Sulu Standoff Provoked by Peace Pact Violations

Feb. 13, 2007

The detention by Moro rebels of a military group led by Muslim convert Brig. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino last week stemmed from the repeated postponement of a proposed tripartite meeting with the government and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The proposed tripartite meeting was to tackle issues related to the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the GRP and the MNLF.


The detention by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of a group led by Muslim convert, Marine Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino in Jolo, Sulu on Feb. 2-4 stemmed from the repeated postponement of a proposed tripartite meeting with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The proposed tripartite meeting was to tackle issues related to the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the GRP and the MNLF.

This was revealed by Jolo Councilor Temojen Cocoy Tulawie in an interview with Bulatlat. Tulawie, who is also a convener of the Concerned Citizens of Sulu, was with representatives of the Geneva-based conflict-monitoring group Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in mediating in what has been described in some news reports as a hostage drama.

The holding of the Army general led Gen. Hermogenes Esperson, Armed Forces chief of staff, on Feb. 9 to order military meetings with Moro rebels to be held on neutral grounds.

Dolorfino, who also uses the name Ben Muhammad, went with Undersecretary for Peace Ramon Santos and 13 others to the MNLFs Camp Jabal Ubod in Panamao, Jolo, southern Philippines morning of Feb. 2 to talk with MNLF representatives headed by Ustadz Habier Malik. The group included two colonels, a junior officer, nine enlisted men, and several members of Santos staff. In the afternoon of that same day, they were prevented from leaving the camp.

Tulawie told Bulatlat that Malik and his men held Dolorfinos group as a leverage for demanding a definite schedule for the tripartite meeting proposed by the MNLF.

General Dolorfino and his group were asked why the tripartite meeting had been postponed again, and Undersecretary Santos could not give any answer, Tulawie told Bulatlat. So they were prevented from leaving until the GRP and the OIC agreed to schedule a meeting for March 17. That will only be a preliminary meeting.

The Jolo councilor pointed out that even the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) shied away from describing what happened as an illegal detention.

There were Marines and Army soldiers in Dolorfinos group and they were not disarmed, Tulawie said. They continued the discussions in the camp until the government and the OIC agreed to schedule a meeting.

Tulawie said the MNLF had been pushing for a tripartite meeting as early as before the original date of the 12th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit, but it kept being postponed. It had been postponed five times, Tulawie disclosed.

This repeated postponement of the proposed tripartite meeting provoked the MNLF to hold Dolorfinos group until a definite schedule could be agreed upon, Tulawie explained.*

Ustadz Habier Malik said the tripartite meeting would serve as a venue for threshing out what could be wrong with the GRP and what could be wrong with the MNLF in the implementation of the 1996 Peace Agreement, Tulawie said.


The MNLF traces its origins to a massacre of between 28 and 64 Moro fighters recruited by the government in 1968 for a scheme to occupy Sabah, an island near Mindanao to which the Philippines has a historic claim.

Sabah ended up in the hands of the Malaysian government during the presidency of Diosdado Macapagal (1961-1965). His successor Ferdinand Marcos conceived a scheme involving the recruitment of Moro fighters to occupy the island.

The recruits were summarily executed by their military superiors in 1968, in what is now known as the infamous Jabidah Massacre.

The Jabidah Massacre triggered widespread outrage among the Moros and led to the formation of the MNLF that same year. The MNLF waged an armed revolutionary struggle against the GRP for an independent Muslim state in Mindanao.

The Marcos government, weighed down by the costs of the Mindanao war, negotiated for peace and signed an agreement with the MNLF in Tripoli, Libya in the mid-1970s. The pact involved the grant of autonomy to the Mindanao Muslims.

Negotiations between the GRP and the MNLF went on and off until 1996, when the two parties signed a Final Peace Agreement which created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as a concession to the group.

Sulu is one of four provinces under the ARMM: the others are Basilan, Maguindanao, and Tawi-Tawi.

Renewed hostilities

In October 2001, hostilities broke out anew between the GRP and the MNLF. The military was in hot pursuit of Abu Sayyaf bandits who had abducted tourists in Sipadan, Malaysia. At one point, the military had announced the defeat of an Abu Sayyaf contingent in Talipao, Sulu.

The MNLF, however, said that it was its guerrillas, not Abu Sayyaf bandits, who were killed by the military.

The massacre in Talipao led the MNLF, just five years after signing a peace agreement with the government, to once more take up arms. MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari, a former political science professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) who was then ARMM governor, said the Talipao Massacre was a violation of the 1996 Peace Agreement.

Misuari, who was then in Malaysia, ended up being arrested and subsequently detained in a military camp in Sta. Rosa, Laguna (38 kms south of Manila). He is currently facing rebellion charges.

Military officials have repeatedly accused the MNLF of coddling terrorist groups in its turf but this has been denied by MNLF leaders. Bulatlat

* The 12th ASEAN Summit was supposed to be held in Cebu last December. It was, however, postponed to January purportedly due to a storm that hit the country in mid-December. It finally pushed through in Cebu last month.

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