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MGG: Nur Misuari throws a spanner in the works
By M.G.G. Pillai

28/11/2001 11:08 pm Wed


01-15 December 2001


Nur Misuari throws a spanner in the works

M.G.G. Pillai

The Malaysian and Philippine governments are in a bind over the ousted governor of the Austonomous Muslim Mindanao Region, Mr Nur Misuari. He fled his post mid-November after Manila accused him of fomenting a rebellion, landed in a Malaysian island off Sabah last week, an embarrassed Kuala Lumpur announces it captured him 48 hours later after denying he was in Malaysian terrorial waters. What this meant to the politics of the two countries was clear almost immediately. The Malaysians gave the impression it acted swiftly to contain a terrorist, then became coy about how to deal with him. He is accused of illegal entry, but the deputy prime minister and home minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, would rather send him back and let Manila do the dirty work. Manila, on the other hand, wants Kuala Lumpur to deal with him. For action against him would tie the hands of who acts. A strange reaction indeed over how to deal with an acknowledged terrorist!

President Gloria Arroyo had to neutralise him since she has a new Muslim ally in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with whom her government signed a peace treaty in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, with the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, as mid-wife. It was her necessary move to oust the Moro National Liberation Front, which Mr Misuari heads, and which her predecessor, ousted predecessor, Mr Joseph Estrada, espoused. Mr Misuari laid himself open to sustained criticism for his lavish lifestyle, his greed, his penchant for selling titles to status-seeking Malaysians who could not obtain, or afford, the local variety: he offered them for one-tenth what it would have cost them here.

His links with Malaysian politicians, in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur, irked Manila, but Mr Estrada sent him to Mindanao to keep the area from blowing over. But he is not without detractors, and is not the revered figure he once was. His MNLF is split, and a faction, the MILF, is now the Manila favourite. He has much support in Mindanao, and if charged -- he could be jailed 20 years for rebellion, it could create another round of political uncertainty. So, President Arroyo's hopes Kuala Lumpur would take him off her back.

Kuala Lumpur cannot without bloodying its nose. However one looks at it, Mr Nur Misuari is an important peg in deflecting the Philippine claim to Sabah. It was Kuala Lumpur which nurtured him, encouraged the rebellion in Mindanao, with Libyan and other West Asian countries pitching in, in response. Now Kuala Lumpur is in a bind. If he is not tried as an illegal immigrant, as it is only happy to do if he had been from Bangladesh or India or Myanmar, its bona fides are challenged, and more important, anger the Muslims in Malaysia, especially in Sabah, where he was a following. If it does not, the political landscape in Sabah could shift away from the Muslim-dominated coalition. There is therefore more to the largely Roman Catholic-led Parti Bersatu Sabah joining the National Front than is let out. Mr Nur Misuari's arrest, willy nilly, affects the political scene in Sabah.

Neither Kuala Lumpur nor Manila thought through what after Mr Nur Misuari's arrest. Both acted within the larger context of the war against terror, to which they are reluctantly conjoined, and where Mr Misuari was at the time of his arrest, though he used one of the special routes Malaysia had set up for the Mindanao rebels to ferry to and fro Sabah, could well have been pinpointed by US aerial surveillance. The gungho statements in the two capitals suggest this. Both dissemble at what to do with him. The Philippines, therefore, must keep her distance from him, as Malaysia, with its newly entrenched Islamic credentials and its long history in backing him.

Mr Nur Misuari is an enigma: a well-thought-of university lecturer in Manila who defected from the elite in Manila in the 1970s to fight for southern Philippine (Moro) independence. Malaysia encouraged him, indeed funded him, through the late Tun Datu Mustapha bin Datu Harun, the then iron man of Sabah. He travelled on a Malaysian passport for years; I would meet him often, in the 1970s, when he used to live in the cheap hotels in the area in Kuala Lumpur I live in, and in Tripoli, Libya, when I was there in 1976. His connexions with the Malaysian government were obviously informal, but he had had no difficulty then to meet whomsoever he wanted. He was a pawn in the Philippines claim to Sabah, but he was also caught up in the Muslim support for independence of Muslim provinces in non-Muslim states. When he was appointed the governor of the Autonomous Muslim Mindanao Region, he made officials visits to Sabah and Malaysia. He was closer to the ousted and jailed former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and this made some of the Prime Minister's men distance themselves from him.

He fashioned a role for himself beyond outside support, diminished it with his greed in power, but still has much support in Mindanao, and the Muslim world. His direct links with Sabah politicians, and his extended family there, is one Kuala Lumpur, or Manila, cannot break. Nothing would have happened to him if September 11, with its US follow-up, the global coalition against terror, had not happened. One distinction to disappear was the thin line between "our" freedom fighter and "their" terrorist. Dr Mahathir re-defined the rules by skewing it in his own country, targetting any and sundry as terrorists in a political exercise to retain power. He must act against Mr Misuari, since he falls within his own recent definition of terrorism: if Al-Maunah and Kesatuan Mujahideen Malaysia are terrorist organisations, surely the MNLF also is; since he hands over the Achenese terrorist, or freedom fighter (depending on who you talk to) to Indonesia and certain death, should he not Mr Misuari? Can he, and keep his political composure?

Mrs Arroyo's choice is as convoluted and impossible. She would not, as Dr Mahathir, admit Mr Misuari is linked to the Philippines' claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah. But he is. Malaysia's, and the Philippines's, quiet support to destabilise the other over Sabah continues, desultorily, since her father, President Diasdado Macapagal, laid formal claim four decades earlier. The International Court of Justice in the Hague would not allow the Philippines to intervene in Malaysia's dispute with Indonesia over two islets off Sabah. Neither can blame the United States, intent on breaking the Bin Laden connexion in Mindanao. As the war in Afghanistan heads for a stalemate, despite Washington's overwhelming aerial supremacy, it must prove that its global coalition against terror works by proxy in distant lands. Mr Misuari is one enemy of that proxy war. But he is one that Kuala Lumpur and Manila would rather not have to deal with. But they must.

M.G.G. Pillai