Muzzled Philippine rebel leader seeks one last chance to roar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2007, 12:00am

The fire has gone from Nur Misuari's eyes. The man who once ignited the imagination of millions of Muslim Filipinos to fight for an independent homeland sits on a threadbare faux-French armchair in the spacious living room of a decrepit, rented mansion in suburban Manila - a prisoner of the state.

Hanging on a wall behind him is a giant close-up of his much younger self in battle gear, a belligerent frown on his face and fire in his eyes. The photo is the only sign the chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front lives here, secured day and night by heavily armed guards.

But he is not angry with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the first chief executive to detain him in his 36 years as a rebel leader.

'No, because nothing happened to us,' Misuari says in the first extensive interview he has given since 2001.

After feeling like a cornered animal, Misuari now views his cage in a more positive light.

'It is turning into a blessing in disguise,' he says. 'My diplomat friends told my wife, Roida: 'It's better for the chairman because otherwise all that mischief of the Jemaah Islamiah and the Abu Sayyaf would have been imputed to him'.'

The government moved Misuari to the faded mansion after he had spent four years with his co-accused, Ustadz Abuharis Usman, in a cell at a military camp in Santa Rosa, Laguna, which was built to incarcerate deposed former president Joseph Estrada.

A year ago, Misuari asked the court for medical leave, and the government agreed to his extended hospital confinement to treat a chronic lung infection and erratic blood pressure.

Now aged 66, the man sitting in the second-floor living room on a balmy afternoon appears meek and frail under an oversized Nehru-style shirt. He is hardly the picture of a man accused of masterminding an assault on military camps on Jolo Island in 2001 after Mrs Arroyo refused to back him in his bid for re-election as governor of the Muslim autonomous region.

The assaults were followed by the taking of civilian hostages in the Christian city of Zamboanga, which led to 113 deaths.

Misuari fled to Sabah, where Malaysian authorities detained him for possible links with the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf. But they found none and deported him to Manila, where he was charged with rebellion.

The man who signed a peace pact with the government in 1996 in exchange for Muslim autonomy over a wide swathe of land in the south and the governorship is still reluctant to speak out.

'My silence is self-imposed,' Misuari says apologetically.

'You can see how delicate our situation is,' he adds, waving his hand in the direction of the staircase.

Downstairs, several heavily armed members of the police special action force stand guard. They impound any visitors' cameras, telephones and tape recorders. A female officer is on hand to frisk women visitors.

Misuari's reluctance to speak out stems from his concern of saying something that would jeopardise his release, should he anger the government.

It is a startling turnabout for someone who once defied strongman Ferdinand Marcos by engaging in a four-year armed revolt that forced the dictator to the negotiating table in Libya in 1976.

At times, though, the fire flickers in his eyes and his old belligerent self surfaces, especially when talking about his beloved south and what he still wants to do there.

'I want peace,' he says. 'Peace is the creator of wealth. Once you have peace, investors might come.

'To this day, my people live in homes no better than chicken coops.'

This was why he wanted to run for governor of his home province of Sulu in May polls under the banner of Mrs Arroyo's Kampi Party. He says he wants to improve his people's lives, build roads, and water and sewage systems.

Launching into a vintage diatribe, Misuari raises his voice and asks: 'How can we have peace in our homeland when the world is not so happy with us, when the world is behind this conspiracy, when the world is giving ammunition, supplies and bullets?'

He declines to be more specific, saying he wants to avoid offending anyone.

Misuari refuses to say why he has openly supported the government's joint military training exercises in the south with American troops. He also declines to comment on reports that his followers forced government negotiators to stay at a rebel camp last weekend until the government agreed to review the 1996 peace agreement.

'I have no contact with the outside world and it is best this way, so we won't get embroiled [in controversies].'

Misuari is not allowed phone or internet access and all visitors are screened. But Roida, his second wife - whose advice he values, plus a few loyal allies who have no pending arrest warrants, still manage to slip in precious bits of news during brief visits.

When he was a rebel leader and later governor, Misuari used to hobnob with Middle Eastern royalty and powerful businessmen, keeping fit by running between flights. Today, his world has shrunk to just a few square metres.

He still sees the leaders with whom he shook hands, but only on cable television. Some are dead, like Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose peace deal with Israel inspired him to ink his own pact.

The only exercise he gets now is running 3km a day on a treadmill.

The former political science professor spends his time reading books such as The Wars of Empire by Douglas Porch, which discusses western colonial experience, or The Sion Revelation, which speculates about a shadowy sect deep within the Christian world. Plans to write his memoirs have been put on hold - they might offend too many people and he has no access to records to ensure accuracy.

In 2001, after the government dumped him as governor and his group nearly fell apart in his absence, Misuari seemed all but finished.

Last year, though, the clamour for his release and participation in the Mindanao peace process grew, starting with Muslim member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Lately, even Catholic bishops and Christian non-government organisations have added their voices to the cause.

Misuari discloses that former senator Santanina Rasul has told the presidential palace that 'the longer he stays in detention, the more sympathy he gains'.

Misuari knows he has already earned a place in history but is struggling mightily to prove he should not be consigned there yet - he wants another chance.