Meet the Moros. Filipino Muslims are willing to talk peace with the Christian `saboteurs' from Manila

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A favorite war tactic of the Muslim Tausug tribe is to shout insults at an approaching enemy, such as, ``Your grandmother looks like a water buffalo.'' The insults are meant to provoke anger and put opponents off guard, especially those who already know the Tausug warrior.

Nur Misuari, who comes from the Tausug area of the Philippines and has led a 14-year Muslim rebellion, was well known by President Corazon Aquino before their historic meeting Sept. 5 on the Tausug island of Jolo.

In 1981, her husband, then-opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., met the rebel leader and came away an advocate for the minority Muslims. And the President's brother-in-law, Agapito Aquino, negotiated Mr. Misuari's return last week after more than a decade of exile in the Middle East. Misuari is chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Filipino Muslim rebels' independence movement.

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Up to the day before his two-hour peace talk with Mrs. Aquino, Misuari spoke out -- like a true Tausug -- against the ``saboteurs and provocateurs'' and ``colonialists and imperialists'' in the Philippines. He referred to Christian settlers in traditional Muslim lands as ``any Tom, Dick, or Harry.''

Misuari said he traveled 7,000 miles to Jolo, while Aquino traveled only 700. He claimed his guerrillas (the Philippine military estimates the Muslims have 5,500-7,000 regular fighters) were being increased to 1 million. He reiterated his drive for ``liberation'' of the southern third of the Philippines, which he calls the Bangsa Moro (``Muslim people's'') homeland. He said Aquino gained more by coming to his land than he did in talking.

But if any Tausug tactic proved effective, it was that Misuari convinced Agapito Aquino that the MNLF would renew fighting if the government did not listen to its demands. The President, according to her brother-in-law, believed the threat. After all, the 1972-76 fighting between Muslims and the Philippine military had taken nearly 100,000 lives.

But Mrs. Aquino had other reasons to open talks with the MNLF.

Neighboring Indonesia advised her to solve the Muslim problem so that her armed forces could be deployed against the Philippines' communist insurgency. Being the world's largest Muslim country, anticommunist Indonesia could support Aquino in the 46-member Islamic Conference Organization (ICO), which has backed the Filipino Muslims diplomatically since 1972.

In general, the popular Aquino would be tough to oppose diplomatically. ``Under [former President Ferdinand] Marcos, it was easy for us to say the Muslims were an international issue. But now it's strictly an internal matter,'' says a Libyan diplomat in Manila.

Malaysia, likewise, is helping Aquino by offering to prevent the establishment of a base for the MNLF in Sabah, a Malaysian state near the Philippines. Home to 200,000 Muslim Filipino refugees, Sabah's new Christian government is pushing the refugees to leave. And Malaysia has been more cooperative with Aquino as Manila moves to drop a territorial claim to Sabah. (But Malaysia, largely Muslim, is being careful. ``There will be many Filipino presidents, but only one Nur Misuari,'' says one official.)

Aquino also wants to head off any possible tactical alliance between the communist rebels and the MNLF. In the last few months, the Communist Party has both threatened and wooed the MNLF in an effort to get MNLF support in challenging Aquino. The offers, including economic aid, have been turned down by the anticommunist MNLF.

Also, Aquino was told that by talking directly with Misuari she could gain the upper hand over many of the local Muslim warlords and leftover Muslim leaders who supported Mr. Marcos.

Rather than divide and conquer the Muslims, as Marcos did, she has helped to unify them -- so far as is possible -- under the MNLF. In fact, the night before meeting Misuari, Aquino met with some 80 politicians from Muslim areas and told them about her overture to the MNLF.

Finally, Aquino has consistently sought new ways of solving the country's old problems in her drive for national reconciliation -- and perhaps the most intractable problem has been the Muslim situation. ``I want to reach out to the Muslims,'' she told Misuari.

Since 1578, when the Spanish first tried to subdue the ``Moros'' in the Philippines, the Muslims have remained an independent people in spirit, if not in legal standing, despite 400 years of Christian missionizing, war, prejudice, and economic neglect. ``Any pretension over our homeland shall be met with the blood of our people,'' said Misuari last week.

At the same time, the Philippines' deeply religious Roman Catholic President cannot afford to upset the Christian majority, which still lives in a Spanish-influenced culture that looks down upon the Moros. (The very term was once derogatory, but later adopted by the Muslims.) Aquino, for instance, balanced her trip to the Muslim area by meeting Misuari in a Catholic monastery.

``Christian Filipinos think Muslims run amok, that they are unstoppable, that a good Moro is a dead Moro,'' says Agapito Aquino. ``But the first step for us is to embrace their culture.'' Although the President is worried about any Christian backlash, he says, ``she thinks she can contain it.''

Misuari, too, has to watch over his shoulder. The three main ethnic groups of Muslims -- Tausug, Maranao, and Maguindanao -- are not always united in Islamic brotherhood, despite common oppression in the past. His MNLF is Tausug-dominated. And after a decade of little fighting, Misuari's guerrilla force is divided, according to his aides, between young radicals who want total independence and older commanders who are tired of fighting and prefer some sort of autonomy.

[Members of a Muslim faction excluded from last week's Misuari-Aquino talks yesterday attacked a wedding at a Catholic church in Salvador on Mindanao Island, Reuters reported. The rebels killed 10 people.]

With less support from Islamic nations, Misuari comes to the bargaining table with weaker ICO backup than in 1976, when he signed the Tripoli Agreement with Marcos. (It granted autonomy, but was never fulfilled.) ``The ICO has a limited mandate,'' says a Misuari aide. ``We must find support from individual countries.''

The nuts and bolts of any agreement depend on measuring the demographics of Christians and Muslims in the southern provinces and spelling out precise language on political, legal, religious, and military autonomy. The problem could prove as difficult as the Catholic-Protestant dilemma in Northern Ireland.

Key to any talks is how well Misuari and Aquino get along. On that score, the Sept. 5 meeting was not a good start. Rather than stay for a prepared lunch, Aquino left quickly. ``They were both stubborn,'' says Agapito Aquino, the government's chief negotiator. ``But we can come up with some solution as long as we allow Misuari to keep his honor.''

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