Residents of a southern Philippine city that was seized by Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters in 2013 are criticizing the presidential appointment of the group’s leader, Nur Misuari, as a special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
President Rodrigo Duterte met with Misuari last week and then named him as Special Economic Envoy on Islamic Affairs to the OIC, the Muslim world’s largest inter-governmental body. The move thrust the grizzled Muslim guerrilla leader into a new role of enticing more investments in the Mindanao region, the country’s southern third, which has been wracked by insurgencies since the 1970s.
Duterte noted that Misuari was known by “most of the leaders” of the 57-member OIC who “are friends of Nur.”
“[I] do not think that there is [an]other Moro personality that could command the respect and trust of the OIC but only you. You are the only one who can bring the case to the OIC and get the results,” Duterte said, according to a news release issued Friday.
The appointment, however, has not been well received by some people in Zamboanga, a city sacked by Misuari and his men six years ago. More than 200 people were killed in more than two weeks of urban warfare, with a section of the city razed. The fighting displaced about 100,000 residents.
“We are still in the process of healing. We lost our homes and had to live in evacuation centers. And they are rewarding the person who led the attack?” said one resident, who lost her home during the MNLF siege.
The woman, who declined to give her name to BenarNews, said the fighting broke up and uprooted her family in Zamboanga. She, her husband and their five children ended up having to stay at an evacuation camp for two years, she said.
“It has been a tough several years for us,” she told BenarNews. “All because of Misuari.”
Misuari launched the attack to protest the Philippine government’s peace dealings with another group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF splintered from the MNLF in the late 1970s, accusing Misuari of selling out the fight for full independence to settle for a limited autonomy in the Philippine south.
Misuari’s faction had initially signed a peace deal with the government, and he subsequently became governor of a limited autonomous region. But despite millions of dollars in aid that poured into the region, he failed to lift many of its people out of poverty.
Manila later dubbed the deal with the MNLF a “failed experiment,” and instead negotiated peace with the MILF. The latter group signed its own peace accord with the Aquino administration in 2014, and is currently in control of an expanded autonomous region in the south.
Misuari went into hiding, but Duterte’s government dropped charges against Misuari associated with the Zamboanga siege. The president has said it was necessary to talk to all Muslim leaders in the south for genuine peace to take hold in the region.
‘We are upset’
While silently accepting Misuari’s rehabilitation under the Duterte administration, some residents of Zamboanga say they still consider him a criminal who should be tried for his alleged crimes.
“We don’t expect that guy to hold such a high position,” Jimmy Villaflores, who sits on the Zamboanga City council, told BenarNews. “We are upset, although we respect the decision of the president.”
Villaflores said he was a village councilman when hundreds of Misuari’s fighters stormed the city center in September 2013, took dozens of hostages and engaged government troops in gunbattles. The hostages were later freed, but people in the city still remember what happened six years ago, Villaflores said.
“My house was among those torched,” he said.
Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, the mayor of Zamboanga City, said the president’s decision to appoint Misuari as a special envoy to the OIC was expected. She said Duterte had told her as early as 2016 that he would somehow bring Misuari to the peace table.
However, for former congressman Gary Alejano, an ex-marine, Misuari’s appointment is “unacceptable,” and the MNLF leader should be made accountable.
“There are warrants of arrest against him, if you are talking about justice,” Alejano said.
“It is clear that if you are close and he considers you a friend, he will save you even if it is against the law,” Alejano said of Duterte’s action.
When he became president in 2016, one of Duterte’s first moves was to drop rebellion charges against Misuari, Alejano noted.
But Eliseo Mercado, a Catholic priest and a policy adviser at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, a public policy center based in southern Cotabato City, said he saw positive outcomes from Misuari’s new post.
Manila has “longed to be a member of the OIC” and Misuari’s appointment as a representative to the body could bring positive results, Mercado said.
“Maybe the president’s men are bright and they thought that one way of entering the OIC was through the MNLF, which already has a permanent observer status,” Mercado said.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.