and unrest that simmers unresolved in the country. There was the 1976 Tripoli Agreement brokered by Libya, peace talks with the Philippine government after the 1986 ‘People Power’ revolution, the creation of an autonomous region for Muslim Mindanao, and the resumption of conflict with other Muslim groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Several more rounds of peace talks, cessations of hostilities and agreements took place under several Philippine governments through the eighties until today, including some negotiations with the intervention of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Marohomsalic, a lawyer who chairs the Muslim Legal Assistance Foundation, also tells Johanna Son that many in the Filipino Muslim community are unhappy about the ongoing joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises in southern Mindanao island.

He calls the exercises proof that the central government uses “every justification (like this exercise) to decimate the rebellion”. Many wonder why these undertakings are being focused on Mindanao and not Luzon, the northern part of the Philippines.

“Why are they not doing the exercises in Luzon? The MILF and MNLF are not listed as terrorists, but the communists are,” he argued. (The Philippines has faced a communist insurgency since the sixties.)

Marohomsalic points out that residents in some parts of Mindanao protested plans for the military exercises, arguing that the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, which is in the U.S. list of terrorists, is active mainly only in Sulu and Basilan, island provinces in Mindanao. (On Sep. 29, two U.S. soldiers along with a Filipino soldier were killed in a landmine explosion in Indanan, Sulu.)

IPS: Would you call the unrest in the Southern Philippines a political problem, a representation problem, a cultural problem or a religious one? NASSER MAROHOMSALIC: Almost all the scholars would prefer to describe it as a political problem, although it has religious undertones, we being Muslim and the government of the majority, Christian. So it is a political problem dressed in religious garb, see?

To some degree it could also be described as a religious problem because the people discriminated against here, the people being deprived of their right to self-determination are Muslims.

We’re addressing all these problems through the government, which is a government of the majority. But this government of the majority was not willing to, and still is not willing, to give us our right to self-determination. So it has acquired a religious colour, because the protagonists are Muslims and Christians.

IPS: Looking at the Muslim issue in the Philippines since the seventies and after the 1986 Revolution, we all thought that with democracy, the country should be able to address an old issue. Since then, there have been elections, creation of a Muslim autonomous region, several rounds of talks, interventions by the Organisation of Islamic Conference, Indonesia and Malaysia at some points. Why is it taking so, so long to address the issue? NM: Because there is no continuity of policy by our government. Every leader who assumes the presidency has his own different perception, perspective on the ‘Bangsa Moro’ problem. It seems as if we are not a priority issue.

If our economy is being dragged down, it’s because of the insurgency of the ‘Bangsa Moro’, but it’s not a priority problem or interest. I really cannot fathom the minds of these leaders. Why not give priority to this Moro insurgency when it is one of the major problems facing the country?

IPS: Some outsiders might say you already have an autonomous region. NM: That’s not an autonomous region; that’s farcical autonomy.

IPS: Because? NM: Because everything is controlled by the national government. We do not have control over our natural resources. . . and national leaders are using autonomy for their own electoral interests.

IPS: You mean as vote banks? NM: Yes, when elections come, they would manufacture votes there for the candidates of the powers that be. That’s the problem – we’re just used as tools.

IPS: You were saying this is also an internal challenge for Muslims, that this is not all the fault of people outside? NM: Yes, because of graft and corruption. Our leaders, national leaders, turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the shenanigans committed by our leaders, local leaders who are Moro themselves. And they could not wash their hands like Pontius Pilate because these people are their own people — they ran under their own party and they are part of government. They are the local manifestation of the national leadership.

IPS: You were also saying that Muslims do not speak out enough about this? NM: The problem is the centres of power in the autonomous region are very strong. They have no qualms about using force and violence on people who are crusaders, you know, exposing graft and corruption. Many incidents have happened in the past where religious leaders were mauled because of exposing graft and corruption.

IPS: Looking ahead five, 10 years, where do you think the Muslims’ search for real self-determination within the Philippine context will be? NM: I’m pessimistic, I’m pessimistic. Every six years, we change our leaders and these leaders have no proper appreciation of the plight of the ‘Bangsa Moro’ people.

IPS: Have you seen any potential candidate in the 2010 presidential elections who could be sympathetic to your cause? NM: All these Christian leaders are faced also with the problems of the majority. We have a Congress that is dominated by congressmen who belong to the majority and every one of them is eking out concessions from the President, for example, and how many Muslims are there? Only eight or 10 (in the lower House).

In the Senate, we do not have one representative. What do you expect from these people? Even if they try to be a rabble-rouser or really crusading Muslim representatives, they could not swing things.

The point is the minority has to be militant in order to assert itself. Do you think there would be peace talks or some concessions if we didn’t have the MILF or the MNLF?

Nothing, nothing. The government is insensitive, or the majority does not even understand enough what the ‘Bangsa Moro’ are, their aspirations. Or even if they understand, they are not sympathetic.

IPS: You mean there had to be war for these concerns to be heard? NM: Yes, that’s now the perception of the ‘Bangsa Moro’, because this government cannot be tickled into listening to us if we just speak at the top of our voices.

IPS: That is what people feel now? That is scary. NM: Scary — that’s right, yes, it’s scary. They don’t even listen to our representatives but our representatives are co-opted. They are only looking after their own vested personal interests.

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