THE REVOLUTIONARY HAS ROOM SERVICE
A year after a landmark peace pact in the Philippines, dirt-poor Mindanao still awaits the dividends promised by Nur Misuari, its guerrilla general-turned-governor
By Ron Gluckman/Jolo, Manila and Zamboanga
AGLORIOUS MANILA BAY sunset floods the hotel suite, casting the familiar, wiry figure in a golden glow. Nurallaj Misuari, once the Most Wanted Man in the Philippines, has certainly come in from the cold. Oh, sure, he still talks like a revolutionary. Stroking his neat goatee, he wails about social injustice and Islamic jihad. Misuari , now 57, recalls a quarter-century of guerrilla warfare. He tells how his youngest brother was "martyred in the cause." His voice quivers with sorrow, then thunders with the old fire. It is a powerful performance -- until the hotel maid shows up with piles of perfectly pressed laundry.
Misuari and his sizable entourage -- including two wives and umpteen advisers -- have taken up residence at the Manila Hyatt. Scores of young guerrillas-turned-guards are sleeping down the hall from the boss, guns under their belts or tucked into rubber boots. Presumably they have overlooked the Hyatt's strict rules on firearms. The guards sleep seven to a room, sprawling on beds and the floor. Few stir to eyeball the long line of visitors awaiting an audience with the Great Man. But they snap up to greet each batch of laundry, fingering the parcels, unwrapping and re-wrapping clean shirts, before passing them to comrades. The revolutionaries have discovered room service.
It has been a year since Nur Misuari became governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) -- and many of his constituents are tired of seeing newspaper photos of him apparently living it up in hotel heaven. They want to know when he will deliver on all those campaign promises. It does no good pointing out that it is unreasonable to expect Misuari to successfully morph from guerrilla to governor in 12 months. They want action now. Even Misuari's own people are complaining. "There is widespread dissatisfaction with what has happened and is happening to the leaders of this movement," says Dr. Parouk Hussin, who oversees foreign affairs for Misuari's truce-bound rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). "People are very upset. They feel they should see something besides Nur's picture in a five-star hotel suite. They want schools, roads, improvement in their lives."
Misuari knows the gripes -- and a few days after we met, he launched a so-called Peace Caravan into the heartland. Ostensibly it was a public-relations gambit to convince other Muslim rebel groups to join the peace process. But the bus ride around Mindanao was also a way to replenish Misuari's flagging support. "Some people call me Ayatollah," he jokes. "Some people ask, 'Is it true that Nur is hideous? Is it true Nur is a monster?'" He laughs, then turns serious: "I'm not a politician. My title is different now, but my work is the same. I'm going to meetings, conferences. It's the same as before, when I traveled the world seeking favor for our cause."
That cause, justice for the Moros, or Muslims of the southern Philippines, has been his lifelong obsession. An estimated 120,000 people died in nearly three decades of battles between the government and Misuari's rebels. More than human life was squandered. Some $3 billion in damage was tallied during a guerrilla war that turned Mindanao, second-largest island in the Philippines, into a wasteland.
Mindanao's misfortune began to brighten with a negotiated truce in 1992, followed by a series of deals that saw the same government that fought Misuari for so long turn around and back him as governor of ARMM. The deal included the chairmanship of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), a three-year mechanism to spread government money to all of Mindanao.
In a nation that overdoses on acronyms, these may matter, and not just to Mindanao. The resource-rich island -- there is abundant gold, timber and maybe oil -- is a key part of the East ASEAN Growth Area, which melds parts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei in a trading bloc stretching from the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago to Borneo. EAGA claims a population of 42 million people, mostly Muslim. Peace in Mindanao, breadbasket of EAGA, could lift the entire region.
All this may explain some of the enthusiasm in the Manila hotel suite, where the governor is divulging ambitious plans for Mindanao. Misuari can talk for hours without tiring, straying from one topic to the next. Details come staccato-style, blasts from a verbal machine gun. He loses himself in flights of rhetoric -- tired revolutionary clichés or pure political boosterism. There are constant interruptions. The phone rings incessantly. All manner of minutiae push Misuari off-topic, like strategies for the peace caravan: by the time the governor sets off on August 21, it will have been delayed at least twice and devoured hours of his time.
An Indonesian pal brings a Japanese delegation. It is headed, the friend says, either by the prime minister's nephew, grandson, or the foreign minister's son. No one questions his identity. The Japanese have cash and may spend it in Mindanao; that gains the governor's ear. Misuari also makes time for crusty vets of his rebel campaign. "Come in, come in. Welcome," he says, offering his usual greeting. Then he sits with them, like a guerrilla godfather, hearing them out with genuine concern.
Even in a hotel, he is the perfect jungle host, peeling pomelos with his hands, offering bananas and durians to guests. He speaks the jargon of the little people so fluently it's easy to forget that before his long stint in the jungle, Misuari taught at the University of the Philippines, where he also studied. Perhaps his political science degree explains the flair for self-promotion. During the nine days that Misuari resides at the Hyatt, not a single newspaper appears in the capital without his picture.
Misuari talks up international consortiums that will build airports, hotels, refineries, railroads and energy plants on "my island." With more than a touch of hyperbole, he promises the isle will soon rival regional hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore. In the same spirit, he pulls out a map and details plans for a Panama-style canal to facilitate shipping and ferry traffic. Rainbow dreams, to be sure, but he is dead serious about one over-arching goal: "My plan is to transform Mindanao into one of the most peaceful, affluent, prosperous parts of the world."
This would be a daunting task, even to someone with flawless political skills and mainstream connections. As a rank outsider, and revolutionary to boot, the odds would seem stacked against Misuari. "But don't count him out," cautions a Manila insider. "He's got an enormous stock of goodwill. Whether he cashes that in or squanders it, well, that's up to him."
Truly, Misuari commands tremendous support, especially among the 56 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which helped broker the peace. Moro soldiers once took shelter in nearby Malaysia, which remains home to some 100,000 refugees who fled the fighting by crossing the Sulu Sea to Sabah; many of Misuari's relatives are among them. Most MNLF fighters were trained in Libya or Pakistan, where Misuari and his second wife, "Madame Roi," lived for many years.
The peace pact stretches the reach of the old revolutionary. At the Hyatt that is clear. Delegations arrive daily from Japan, South Korea and further afield. "We're very committed to Mindanao," says Kenneth Schofield, Manila director of the United States Agency for International Development. USAID has pledged over $100 million for infrastructure, mostly for areas far from the fighting. "Now, with the peace deal, we really want to get things going in the other parts of the island." In August, USAID announced funding for a pilot program to train and equip former rebels for a variety of agricultural activities. Soon, USAID will expand its Growth With Equity in Mindanao program, which spurs business development, into the autonomous region with a new injection of $9 million -- an almost 50% boost in the program's budget.
Similar pledges have been pouring in from other parts of the world, in many cases from the same nations that once branded Misuari's fighters a bunch of terrorists. Peacemakers are more popular. Next to the Bosnias, Somalias and Cambodias, Mindanao represents a rare situation where development aid might actually work. "This is only a first step for us," says Schofield, adding: "It's an extraordinary situation, and extraordinary measures need to be taken. We want to help."
Whether peace will follow prosperity is another question. Misuari seems to hold strong cards, in particular, an outstanding connection in Malacaang Palace. "The president is fully committed to this," says Fidel Ramos's executive secretary, Ruben Torres, "to doing anything necessary to make it work." Many believe the peace pact will be Ramos's personal legacy. "The president really forced this upon us," says Daisy Fuentes, congresswoman from Mindanao's South Cotabato District, and an outspoken critic of the deal. Others note that Ramos has visited Mindanao 60 times as president; Ferdinand Marcos went twice in 20 years.
On September 2, 1996, Ramos welcomed his old foe, Misuari, to Malacaang Palace to sign the peace pact. Outside, in Freedom Park, loudspeakers blared the John Lennon anthem "Give Peace a Chance." A year later, a peace of sorts holds in parts of Mindanao. While Misuari's MNLF has maintained the truce, other Muslim groups have rekindled fighting elsewhere in the island. Among several splinter groups, the most dangerous is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting government troops over the last year. It was formed in 1978 when Misuari's No. 2 Salaat Hashim left the MNLF. It won't be easy to reconcile the various factions; in some quarters the rift is seen as "tribal" in nature. Most of Misuari's fighters hail from southwest Mindanao and the Sulu Sea; Salaat's supporters are from Central Mindanao. Misuari allows the peace is "fragile." He does not have police power so there are limits to what he can do. Still, he says, "Mindanao has never been more peaceful. Not since I entered the process."
Maybe that's why the Moros expect more from Misuari. Echoing widespread disenchantment, a Mindanao journalist says, "Misuari has done nothing after the peace pact except act like a politician. [He] has done nothing but parade around the region." There are growing doubts, even among his supporters, that the governor is the man for the task.
Nur Misuari was the fourth son in a family of 10 children. He was born in Jolo, a place designed for revolution. For centuries, it has been a hotbed of Moro nationalism. As far back as the 1500s, its Muslim seafarers fought whoever ruled in Manila, the Spanish, Americans, northern Filipinos, and, except for a few years, no central power tamed the wild isles between Mindanao and Sabah.
Nonetheless, Misuari recalls being an "ordinary child without ambition. All I wanted was to go to school and serve my family." He left the island in 1958 to attend university, where friends say he was a quiet and disciplined, if undistinguished, student. Torres, who went to university with Misuari, recalls that the future governor's only recreation was billiards. "He was very religious," says Torres. "He never drank or chased women."
Misuari was devoted to Desdemona, a fellow university student from Jolo, who he later wed. To this day, he speaks of her with visceral sadness; she died in 1987 after bearing six children. He married her older sister the following year. Madame Roi, as she is known, says: "He's my leader, first and foremost. He always has been." But it's clear she is a close confidante, providing vital advice through the long years of exile in Libya and Pakistan. Misuari also has two children, with a third on the way, by a wife 30 years his junior. Guards call her Madame Tatah, or "pretty one."
According to Misuari, "young women make you younger." The governor confides that he may soon take a third wife, probably from Mindanao, since both current spouses are residents of Jolo. "I can take four wives," he says. "I'm physically fit for four." Maybe, but the year in politics has weighed heavily on Misuari. Friends say he has grown thin, old and tired. "Nur is too busy," Madame Roi says. "He hardly has any time for himself. He is sleeping two or three hours per day.
"Things are different now. We're not just dealing with the MNLF, but society at large, politicians, people from all walks of life, investors from many countries. It's hectic. We hardly have time for the children." She adds: "He hasn't changed in terms of his devotion to the cause. Now that peace is here, he is trying whatever means he can to get what he can for his people."
That quest began in the early 1960s. After graduating from university, Misuari went to law school, but dropped out in his second year, he says, due to ill health. Misuari maintains that he returned to Jolo to recuperate, but some friends from this period speculate that he made his first visit to Libya, where his revolutionary career started. Misuari says his political awakening didn't come until later when he heard about the infamous 1968 massacre of 28 Muslim recruits who mutinied against government officers training a secret Muslim army to invade Sabah.
Already, though, Misuari was involved in politics, according to Torres. "In our college days, we'd discuss the problems of Mindanao. Even back then in the 1960s, he was voicing the troubles and gripes of the Muslims in Mindanao. We were both members of activist groups. We were anti-American, anti-imperialist and anti-Vietnam War. We used to argue politics a lot. I was a communist. He was also anti-imperialist, anti-American, but he wasn't a communist."
His sole fling in the political arena came when he ran for delegate to the 1972 Constitutional Convention. Misuari lost, but told friends he had been cheated by the Muslim political elite. Soon after, almost exactly 25 years ago, Misuari disappeared from view. His timing, as always, was remarkable. Two weeks later, Marcos declared martial law. "I went underground. I went among the people, but kept as invisible as possible," recalls Misuari. He began organizing his army. "I wanted to right the wrongs committed against my people, the historical injustices. I decided to work first for justice, then independence."
Over the years, Misuari's demands softened, and he finally won autonomy for parts of Mindanao with the largest Muslim populations. His goal of eventually ruling all of Mindanao as prescribed in the Tripoli Peace Agreement signed with Marcos in 1976 will require voter approval in a series of plebiscites to be held in 14 Mindanao provinces. After decades of migration to the islands, the Christians constitute about 60% of Mindanao's population; racial divisions remain rife. When last year's peace accord was proposed, Ramos toured Mindanao to muster support. His convoy was pelted with tomatoes. Protest signs called the Council for Peace and Development "deadlier than AIDS." The nation's flag flew upside down.
No such protests greeted the start of Misuari's peace caravan, which left Cotabato City on August 21 and was to end on September 2, anniversary of the peace deal. All the hoopla was meant to create excitement in Mindanao, and there was plenty at the outset. Crowds gathered by the roadside, attracted by the roar of vehicles and police escort sirens. Misuari was in his element, walking among his people, shaking hands, telling stories.
In his birthplace of Jolo, however, there is little excitement or harmony. On this poor island of fishermen and traders, health clinics are shuttered and children shuffle through the rubble of schools. Armed men roll around the town; people stay inside after dark. Only one hotel is open, but there isn't much trade, not since German visitors were kidnapped a decade ago. "We get one visitor every three or four months," says the proprietor of Helen's Lodge. "Nobody comes to Jolo."
This may be the real testing ground for Misuari's rule. If so, he has failed so far. In February, popular bishop Benjamin de Jesus was gunned down in daylight outside the Mt. Carmel Church. A new pastor holds Sunday masses while military patrols watch the church, and a big banner near the main square reads: "Justice for Bishop Ben and all the Victims." In the outskirts of Jolo, Father Frederico Labaglay sits on his porch and sadly reflects on the community he has served for years. "Misuari has no control, not even over his home base." He says Christians comprise under 10% of the local population. "We're a small community, and we are scared."
Elsewhere, people are more upbeat. Congresswoman Fuentes acknowledges that things are calmer, that fears have faded. But she is disenchanted by Misuari's leadership. "He isn't even able to run ARMM," she grouses. "We see him as helpless, not someone to be feared." Fuentes blames Misuari's bloated bureaucracy and lack of organization. "Even Muslims feel he has failed to deliver," she says. "People say Misuari needs to decide whether he wants to be a diplomat or an administrator." Some of Misuari's own people fret Manila is using him as a propaganda tool. "It is all for publicity," says the governor's MNLF comrade Hussin. "I pity Nur. He spent his adult life fighting for this cause; now he has become just another politician."
Torres sticks up for his old friend, and this is the most remarkable turnaround of all: the government defending the former guerrilla. "Nur talks about airports and railroads and six-lane roads around his island," says Torres. "I tell him that he should concentrate on small projects, things that people can use now, not long in the future." Indeed, Jolo would have little use for the highway or international airport Misuari has promised his hometown. Such prestige projects may impress old friends, but they make even more new enemies.
Misuari has lots of these. He also has a good heart and grand intentions, but is suffering the growing pains that afflict any incoming governor, let alone one who lived outside the system for a quarter-century. Critics aren't as kind; they say he is corrupt. An investigation is under way to look into the recent appropriations of ARMM money for capital projects, which allegedly directed nearly all the funds to Jolo.
Largess is politics as usual. But people expect more from Misuari, who devoted his life to shaking up the system. Of course, tearing things down is easier than building them up. After all the battles and suffering, Mindanao begs for a new start, not another politician. Misuari admits he "could have done much more" but is "satisfied with what we've accomplished." Still, his people are impatient. They want more than pictures of him at signing ceremonies. They want prosperity. And they worry that the rebel warrior has grown soft on room service.
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter based in Hong Kong, who corresponds for Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Asiaweek, the Sydney Morning Herald, Asia Magazine, and many other publications.
This story appeared in Asiaweek in September 1997. For other reports from Ron Gluckman on this region of the Philippines, click on Waterworld.
To return to the opening page and index