The Moro National Liberation Front MNLF is a nationalist political organization which has been waging armed struggle against the Philippines state since its establishment in 1969. Member of the Central Committee of MNLF, Commander Haji Ibrahim “Bambi”, 67 years old, met the author for an interview in January 2013 at an undisclosed location in Sabah, Malaysia – Interview with Haji Ibrahim published on ZNet, by Andre Vltchek, February 14, 2013.
AV (Andre Vltchek): Peace process, peace agreements, broken peace agreements and more process… It appears a never ending saga. You are facing Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), one of the most brutal and corrupt armies in the world; the army, which is determinedly supported by the former colonizers of the Philippines, the United States, Spain, and indeed Europe. Do you have any chance to win the war and consequently the independence for your people?
- CB (Commander “Bambi”): It would not be easy. We would all have to unite: MNLF, MILF, and the Marxist groups. MILF would have to agree to join the constitutional process and agree to negotiate; something they are refusing to do. We all have to sit down and talk.
- The United States, Europe, the entire West would then have to joint our effort to implement, and then support, a real peace agreement.
- The peace process is in danger, because most of the terms agreed on during the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 and later at Jeddah Accord in 1987 were never implemented. The government is now busy dealing with the MILF. On top of it, the peace process would have to go through the constitutional procedure, within the Government of the Philippines. It would have to go through the Senate and through the Congress. And the fact that there are more Christians than Muslims in both institutions, even in Mindanao local Senate, would further complicate things.
- Once I attended a meeting sponsored by one of the EU countries. There were also representatives of Colombia there, of Indonesia, as well as 3 people from the US; probably CIA. I told them “American brothers, you are not our enemies, are you? You were preaching to us about freedom for so many years and decades. But when you are here, you are not seeking peace, instead you are siding with the Philippines government against the will of the people.”
AV: What exactly is the United States trying to achieve by supporting the Philippine regime?
- CB: The US goal is to control the entire Pacific. It wants to prevent China from playing any significant role in this part of the world.
- The US is playing a very dangerous game by training the Philippine military, justifying it by the ‘search’ for Abu Sayyaf fighters. All this is against the Philippine Constitution – the US military is not allowed to operate on the territory of the Philippines. But conducting joined exercises – Balikatan – is supposed to give ‘legitimacy’ to illegal military acts.
AV: Is the US using propaganda to justify its presence in the Philippines?
- CB: Yes, the propaganda is used all over the Philippines. The US is always portrayed as liberators, as good guys. Actually, it portrays itself as such. People are flooded with movies, books, and shows… Douglas MacArthur is presented as liberator, and people actually believe it, after all those years and decades of propaganda … //
… AV: What about the Marxists, Commander? Would you cooperate with the Marxist guerillas in Mindanao?
- CB: Of course! Around 1976, I met and incorporated some of their fighters. More precisely – we joined forces. At that time I was in command of some 70 men and their group in that particular area had only 7 or 8 people. We always see them as our allies. Those who are fighting against the Philippine government – that brutal and corrupt power – are our allies.
AV: When you say “brutal and corrupt power”, do you have in mind the Maguindanao Massacre, as an example?
- CB: Exactly – that was one of the most terrible examples of how corrupt and brutal the power in the Philippines is. It was a terrible story of the Ampatuan clan trying to demonstrate to President Arroyo just what it could do in ‘its own’ province. And the message was: we can do anything! Because, although the West calls the Philippines a ‘democracy’, it is one of the countries where the rulers can do anything they feel like to their own people. In Maguindanao, people who went against the Ampatuan clan got massacred; women including journalists were raped before being murdered, all women shot in their genitals, and then decapitated… 57 people, including 34 journalists died. Once you go against the rulers, this is what happens to you in the Philippines.
AV: I was once working in Gingook and Cagayan de Oro, in Mindanao. I was invited by one of the mightiest ruling clans in the country, because I was a friend of one of the greatest Philippine musicians, who happens to belong to it. At a dinner party, members of the clan began discussing the upcoming elections: who are they going to pay; who they are going to bribe and how much money will be involved. They knew who I was: some even read my books before they invited me; they read my articles and reports. But they had no fear. They were totally certain that nothing could endanger their power and their plans. They were even naming names of their allies in the government at the table, in front of me.
- CB: You are right: they have absolutely no fear! They buy votes, openly. Everybody knows how much is paid and by whom. It is utter madness.
AV: How many people in Mindanao support you – MNLF?
- CB: 99% of the Muslims. Now we are in the process of explaining to our Christian brothers that ours is not a Muslim cause, and that not all the Muslims are bad.
AV: How bad is anti-Muslim propaganda and discrimination in the Philippines?
- CB: Bad, very bad. And it is being spread for centuries.
- What they don’t say is that before the Spaniards came to colonize us, all these were actually Muslim lands, even what is now Manila. Then they began destroying our culture, attacking our religion. They were forcing us to become Pablo or Pedro, instead of Ibrahim or Abdullah. In the past, Spanish people called us ‘pirates’. But who are really the pirates here? Aren’t pirates those who invade your country and then plunder it?
- During Marcos, Christian militias called Ilaga began chasing away Muslim people from their homes in Mindanao.
- There were also large resettlement schemes and many land grabs of the Muslim lands, designed to make Muslims a minority in their own areas.
AV: So what is it going to be now, Commander – a war or negotiations?
- CB: We have to join forces – all of us who are fighting for independence and justice. But we already fought so much! We fought during Marcos; once I fought for 6 months, day and night, without any rest.
- I am tired. I am tired of fighting. I am 67 years old. I know that this war could go on and on, for another 100 years.
- I know the culture of the people in this part of the world. What frightens me is that one day some religious fanatics could influence our young boys. It can happen, you know, if there is no solution to the conflict. It would be extremely dangerous scenario.
AV: The conflict is also economic and social, not just political, isn’t it? When I worked on Basilan Island, I once stumbled over a provincial hospital, one ‘renovated’ from US aid. The operation theater there was terrible, and when I entered the dental department, I was told that there were no drills, just instruments to extract the teeth.
- CB: And I am sure they had no anesthetics, either – for those extractions.
- It is a social issue. Our people are living in terrible conditions. In much worse, far worse conditions, than those people in Luzon and elsewhere in Philippines. By the way: I hate the name of the country. You know why it is called that? After King Philip II!
AV: How many people died in the war, so far?
- CB: We don’t have exact numbers, but even a long time ago we calculated that well over 100.000 civilians must have died. Often we had no time to bury our dead – they were sometimes eaten by dogs; it was terrible. So just in the 70’s – over 100,000 people died.
- In 1976 – in Zamboanga Norte, I once could only count human heads – 68 heads in total – because the government forces had burned the bodies. All of the victims were highlanders – from the Kalibugan Tribe. Some skulls were big – those of adult men and women – but some were tiny; those of the babies. And this was just one massacre of so, so many!
- Marcos introduced Marshall Law during his administration. We lost more fighters during that period, but the government of Philippines had 3 times heavier losses than we did.
AV: What are you called by the US?
- CB: In the past, they used to call us Maoists or Communists.
- We are not on that terrorist list of theirs. But they consider us their main enemies.
- Abu Sayyaf is on their terrorist list, of course. But the CIA created Abu Sayyaf during the government of Ramos, to undermine the MNLF. Both the US and Philippine governments needed more bombs to explode, more weapons to be used; in order to have their military budgets approved. It is also no secret that during the wave of kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf, 80-90% of the ransom money used to go directly to the military leaders.
- And the US is ‘too far away’, and ‘it does not see’. Well, it simply doesn’t want to see, that’s all. If it wanted to see, it would see very clearly what is going on.
- The government and the US say to the MNLF: “Oh, you can’t control your own people – Abu Sayyaf!” They say no peace could be reached if we can’t control Abu Sayyaf. It is undeniable that some Abu Sayyaf fighters are former members of MNLF – including Commander Nur.
- But what they refuse to say and acknowledge is that we hate Abu Sayyaf! We have nothing to do with them. All over Mindanao, people are distancing themselves from them, seeing them as clients of the US forces… Abu Sayyaf has such a bad image!
- I would like to say that the MNLF even fought Abu Sayyaf. Once they kidnapped a female medic, from our ranks. We attacked their camp and freed the medic … //
… (full interview text).
(Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Expathos. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website. See also his blog, his reviews, his articles, his images, his films (scroll down!!), … and so on).