JUST as the dramatic scene started rolling in the public mind showing President Duterte and Moro rebel leader Nur Misuari “dying together” in a war over federalism, presidential interpreter Salvador Panelo shouted “Cut!”
It was a good video clip while it lasted – the two leaders embracing Tuesday at Malacañang, then Misuari threatening to wage war if the government did not deliver on a promise to shift to a federal setup and Duterte responding that they would die together if the federalism bid fails.
Sensing the fallout of what looked like a blackmail attempt of the secessionist leader, Panelo clarified the next day that what Duterte meant was that any rebellion would be met with force by the government even if that would mean the President’s dying in the process, or something like that.
One wonders why Misuari, 80, is allowed to roam freely when he is facing charges, including graft for questioned purchases he made while governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and rebellion in connection with the 2013 Zamboanga siege where more than 200 were killed.
He has permission to travel, with the President no less vouching for his return and good behavior to the courts and the military. Despite his dwindling followers, Misuari must still be of political use to Duterte.
As founding chair of the Moro National Liberation Front, Misuari appears to Duterte and some previous presidents — including Cory Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos — as a pivotal piece in the Mindanao peace jigsaw puzzle.
The President’s guarantees make him virtually untouchable — like members of the Communist peace panel led by Jose Ma. Sison in Utrecht enjoying some immunity because they are still useful to Duterte despite the supposedly “final” halt of negotiations with them.
(The finality of the cessation of peace talks with Joma Sison’s camp will become credible only when the Manila government officially declares the National Democratic Front/Communist Party of the Philippines a “terrorist group.”
(Such terror tagging would expose the NDF/CPP and its members to such sanctions as the freezing of their bank and other financial transactions and the review of the asylum status of Sison et al. by the Dutch government.)
The MNLF grew out of the Muslim Independence Movement in 1972. As Misuari’s hold on the younger Muslim firebrands loosened, several splinter groups sprang from the MNLF, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which now oversees the transition to an expanded Bangsamoro replacing the ARMM that Misuari used to head as governor.
• Duterte doesn’t want federalism per se
DUTERTE’S body language tells us that he is avoiding giving Misuari the feeling that he has lost in the influence game to his estranged comrades in the MILF. Aside from being assured provisional liberty while facing serious charges, he is publicly being given some importance.
The President has given him a morale boost when, in their meeting at the Palace, he expressed solidarity with his aspirations for a federated Moro state, which is substantially all that is left of his shattered vision of an independent Bangsamoro.
Misuari had to sound war-like when he voiced his faction’s goal of gaining at least federalism, and Duterte had the political sense to say he was for it too and and would even die for it – except that the optics did not quite convey the precise subliminal message.
Hence the need for Panelo to cut in with an amplification of what the President was trying to say, that the Mayor who claims to be half Moro understood the sentiments of Misuari on the need to shift to a federal form of government.
The President suggested forming a panel of 10 members, half of them from the MNLF and the rest from the government, to help clear the path to federalism. Nobody pointed out that similar committees had been formed already to advise also on the overworked subject of federalism.
“They will have a one-on-one meeting,” Panelo told reporters about somebody’s dying, “After which we will celebrate for its success and if it fails we will die together… that’s the response of the President.”
Regarding going to war, Panelo said: “What he (Duterte) is saying is because the chairman said ‘I’ll go to war,’ which means if he goes to war then he will be fighting the government so if he’s fighting the government then the head of the government is the president, they would be fighting with each other. That was what he meant.”
Asked if Misuari’s war threat was a cause for concern, Panelo pointed out (correctly, we think) that the MNLF was at its strongest during the 70s and the 80s but that the government beat them. In short, the answer was “No!”
As we continue to watch Duterte, we get the feeling that he does not particularly want federalism per se as if it is the only key to his and the country’s political future.
What we suspect he really wants is a/any political setup or system (including federalism) that will amend or revise the Constitution and remove the bar to his staying in power beyond the end of his term in 2022.
This route is reminiscent of the martial law path that Ferdinand Marcos took in 1972 when he scrapped the Constitution that limited him to two consecutive four-year terms to enable the budding dictator to rule beyond the 1973 end of his last term.
There are other ways, or excuses, for revising the Constitution to eliminate present term limits. Shifting to a federal system is just one of them.
But Duterte, turning 74 on March 28, has been saying lately he is tired and looking forward to stepping down? It’s joke time 24/7 with Digong!