Hagiographies can be annoying. Disgraced MNLF leader Nur Misuari’s is no exception. Patricio Abinales examines the lengths a biographer will go to conjure tales of victory amidst a story of defeat
Can you convince a reading public that there is merit to buying the hagiography of a failed revolutionary? Tom Stern, the official annalist of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founding chairman Nur Misuari, thinks so. He tries to sell readers on the merits of a story of Misuari’s life and times in two ways. First, he overwhelms them with the accolades the “Chairman” has purportedly received because of his commitment to the Moro struggle. Then, having laid the ground, he tells Misuari’s story through a rose-tinted lens, downplaying the MNLF’s fiascos and framing them as the usual challenges the Chairman has faced in his quest for Moro liberation.
Let’s see if these two approaches worked.
The book opens with its full, unsubtle subtitle prominently displayed on page three:
Professor Dr. Nur P. Misuari, Moro National Liberation Front Founding Leader and Central Committee Chairman, United Nations Peace Awardee, Nobel Peace Laureate Nominee, Aurora Quezon Peace Awardee, Supreme Datu or Leader of the Bangsa Moro Highlander Tribal Communities Throughout Mindanao, Royal Datu of the Sultanate of Sulu; and Datu Seri Panglima Darajat Kinabalu (State of Sabah, Malaysia), Ph.D. Honoris Causa in Humanities and International Relations, signatory to the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, the Jeddah Peace Accord and the Jakarta-Manila Final Peace Agreement of September 2, 1996
It’s as if Stern is confronting the disbelieving reader: Now, which other Filipino leader has the same lengthy resume, aber?
Stern knows his audience. Even though he may secretly wish it were a broader public, he is realistic enough to pitch to two types of smaller audiences. The first are the professoriate, the literati, politicos, and career executives—that segment of the Filipino population concerned with academic degrees and professional accolades. These are the types whose office walls are littered with awards, certificates, and diplomas that scream, “Hey you, I am smart!” To them, Misuari is a kindred soul. They’re the kind who would be impressed by the Chairman’s credentials. They drink from the same well of vanity that Misuari does.
Stern’s principal audience, however, is not Filipino. It is American—and a specific kind of American to boot: policy wonks operating inside Washington DC’s Beltway, many with grandiose claims of being “area and country experts,” often based on brief stints in an Ivy League school of governance, the State Department, USAID, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or multinational corporations with investments in Asia. The message that Stern, a medical doctor by training, wants to impart to them is that although Misuari has been marginalized politically, he is still a presence among the Moros and in Philippine and international politics. Just look at his credentials!
But if these credentials are the foundation of Misuari’s eminence, then that foundation is fragile as there isn’t much substance behind the titles. Misuari was indeed an academic, having taught at the University of the Philippines before going underground when martial law was declared. But he was an instructor, the lowest full-time teaching position given by the State University, not a professor as Stern claims. Neither is Misuari a Doctor, in the sense of having received the highest degree a university can grant a student. His PhD is anhonoris causa—a title given to respected guests of the academe. And we do not even know where his came from.
The title, “Supreme Datu or Leader of the Bangsa Moro Highlander Tribal Communities Throughout Mindanao [sic!],” is even more unbelievable as no one has ever united the lumad and the Moros, even today. Sabah and Kuala Lumpur will probably just snort at being told that Misuari has been conferred (by whom?) the highest state title accorded a ruler. Finally, very little is known about the Aurora Quezon Peace Awards (the only other recipient was Cory Aquino), while the United Nations Peace Awards is just one of many the international body hands out to various recipients (in 2013, the honorees were 357 Bangladeshi policemen who were part of the peacekeeping force in the Ivory Coast). And anyone can be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The biggest problem with writing about failed revolutionaries, however, is dealing with the disappointments and defeats. History has an uncanny way of shattering the myth of invincibility that Stern weaves around the Chairman.
Misuari assumed unchallenged leadership of the MNLF in 1971, after fending off the ambitious Rashid Lucman. Then, with a steady supply of everything from guns to toilet paper courtesy of Libya and Malaysia, he led the Bangsamoro Army in pushing back the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Cotabato, Jolo and the countryside of Central Mindanao. The tide turned when Taiwanese-supplied bullets (Stern claims Marcos “succeeded in bullying Taiwan into selling badly needed ammunition” but does not explain why) and American heavy weapons enabled AFP tanks to smash MNLF formations and Navy ships to blast MNLF positions in Jolo, burning the entire town in the process.
Misuari’s control over the MNLF command began to slip during this period, when the organization was adjusting to the AFP’s improved capacities. In the meantime, even as Libya welcomed the next batch of MNLF fighters for training in antitank warfare, Muammar Khaddafi and the Organization of Islamic Conference had warmed up to Marcos’s diplomatic overtures. Before long, Misuari’s patrons in the Islamic world were pressuring him to sit down and negotiate with his opponents. After successfully ousting Mustapha, Kuala Lumpur also began reducing its support for the MNLF, closing training camps and making it more difficult for resources (guns, mostly) to be coursed through North Borneo. Indonesia joined in by hosting Misuari, who was then told by President Suharto to consider autonomy instead of separatism.
In the war zones, Marcos split the MNLF leadership by offering government posts to commanders in order to lure them out of the battlefield. Many accepted, including Commander Sali Wali, one of the original seven founders of the organization; the brothers Hussin and Tupay Loong from the Loong family of Jolo; Abdul Hamid Lucman, the MNLF’s legal adviser; and Abulkhayr Alonto, vice-chairman of the MNLF central committee. Misuari would eventually lose control of central Mindanao, when Hashim Salamat—disappointed by the Chairman’s decision to accept autonomy and suspicious of Tausug domination of the organization— gathered his fellow Maguindanaoans to establish the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The organizational hemorrhage continued well into the 1980s—the biggest defection being that of Basilan Revolutionary Committee head Gerry Salapuddin, who surrendered together with 1,442 fighters in 1983.
Misuari did very little to stem the corrosion that was gnawing the movement from within. He was hurt by the many acts of disloyalty and resentful of their perpetrators. This is where Stern tries to spin failure into something else. He claims that even as the organization was falling apart, Misuari never wavered in his commitment to Moro independence. Yet the Chairman eventually did make his own compromises, acquiescing to Libyan, OIC, and Malaysian advice to sit down with government peace panels, signing a peace agreement in 1976 and again in 1996. President Fidel Ramos amply rewarded Misuari by getting him “elected” governor of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao. Then it became his turn to be accused by some of his followers of selling out. Stern does not see these as signs of weakness but as minor roadblocks that only strengthened Misuari’s resolve.
So just how intense was this devotion to the cause? Here, in Misuari’s own words, is a normal day for the Chairman (note the Nixonian style of referring to himself in the third person):
“They don’t understand… that Nur Misuari goes to bed only after two o’clock in the morning and he is among the first human beings to wake up early in the morning for his prayers. And throughout the day seldom do I take a nap or any relaxation at all. I always devote my time to the service of God, to the service of my people, and to the service of the MNLF” (p. 132).
There are, however, other angles from which Stern’s portrait can be viewed. True, Misuari convinced Maranaos, Maguindanaos and Tausugs—from both the elites and the masses—to fight. But littered all over the book are demonstrations of the Chairman’s perceptible naiveté, a trait he shares with some grand revolutionaries. Like Vladimir Illich, Misuari thought all those who joined the revolution were good people with nothing but the popular interest in mind. The comrades who betrayed him in the early years of the war, Hashim Salamat and the Council of 15 that ousted him from the chairman’s seat, may have done him ill, but in his mind, in the end, their goodness will still prevail (Stalin ended up turning Lenin’s socialist dream into a brutal nightmare. Misuari’s fate was less brutal—he was simply elevated to Chairman emeritus divested of his power.)
Countless times in the text, we see Misuari conned into agreeing to something without considering the consequences: the OIC, Libya and Malaysia telling him to accept autonomy, the Fidel Ramos bribe of the ARMM governor position, the Council of 15’s demand that they send their own representatives to OIC meetings. As one reads through the book, one begins to doubt how much influence Misuari ever had on the people he led, his patrons abroad, and even those in the government who sympathized with him.
Yet, it is these glimpses of political innocence that prevent us from being completely disappointed with this book. Stern’s sappy portrait of his friend (who also happens to be his wife’s boss) does allow for some nice little gems to emerge (Misuari appointed Stern’s Tausug wife, Yolanda, MNLF ambassador to the Americas “because of her influence and sophistication”! There is a menacing portrait of the ambasadora wielding a kris in the photo section—this to the delight of Orientalists who see yet another confirmation of the “Moro’s ferocity” by one of their own).
Unlike Jose Ma. Sison, the great helmsman of local communists, whose class origin was of the haciendas, Misuari grew up poor in Jolo (the chapter on his childhood is one of the better ones in the book). He was the quintessential small-town kid who made good. He lived and continues to live a simple life. He is also an incurable romantic, pursuing Desdemona, his late first wife, from the time he saw her as a blossoming teenager in Jolo. A family man, the Chairman is attentive to the needs of his wives (despite being closely watched by three guards “with martial arts training,” he still manages to have another child with second wife, Tarhata!). And in his senior years he has become quite cantankerous (“Irritable after years of imprisonment, Misuari sometimes waved off arguments presented by men trying to explain another point of view”). There is indeed something quite endearing about the man, after all.
Like all hagiographies, however, the book has very little to say about the movement that engulfed the country in its second conventional war, which eroded the institutional ramparts of the Marcos dictatorship. There is only a slight mention of the “first 100” MNLF guerillas sent to Malaysia and Libya, Malaysia’s military aid to the MNLF, the armed deals involving Misuari, Tun Mustapha and the arms dealer Adnan Khassogi. These are all marginal notes, anecdotes that spice up the grand saga that is Misuari’s life.
Stern concludes by reiterating that age has not snuffed out the revolutionary fire in Misuari’s heart. But he issues a qualification: The Chairman now “wants his legacy to be peace.” In their path-breaking book Under the Crescent Moon, the journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria have a slightly different and more believable explanation for this mood swing: the MNLF’s Chairman emeritus was “simply tired of it all [and] saw the peace process as the only way to retire gracefully from the battlefield.”
Even here, the Chairman’s standing remains tenuous. If things end up well with the current negotiations, it may well be the MILF, Mohagher Iqbal and Murad Ibrahim who will have a better claim to that legacy. With these stories of failures, manipulations, compromises, splits, and capitulation laid out unwittingly by Tom Stern, Nur Misauri and the MNLF may just end up as mere prefaces to this larger story, little valued inside the Washington D.C., Beltway and ignored by Filipino and Muslim readers.
“The government is so dishonest, so sincere. They suppress information so that no one knows what is going on. It means government manipulates behind the scenes. It is very difficult to deal with a government that acts like that. How is it possible for them to deliver? The backlash of failure might be that all of Mindanao, Muslim and Christian alike, might seek independence from Manila. A meeting took place at the Royal Mandarin Hotel which included Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao, one of the most powerful men in Mindanao. The meeting declared desire for a Mindanao Independent Republic. Once the current Lady President is out, many may raise their flags. Robert (sic!) ‘Chavit’ Singson wants an independent Ilocano Republic; [Juan Ponce] Enrile wants an independent Cordillera Republic; many leaders in Cebu and Leyte want an Independent Visayas Republic. I told them, ‘No problem, we can work together.’ And they answered, ‘Then we will remove our money from Manila and open our Central Bank in Cebu.’” (Nur Misuari, in Nur Misuari: An Authorized Biography, p. 150)