Where Gaddafi is still loved
By Al Labita
April 29, 2011
MANILA – At 71, Usman Kamlon was arguably too old to be on the front lines of a sometimes violent anti-war protest rally. But he was undaunted, despite the sight of truncheon-wielding anti-riot policemen nearby.
“I just want to sympathize with [Muammar] Gaddafi,” he said in halting English on the sidelines of a rally led by Filipino-Muslim activists last week in the Philippine national capital. “No to NATO bombings in Libya … We love Khadaffy,” his placard read in reference to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization missions in Libya.
Like other assembled protesters, Kamlon’s stance echoed his fellow Muslims’ heartfelt sentiment for the Libyan despot who over the years brought war – and peace – to the resource-rich but impoverished southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Under siege by NATO warplanes and an armed uprising by Libyan rebels, Gaddafi faces an uncertain fate. That has raised doubts here about Libya’s future role in Mindanao, where Gaddafi once supplied guns, money and training to Muslim secessionists in their bid to establish a separate Moro state.
Moro rebel groups in Mindanao have expressed outrage over what they perceive as the unlawful attempts of Western powers, including the United States, to oust Gaddafi from power by using force.
The rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – both recipients of Gaddafi’s largesse over the years – strongly condemned the United Nations (UN)-sanctioned attacks on Libya.
“Instead of air strikes and Tomahawk missiles, the UN should send international observers or peacekeepers to Libya,” says MNLF central committee chair Muslimin Sema.
The MILF has made similar appeals to the UN to broker a peace deal between Gaddafi and the Libyan insurgents, similar to what Tripoli has done for strife-torn Mindanao in the Philippines.
“The interests of the Libyans should take precedence over those whose interests are geared towards protecting their sway and control of the vast oil reserves of Libya,” says MILF secretariat chair Muhammad Ameen.
In the same statement, which in places tends to favor the Libyan revolt, Ameen said the “legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people to preserve their unity and setting up reliable and freely chosen democratic institutions should be above personal, family or tribal considerations”.
Both the MNLF and MILF fired salvos at the 58-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Arab League and the African Union for their lack of efforts to help mediate the political upheaval in the oil-rich North African country.
No doubt what bothers both Moro rebel groups more is that any scenario in which Gaddafi is toppled would likely doom their vision of eventually establishing an independent Moro republic carved out of the islands of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan in the south.
Under Gaddafi, Libya’s role in Mindanao morphed over the years from that of warmonger to peacemaker.
From 1968 to 1972, Gaddafi funneled arms and money to the secessionists. The Libyan strongman later became a peacemaker following the forging of the Manila-MILF peace agreement he helped broker in Tripoli in 1976 – thanks to the shuttle diplomacy of then First Lady Imelda Marcos.
That deal, which Gaddafi hailed as a “milestone in the promotion of universal peace and understanding”, led to the creation of an autonomous regional government for Muslim Mindanao with MNLF chairman Nur Misuari as its first governor.
It was also through the Libyan leader’s initiative that the powerful OIC extended observer status to the MNLF, a feat that ruffled Manila’s diplomatic feathers and drew the envy of the MILF.
For the past years, Seiful Islam al-Gadaffi – Gaddafi’s eldest son – has tried to merge the mainstream MNLF and the MILF to forge a common front before the world Islamic community and to gain leverage in their bid for an independent Muslim state in Mindanao.
Those mediating efforts, however, ran into entrenched differences in outlook between the two groups. While the MNLF seemed inclined to accept autonomy before independence, the MILF remained intransigent in its stand for an outright separate and independent Moro republic.
With Gaddafi and his sons now unable to exert influence and control on the warring MNLF and MILF, their rift has gone from bad to worse. They have recently exchanged barbs, each accusing the other of betrayal of the Moro goals and aspirations for a separate homeland.
Misuari has opposed the on-off peace talks between Manila and the MILF, although the process has Gaddafi’s blessings as part of his decades-old drive to settle the long-drawn Mindanao conflict.
Libya forms part of the Malaysian-led international monitoring team now overseeing the Manila-MILF ceasefire pact in Mindanao. Other countries represented in the team are Japan, Norway, Brunei and the European Union.
To Misuari, the MILF has lost its legitimacy to represent the Moros as many of its field commanders and fighters had shifted their allegiance to the MNLF. He says the MILF has been reduced to a ragtag band after some of its commanders formed a separate group called the BangsaMoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
In response, the MILF denied Misuari’s claim and accused him of making attempts to “pirate” its followers and to project an image that the MNLF is a force to be reckoned with.
Despite prodding from Washington and other Western allies, Manila has refused to publicly say it backed the UN resolution imposing the no-fly zone over Libya and other punitive measures against Gaddafi and his regime.
Libya hosts some 25,000 overseas Filipino workers whose welfare and security Manila can’t compromise in the face of a political upheaval. Through the Gaddafi Foundation, the Libyan leader has poured in millions of his oil wealth to finance the construction of school buildings, roads and other vital projects in Mindanao’s depressed areas, regardless of whether these benefited Muslims or Christians.
Before she bowed out in June last year after completing her six-year term, then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo succeeded in convincing Gaddafi to invest in the development of the sprawling Liguasan Marsh in Maguindanao province, an MILF stronghold. The area is believed to contain natural gas deposits.
When the notorious Abu Sayyaf rebel group resorted to kidnappings, Libyan emissaries figured prominently in negotiating for the release of hostages, some of them foreigners, and the payment of ransom demands. They included US missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham in 2001.
Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist.