May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Indonesia brokers Philippines peace bid

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Nur Misuari was already a well-known student leader when he joined the cause of independence for the Muslims of Mindanao, Southern Philippines, in the early 1970s. He called them 'Moro'. He tried electoral politics but, disgusted with the vote-buying, then led his Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to war.

After government forces gained the upper hand in the late 1970s he moved to the Middle East, where his movement had much support. In 1976 he signed an agreement with the Philippines government in Tripoli, Libya. This gave the Moros autonomy. But details were vague, and little changed on the ground.

In 1990 the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) took up the issue afresh. Eventually both parties to the conflict, encouraged by Saudi Arabia, asked Indonesia to mediate.

Chief facilitator on the Indonesian side was Wiryono Sastrohandojo, the Foreign Affairs Department's most senior official and soon to become Ambassador to France, then to Australia. Initial negotiations led to agreement to put real muscle into the 1976 Tripoli autonomy pact.

The MNLF gained an important victory when the Philippines government agreed to negotiate outside the country, thus giving an international stamp to the negotiations.

The first formal meeting was held in September 1991 in Hotel Indonesia, on the same floor where the Cambodian peace deal was negotiated. This meeting agreed to establish a series of grass roots committees to think about the details of autonomy in areas such as administration, the economy, education, law, and the armed forces.

After the agreement was signed last September, Nur Misuari stood for election as governor of the four-province Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an area already specified in Tripoli. Though unopposed, he won strong support. Some 7,500 of his fighters will be incorporated into the Philippines Armed Forces. He also chairs the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, covering 14 provinces. In three years time a referendum will be held in all 14 to see which of them will enter a new Muslim autonomous region to replace the ARMM.

Indonesian business has been quick to take up the opportunities offered by peace. A Chamber of Commerce delegation was on Misuari's doorstep the very next day.

Wiryono spoke with Inside Indonesia early in February at the Embassy in Canberra.

Did the Indonesian delegation have a particular model in mind?

We just plunged in. We did have in mind a federal state such as the USA, Switzerland or Australia, where each member state had quite some autonomy. The Philippines government wanted to make sure it retained the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Philippines. The Indonesian delegation was also under instructions from the President that we could not be seen as promoting separatism.

How did you feel about relating with a rebel group?

We just considered that both sides had asked for our help to become a mediator or facilitator. Moreover, the people in Southern Mindanao also speak Indonesian. They would pray with us on Fridays.

What was your impression of Nur Misuari?

He is a warrior. He is still quite young. He spoke strongly, he is popular. But his popularity will depend on whether he can continue to be seen as fighting for his people's aspirations. I think in the agreement they can see that while they did not get everything, they got substantial parts of what they wanted.

Was it his negotiating ability that led to a breakthrough?

It was him.

What brought the Philippines government to the negotiating table?

It had been going on for twenty years without any progress. There was no war, no peace. Yet the southern area is rich in resources. The government thought the country could never develop solidly without settling the problem in the south.

What were the main difficulties?

Defining the meaning of autonomy. Also the number of provinces that would come into the autonomous area. Since 1976 there has been demographic change - a lot of Christians have moved in. The majority Muslim area is limited. Misuari can try to win an election in 14 provinces, but in that demographic situation, it's up to the people. Perhaps he only has a majority in a few.

Where did the breakthrough come?

The first negotiating meeting in Jakarta agreed to a cease fire. Without a cease fire you cannot negotiate. Indonesia played a role as cease fire observers. It was only a small group, less than a couple of dozen unarmed military officers, headed by the military attache based in Manila. They took up positions within one or two months of the first session in 1991, and they are still there.

Is this a case of self-determination for the Moro people?

Philippine self-determination was finished at the time they were decolonised by the Americans. The Moro issue was an internal problem, which they settled among themselves. But if you consider that agreement was achieved by an international organisation, the OIC, involving the signing of an agreement witnessed by elements from outside, it's not very clear whether it's self-determination or not.

Yet the MNLF was a separatist movement.

It was. But we do not recognise that. If they want to have the Nation of Moro then we cannot support that. The principal thing for Indonesia is that they are not asking for independence.

Is the autonomy real?

It's real. They can receive foreign aid, foreign investment. Only defence and foreign policy are in Manila. They have a high degree of financial autonomy, including some taxation powers. These powers are a bit different from those in other areas. (Before the agreement is fully implemented) the dependency on Manila is quite high. They will have physical force - their own police and security. The Philippines government is being very realistic.

What motivated Indonesian involvement?

First, the Indonesian constitution states that we ought to participate in the maintenance of international peace and security. We need to have peaceful surroundings around Indonesia.

Second, economic self-interest is also high. The interaction between Southern Mindanao and North Sulawesi is great. Now we have the BIMPEAGA, the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines-East Asia Growth Area.

The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce delegation signed a lot of MOUs. Dr Habibie promised one or two planes to have the area connected by airline. If they keep on fighting, then our people are also affected, we cannot trade with them.

Inside Indonesia 50: Apr-Jun 1997

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