MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claimed at an election event that the Moro National Liberation Front – an Islamic separatist organization based in southern Philippines – has threatened to go to war if federal constitutional reform is not approved, the President’s office said on Thursday.
“If you do not give it (Federalism) to me, let me be very honest: I will go to war,” MNLF founder Nur Misuari had said, Duterte had said late Wednesday night during an election event in Manila.
The MNLF has been fighting since the 1970s for an independent Islamic state or autonomous region for the Filipino Muslim minority, known as the Moro people, who live mainly in the Mindanao region.
Duterte has met with Misuari twice in the last month and had proposed the setting up of a working group that would also include representations from the rebels to discuss the issue.
However, Misuari views a 2014 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a splinter group of MNLF, with suspicion.
The MILF is chiefly located in central Mindanao and is the Philippines’ largest and strongest separatist group and has more fighters and influence than the MNLF.
It laid down arms in exchange of Bangsamoro leadership, a new autonomous region in southern Philippines, under a peace agreement following decades of separatist conflict.
Last February, an interim government was formed in Bangsamoro, comprising 80 members, 41 of whom came from MILF – including Murad Ebrahim, who presides over the interim government of Bangsamoro until elections are held in the region in 2022 – while 39 others were from other groups and organizations and from the civil society.
In the interim government, the MNLF has only five seats, which has created resentment within its members, particularly the faction led by Misuari, which has been sidelined.
Misuari is in favor of the federal reform and wants to make the entire Muslim majority region more autonomous, as against the option of Bangsamoro being under Manila’s control.
The Duterte government has drafted a constitutional reform that includes federalism, but it is yet to be approved in the Congress where all members do not support the reform.
It is not the first time that an autonomous government has been established in the area.
The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created in 1996, following an armistice with MNLF.
This initiative, which was not supported by the MILF, hasn’t contributed to the development of the region, which suffers from a lack of funds from the central government, corruption, and nepotism.