According to a report by Chinese news portal Xinhua, three senior representatives from the US government met with officials of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Makati city on 6 November 2009. The purpose of this visit was to present the biggest and most influential secessionist group in Philippines with a letter from President Barack Obama. This letter was made known by Muhammad Ameen, chairperson of the MILF secretariat. It expressed the Obama administration’s dedication towards peace and resolution of conflict in Southern Philippines. Emblematic of Obama’s precedence for soft diplomacy, it was the extended hand after peace negotiations had collapsed between Government of the Republic of Philippines (GRP) and MILF in August last year. Presently, what could stir the pot a little is the involvement of Iran in the conflict between GRP and MILF.
On his visit to Philippines last week, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki emphasized that time was right for the country to be conferred “observer status” in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the second largest IGO after the United Nations. An article in the Manila Times quotes Mottaki stating that his government was “prepared to help the Philippines resolve conflicting issues with our fellow Muslims in Mindanao”. This is a rather bold offer from Iran given that the very same day President Obama who was in South Korea announced that USA and its allies were deliberating “consequences” in the form of tougher sanctions for Iran. President Obama also stressed that with Iran, matters will not be allowed to extend into a protracted issue as they have with North Korea. Mottaki did not betray a sense of urgency when asked whether Iran felt any trepidation on the likelihood of punitive action from the West; he dismissed sanctions as the literature of the 1960s and 1970s.
While it may not be sensible for Iran to involve itself in the Bangsamoro struggle for a separate Islamic state, it is certainly prudent of the Obama administration to engage the MILF. It is all well and good for the US to pump in aid to the GRP to root out a lesser group of armed jihadists such as the Abu Sayyaf. The MILF however is a different ball game. They may have been labeled as terrorist by President Gloria Arroyo; however they are not widely understood as a terrorist group either within or outside the Philippines. In fact they have established a good deal of legitimacy for themselves, through their wide scale regional campaigns that have secured consistent support from the grassroots, and also through linkages with OIC members such as Malaysia and Libya. The internationalization of the Bangsamoro cause has attached legitimacy to their cause. The GRP’s image on the other hand has suffered. This happend under the rule of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s , through his all out war policy against the MILF. His tactics such as mass immigration of Christians into Southern Philippines that made the Bangsamoro a minority in their own historic lands and the non-recognition of past treaties between the MILF and GRP further alienated a people towards secession instead of integrating them. In fact today, any move towards the cultural and political assimilation of the Bangsamoro people into the Christian Filipino mainstream would not be desirable. On the contrary it would be a suppression of their identity given that historically under both Filipino and US rule; they never had adequate institutions for themselves. Therefore, in the present day the MILF refuses to accept any resolution for the Bagsamoro people, short of independence. Another major outcome of the brutality suffered during the Estrada period is that now, the MILF will not honor any treaties unless there is a legitimate third party witness.
The MILF ideology is based upon Islamic principles and their ultimate goal is to find a separate Islamic state; nevertheless their jihad is regional in its agenda and they are essentially a nationalist movement. The differentiation herein being against transnational terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda whose jihad is not limited by a particular goal such as a state. Instead, they are indefinitely up in arms against the hegemony of the west, particularly USA. According to the world CIA fact book, Christians constitute 87.3% of the population whereas Muslims constitute only 5%. However, this is a potent minority. Recently, the MILF has been found to rely less on state support and there is evidence of it receiving funds from Al Qaeda (through Saudi charities) and its Southeast Asian arm, the Jemaat Islamiyah (JI). Many JI members have upon interrogation, reported getting training in MILF camps. This camaraderie is the cause of much consternation for USA and its allies. It’s an early warning sign of a proliferating polarization in Southeast Asia and of MILF’s radicalization in particular.
Herein the involvement of Iran or the OIC may not improve matters but in fact entrench the conflict along religious as opposed to nationalist lines. Iran is yet to receive an acknowledgement or affirmation on its offer to arbitrate negotiations with its Muslim brothers in Southern Philippines. For the time being the political stage in Philippines is dominated with President Gloria Arroyo nominating her defense secretary Gilberto Teodoro as her party Lakas Kampi’s candidate for elections in May 2010. It would, however, be interesting to see whether or not GRP heeds Iran’s counsel and officially partners with OIC, a traditional ally of the MILF.