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MNLF-MILF-ABU SAYYAF: Different Name, Same Objective, Same Entity?

The Who’s Who behind the Muslim insurgent groups in the Philippines:

Moro National Liberation Front

In 1972, a university professor called Nur Misuari reformed the Muslim advocacy group he headed as an armed rebel organisation, naming it the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Its stated aim was to fight oppression and create an independent Muslim state in the south.

Communal conflict erupted shortly afterwards when Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in response to the insurgency.

In the years that followed, the MNLF took control of large areas of Mindanao and the neighbouring Sulu archipelago.

The MNLF reached a peace agreement with the government in 1976, but fighting resumed after a failed referendum in the southern islands. A comprehensive peace agreement was not signed until 1996, under the presidency of Fidel Ramos.

The deal did not grant independence to the south, but led to the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), comprising the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, and the island provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan.

Misuari was elected governor of the ARMM, but his administration was widely criticised for incompetence and corruption. The ceasefire collapsed in 2001, when MNLF guerrillas loyal to him attacked an army base in Jolo, Sulu, killing 100 people and wounding scores.

The rebel leader fled to Malaysia, saying the attacks were justified because the government had reneged on the peace deal and abandoned southern regions to poverty. He was promptly captured and jailed for the attack.

Although many senior former rebels now work within the ARMM structure, widespread disaffection persists among MNLF leaders who argue that the government is still failing to promote economic development in the south.

Despite its continuing influence, the MNLF has weakened and fractured over the years, giving rise to several splinter groups.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front

The failed 1976 accord led to a partial break-up of the MNLF membership. The group’s second-in-command, Salamat Hashim, went on to found the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Although its aim of a fully independent state differed little from that of the MNLF, the group was more militant and put greater emphasis on traditional and scholarly interpretations of Islam.

By 1996 – the year full peace was agreed with the MNLF – Hashim had amassed more than 12,000 MILF fighters in camps in Mindanao. Peace negotiations with the government got under way in 1997, and a ceasefire was agreed.

The truce collapsed in 2000, when then President Joseph Estrada declared war on the MILF and overran 47 of its Mindanao camps, leading to fighting that displaced nearly 1 million people.

The ceasefire was re-established in 2001 when Estrada’s successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, came to power, but broke down yet again when government troops overran the MILF’s headquarters in Buliok, Maguindanao. Up to half a million people were displaced.

Another ceasefire was agreed in July 2003. But negotiations stalled in 2006 because of differences over the size of the proposed ancestral homeland and the proportion of natural resources that should be allocated to its people.

After more than 10 years of stop-start talks the government agreed a deal with the MILF in 2008, which would expand the existing Muslim region and give its future government wide political and economic powers. But the Supreme Court halted the signing ceremony after Catholic politicians in the south said they hadn’t been consulted.

The situation on the ground deteriorated rapidly. Disgruntled MILF field commanders attacked villages, prompting troops to launch an offensive that displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Manila called an end to peace talks with the MILF in September 2008 after deciding to scrap the deal altogether.

The upsurge in fighting had displaced up to a million people by July 2009, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), when another truce was agreed with the government.

In 2012, when MILF signed another peace deal with the government, it had around 11,000 fighters.

Abu Sayyaf

Abu Sayyaf – which translates as “Bearer of the Sword” – was formed in 1990-91 by MNLF members angered by Misuari’s perceived moves towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Along with its desire to create an independent Islamic nation in the Philippines, the group has broader visions of a pan-Islamic super-state in southeast Asia.

It is one of the smallest but deadliest Islamist militant groups in the Philippines. It has been linked to al Qaeda and to the regional militant network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), believed to have been behind the 2002 Bali bombings which killed more than 200 people. It is based on the Basilan and Jolo islands off the larger island of Mindanao.

Members of such groups are thought to have gone into hiding among Mindanao’s myriad waterways and islands. Analysts say Indonesian militants belonging to JI have travelled virtually unchecked between Indonesia and the Philippines, using Mindanao as a training base and refuge.

Abu Sayyaf began with small attacks but soon graduated to large assaults as well as the kidnapping and murder of foreigners. The group’s first large-scale action was a raid on the town of Ipil in Mindanao in April 1995. In 1997, the U.S. State Department designated ASG as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation”.

According to the U.S.-based National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, the group largely finances itself through ransom and extortion.

In August 2006 local officials said they had found a stockpile of bombs at an Abu Sayyaf hideout in Jolo that were very similar to bombs made by an engineer working in Indonesia for Jemaah Islamiah.

Since August 2006 thousands of troops have been trying to flush the rebels out of Jolo, and many of the group’s senior commanders have been captured or killed.

Because of traditional kinship and loyalty ties, many MNLF and MILF members maintain links with Abu Sayyaf. Ethnic and blood relations often transcend membership of any particular group.

Read more: AlertNet

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