Politics, World, Asia - pacific

‘All religious groups to benefit from Moro autonomy’

Pro-autonomy campaign must appeal to both Christians and Muslims, says Turkey’s IHH representative

‘All religious groups to benefit from Moro autonomy’ Huseyin Oruc, deputy head of the Istanbul-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and one of the members of the international team monitoring the peace process in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao

Mehmet Ozturk, Faruk Tokat


The countdown has started for a plebiscite that will grant the Bangsamoro -- a collective term for Filipino Muslims living on an island south of the Philippines -- long-awaited comprehensive autonomy.

A plebiscite is set to begin on Jan. 21 in two cities, with a second round to be held on Feb. 6 in other areas in the neighboring region, to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

Once the bill is ratified the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) would be created.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency Huseyin Oruc, deputy head of the Istanbul-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and one of the members of the international team monitoring the peace process said the autonomy in the region will benefit all religious groups.

AA: Mr. Oruc, you have closely followed the process leading up to the Bangsamoro Organic Law. We can begin our discussion from there.

HUSEYIN ORUC: With the Bangsamoro Organic Law, we are actually talking about a process of negotiations that began in 1997 when Hashim Salamat [late leader of Moro Islamic Liberation Front] was alive. From the beginning, Hashim Salamat pursued his efforts with the aim of upholding the peace. He held this principle: War is fought to attain peace. He considers wars that do not end in peace are just mass killings. For this reason, he has never been far from peace. He is a person who has always kept the doors open to peace.

As we know, Hashim Salamat split from Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to establish the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at the beginning of the process. He founded MILF after parting ways with Misuari. We are not sure of the reason for this divide.

AA: Is this the same agreement that was sponsored by [Muammar] Gaddafi?

HO: Yes. Hashim Salamat did not accept those agreements or the autonomy that they entailed. His aim was to work toward independence. This was one apparent cause of the split.

A difference in worldviews definitely lies at the base of the split. There was a very basic difference. Hashim Salamat had said: “We are Muslims. These [bad] things are certainly happening because we are not good Muslims. Our affairs will improve if we become [real] Muslims again and if we return to our values.”

Misuari, on the other hand, said: “We are Moro. There are those among us who are Muslims, natives, adherents of local religions and also Christians.”

The fact is all were present in the formation of the MNLF. I had heard this from an elder in the region. It is a common belief that the division within the MNLF caused the formation of MILF. This was not exactly the case behind the scenes. The MNLF had been formed as an umbrella organization made up of various groups coming together in a single body as a project of Malaysia. Malaysia had gathered all those resistance groups in 1971 for a summit in Kuala Lumpur. They proposed an umbrella organization in that summit. During the summit, Misuari proposed MNLF, while Hashim Salamat proposed MILF as the name for the umbrella organization. Misuari’s proposal was accepted and the body was named the MNLF. The MILF, which had been named by Hashim Salamat, was already there at the beginning of the 1970s. An umbrella group was formed inside the movement but there had not been much room for joint action. The actual split happened in 1973.

There are several different dates on which the MILF is said to have been formed. It is said that it was established between 1977 and 1981. However, the official founding declaration was in 1981. The two groups broke off entirely from one another in 1977. I believe that Hashim Salamat and Nur Misuari never came together in a central committee after 1973. There was a clear split.

Aside from their stances on peace and differences in worldviews, the two leaders did not agree on very basic understandings of the resistance. The MNLF was an offensive group. It held a territory and it used to attack the government. The MILF, since its founding, did not see itself this way. It rather devised a resistance based mostly on defense. Hashim Salamat had formed the MILF as a protective force while trying to build the society he had envisioned. He always guarded his strength and stayed in the defense. For this reason, the MILF has carried out a few offensive operations. They mostly responded to attacks on themselves.

AA: We know that they did not target civilians, but did he not target paramilitary and military forces?

HO: They did. But they did not adopt aggressive tactics as a basic strategy as the MNLF did.

On top of this, Hashim Salamat is an older resistance figure than Nur Misuari. He had been in the resistance since the 1960s.

AA: What was the situation before the MNLF and MILF?

HO: Although, there have been small and large resistance groups since the beginning of the 1960s, but the organized resistance began in 1967. The Philippino Army trained Moro youth to attack the Island of Sabah in Malaysian territory in March 1968. These youth were killed [by the Philippino forces for reasons that remain state secrets] in Jabidah, which is near Manila. This constituted a genocide. [This incident is known as the Jabidah or Corregidor Massacre]

AA: Actually, I see this Jabidah massacre that you are talking about as a case of counter-guerilla activity used by the [Filipino] government.

HO: Yes, that’s right.

AA: Nur Misuari was also involved, I believe.

HO: There is no record of any such involvement of Nur Misuari. He comes into the picture at a later point. He was a professor at a university at that time… He was older than Hashim Salamat and an impressive orator. He is quite a charismatic person.

Hashim Salamat, on the other hand, was a different kind of person… Hashim was a goal-driven leader who had charisma in his own circle. Hashim Salamat’s objective is often misunderstood. More than running a resistance organization, he actually wanted to build a society. He achieves this for the most part, succeeding where all other resistance groups across the Islamic world have failed.

AA: On one hand, there was an armed struggle, while on the other there were schooling efforts and education centers. Is that correct?

HO: There was an educational academy in each and every one of the military camps. There definitely was scholarly education.

Hashim Salamat had four principles in all his works. The social transformation based on these four principles was part of everyone’s philosophy. This was part of a project put into practice by Salamat and his companions. The first was enhancing Islamic consciousness. For Misuari, the first priority is resistance. For Salamat, it was enhancing Islamic consciousness. Salamat clearly says: “We are Muslims, we must act like Muslims. Because we lack a truly Muslim structure that is why we have these problems. We must first fix ourselves.” This is a strategy inspired by Surah al-Anfal, 53 in the Quran:“…Allah would not change a favor which He had bestowed upon a people until they change what is within themselves…”.

He [Salamat] says: “We are known as mujahids. The world knows us as mujahids but 30 percent of those whom we call mujahids do not pray [five daily Islamic prayers].” In Philippines, the mujahids usually didn’t pray until Hashim Salamat began his efforts.

The second [principle] was organizational strength that means institutionalization. The third was arms and army. Resistance represents the third basic principle of the group. The fourth is self-sufficiency. This refers to both the organization and the individual.

AA: Was the resistance of that time more of a national struggle, a struggle for the homeland?

HO: Yes, a national struggle. The U.S. steamrolled the region. This is not commonly known. Neither the Spanish nor the Filipinos committed such oppression that was seen under the U.S. control. In 1946, the Philippines got independence.

The U.S. occupied the Philippines in 1898. There was a war between the U.S. and Spain. The Americans left the region in 1946 with the Paris Agreement, after having stayed there for 48 years. The people of the region experienced more oppression in the 48 years of the U.S. occupation than they faced in the past 500 years. There was a mediation attempt from Istanbul in this period. There was a treaty signed with Istanbul’s mediation during the reign of [Sultan] Abdul Hamid in 1906-1907.

AA: In fact, the Ottomans sent a memorandum to the U.S.

HO: Yes, they sent a memorandum but they also told the Filipino Muslims to “abstain from armed struggle” otherwise they would all be killed [by the U.S.]. It was the Ottomans that helped stopped the armed struggle.

When we talk about [the region] today, we refer to the Southern Philippines. However, Bangsamoro existed long before the state of Philippines… Bangsamoro was a state long before there was the Philippine state. The struggle there is one of the oldest ongoing conflicts. Fighting began in 1521 and the region has never seen peace ever since.

It began with the arrival and killing of Magellan in 1521. This is also the beginning of Spanish occupation in the region. The Spanish claimed the land is the property of their King Phillip. We are talking about a series of problems caused first by the Spanish, followed by the Americans and then Filipinos with their oppressive policies after the founding of the Philippine state.

We are talking about a 500-year-old process. We can better understand it if we compare it to Palestine, though it is far away. As you know, there are four maps showing the situation in Palestine, in the beginning of the century and its current state through the course of the Israeli occupation. These maps shows the gradual shrinking of the land belonging to the Palestinians, eventually becoming only dots. A similar situation also occurred in Bangsamoro. While Muslims resided in nearly all of the southern part of the Philippines at the beginning of the [20th] century, migration carried out first by the Americans and then the Philippine state heavily transformed the demographics of the regional population. There are settlers as well. The fact that Christians have become the majority particularly on the eastern parts of the region is major proof of this demographic transformation.

This was in fact a Muslim-majority region. When the Philippine state was established in 1946, Muslims were in the majority in 13 provinces. This liberation movement had been initiated to achieve autonomy for all these 13 provinces. However, the number of Muslim-majority provinces dwindled to as low as five. The autonomy we are talking about today relates to these five provinces.

Fighting continued since the beginning but negotiations also continued. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF] remained at the negotiation table for 17 years. Accords were reached several times. However, due to various reasons the accords failed.

An agreement was signed in 2008. This was followed by a change in government and a the Supreme Court’s striking down of a portion of the deal. This caused the agreement to fail and fight to restart. When the Philippines’ previous leader Aquino -- son of Corazon Aquino, who had brought the revolution in the Philippines after Marcos -- was elected in 2010, he revived talks. The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed under his administration in 2014.

Everything was finalized but as the agreement was awaiting ratification in the country’s congress in 2015, Mamasapano in the Moro region became an area of contention with the U.S.’s intervention. The Philippine army launched an operation that it should not have. It entered the MILF-controlled territory in violation of the rules of engagement and without prior notice. This intervention on the MILF led to the deaths of 44 special forces soldiers of the Philippines army and the [negotiation] process was terminated again. The entire region was already under MILF control. The Philippines army would not enter that region. When its entrance was necessary, it used to do so in coordination [with the MILF]. This was an operation conducted without taking these measures.

The current President Duterte promised to solve the issue as one of his election promises.

AA: Is Duterte also from this region?

HO: Duterte is from Davao, one of the regions where former Muslim majority was turned into a minority. But he does have some Muslim ancestry. Duterte’s grandmother was Muslim. So, it was not long ago. He had a Muslim grandmother which he himself knew. Duterte Knows Mindanao, he knows the Moro issue. He had always promised to resolve the Moro crisis as early as his election campaign.

AA: It is said that he is a classmate of Misuari. Is this true?

HO: They were not classmates but they know each other very well in the region. They have a very old friendship. Misuari’s MNLF movement has three centers -- Davao, Zamboanga and Sulu. Sulu is the main one. Davao and Zamboanga are two centers where operations were carried out intensively. He had a very close friendship with Duterte due to Davao [hometown of Duterte]. Actually, it is Misuari that Duterte speaks to regarding the Moro issue. However, after Misuari’s gradual loss of power on ground and the death of Hashim Salamat in 2003, the government started dealing with Haji Murad Ebrahim [current leader of MILF] … The recent agreement was reached with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Hashim Salamat. In addition, Duterte repeatedly promised in the same election campaign to get the bill passed in accordance with the comprehensive agreement of 2014 and establish the new Bangsamoro. It took a while. After about two years in power, the bill was discussed and passed in both wings of [the Philippines] Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It has been in force since President Duterte’s signature of the bill in July 2018. Its implementation has begun.

AA: Now, there are two questions on this. One of them is about the ARMM period. I am referring to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao administration. The new administration we are looking at now is also going to be autonomous. Why is this new autonomous administration needed after the ARMM? What sets these two apart? Which one is more far-reaching?

HO: ARMM was established in 1989. The peace talks began in 1973 under Nur Misuari. There was a phase in which an autonomous region was founded. This was a process that began with Marcos. They sit with Marcos. Marcos holds these sessions in all 13 provinces. There were talks for autonomy in a much larger region than it is now.

There was the Tripoli Agreement and other treaties. There were also agreements in Jakarta that defined the framework of autonomy. However, the government never stays true to the agreements. It was trying to buy time. Then in 1986, Aquino comes to power with a popular revolution and the problems persist. A revolution occurred and Corazon Aquino was chosen as president of the country. She continued with the initiative to resolve the issue. However, she didn’t act to meet the demands of the Muslims in the region and continued with the previous course. When the negotiations halted, she unilaterally passed the legislation in the Congress in 1989, establishing the ARMM without including Muslims in the process. As such, the sides -- particularly the resistance -- were not involved in the 1989 process. The current ARMM as it is today was founded. An outsider who had no link with either the resistance or the then-leader Misuari was appointed provincial governor, kicking off the new process. In 1996, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] intervened to persuade Misuari to accede to the deal and he was appointed governor.

AA: Speaking of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, I believe Nur Misuari and the Moro National Liberation Front are members [of the OIC]?

HO: Yes, both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front have observer status in the OIC’s department related to minorities. There are serious efforts by the OIC for the union of these two groups. The OIC had been an intermediary in that agreement. Misuari takes the responsibility [of the deal] in 1996, but only on the condition that its shortcomings were corrected. The government continues as it always had. Nothing changed.

AA: Misuari became the head of the ARMM.

HO: Yes. He became the provincial governor. But this did not fulfill the Muslims’ demands. They had 43 demands. The government said it will meet all the demands. The OIC became one of the guarantors but as time went by none of the demands were fulfilled. The ARMM turned out to be an autonomous region that only met a small part of what was promised. It was very limited economically as well as administratively. It provided nothing as a legal system… In actuality it was a kind of de facto state system, which means there were states in the country. The ARMM was nothing more than one of these states. For this reason, it did not provide a solution to the Bangsamoro issue. Both Nur Misuari and Hashim Salamat knew this and continued their resistance.

AA: Was Nur Misuari imprisoned at one point?

HO: Absolutely. Misuari was arrested many times. He served as ARMM governor until 2001. After this, he saw that nothing was being done to move the process along. He himself could not be successful governor because of the way the system was built. The ARMM was designed in a manner that the drum was held by one person and the stick by the other in which the governor can get nothing done if the center [government] wishes so. For this reason, Nur Misuari could not form his team. It was not an easy thing for the resistance members to become administrators, who were previously fighting in the jungle and suddenly started running the region. The MNLF was unsuccessful in that instance. This led to the MNLF breaking up into 13 fragments.

The MNLF’s mujahids dropped their arms in accordance with the agreement at that time. They were included in the military and the police. In a very short time, they were deployed in different parts of the country. The MNLF lost all of its firepower. This led to its fragmentation and dissolution. The treaties are being discussed today because of the way the ARMM was designed and the failure [of the government] to live up to [its] promises. After this, the MILF increasingly takes on the running of the struggle for Moro. The MNLF began to lose popularity among the population. It is seen as unsuccessful and the MILF took on its previous role [as leader of the cause]. There was a peace process that began in 1997. Independence was demanded but this goal was withdrawn during talks… The sides began to work on a system of autonomy that provides greater rights than the ones the ARMM offered.

AA: At one point, there were some people that defined this autonomy as a “sub-state”. Is this still the case?

HO: Actually the concept of “sub-state” was something referred to by Filipino nationalists. It was not discussed during negotiations. It was propaganda that was used to sabotage the negotiations. Meanwhile, the articles agreed upon in the talks gave more powers to Bangsamoro than most of the other autonomous regions in the world. It had extremely wide-ranging powers with a dual legal system. One of the most simple descriptions of autonomy is a region that is independent in its internal affairs, but bound to the center in foreign affairs. However, a significant authority was given to Bangsamoro to establish ties abroad. For this reason, these issues became very controversial. Nationalist groups in the Philippines particularly objected: “This is not autonomy, this is a state. You are founding a state.” But in practice, this is an autonomous region inside the Philippine state. What had happened was that the resistance front compromised and agreed to autonomy over independence. Similarly, the government made concessions, saying “we will give you wider autonomy than that in the ARMM.”

AA: Did the government also demand they lay down their weapons in return?

HO: Armed resistance was to stop in favor of a political struggle. That is the essence of the agreement. All armed bodies in the region are to lay down their guns but without surrendering them to the government. This is one of the privileges of the agreement. An international commission was formed which also included Turkey. Our ambassador is serving as its chair from Turkey. The commission will receive the weapons. This is actually a fine thing to do. In the mind of the Moro, one of the worst things that could happen to a man is that he surrenders his weapons after all these centuries. Taking this into consideration, this independent body was formed. This independent commission will receive the weapons. It will take the weapons under its control. These weapons will not be given to the government.

AA: What will be the fate of disarmed soldiers?

HO: Programs will be instituted to reintegrate them into society. Some will retire. Some will be reassigned in the police or armed forces if their qualifications are appropriate. They will be included in the bureaucracy. Some have had already worked in the fields. There is a small amount of trade as well so they can take part in that as well. The government will support them in this.

AA: Will the autonomous region have a security force?

HO: The autonomous region will not have a security force in the beginning. Normally, a Bangsamoro police force was going to be formed, according to the agreement. However, this was not included in the law passed by the Congress. The police force remains with the center [government]. However, the front views this situation as only a beginning. They are saying that they will continue their talks with the government for the fulfillment of the rest of the agreement. The police force issue is among the issues that could not be agreed upon. A temporary security force is being formed as per the agreement. A roughly 6,000-strong force is being formed to ensure the security in this transition period. The MILF will contribute with 3,000 of its members. This is one of the most prioritized issues. These two groups that had been fighting each other until just a short while ago will now come together under one command to fulfill their duties to ensure the security in the region. They are currently being trained for this. There is going to be a plebiscite on Jan. 21.

The plebiscite will be in Bangsamoro and some neighbor regions.

AA: Is there any chance that a “no” vote may emerge from this plebiscite? Because there have also been demographic changes.

HO: It will be an agreement that expands the land as well as the police. This is one of the main differences from the ARMM. The land included in the ARMM does not fulfill the demands of the Muslims there. A snap plebiscite had been held in 2001. It was held on such a short notice that the decision was taken and implemented within a week. Despite this, six large municipalities, two cities and 39 towns adjacent to the ARMM voted “yes”. Talks had been ongoing for a while regarding their incorporation into the ARMM, but they failed to yield any result. Now, their inclusion is being discussed on the eve of the founding of Bangsamoro. The agreement was for the plebiscite to be held only in these regions. However, congress ruled that it would not be enough for them to vote “yes” themselves, but that an affirmative vote from their regions was also required. This is an article in the constitution. They said that they took such a position on account of the constitution. For that reason, the plebiscite will be held not only in these regions where Muslims represent the majority but also in areas where they are the minority. It is possible that there will be such a risk [of a no vote]. If this had not been the case, then there would have been no problem and these regions would definitely have joined. However, now Christian-majority regions will be asked “should they leave?” Muslims will be asked if they want to join the areas where other Muslims live. The others will be asked “Shall they leave? Do you allow it?”

AA: Is it a large risk?

HO: We can call it a moderate risk. It is neither very easy to say “they will definitely join” nor to say “this is a Christian-majority area, they will not”. A strong [election] campaign is required.

AA: Those who vote “yes” will stay, those who vote “no” will remain on the other side. Correct?

HO: Those who vote “yes” will be included in Bangsamoro and those who do not, in the Philippines. This requires a “double majority”, meaning a “yes” vote from both sides. We can give an example from Turkey in order to make it understandable. For instance, a plebiscite is to be conducted in Fatih [a district in Istanbul]. Normally it is thought that Fatih will vote to join. The agreement stipulated that the vote only take place in Fatih. However, due to a law passed in congress, the vote will be held across Istanbul, Fatih will vote “yes” but a majority “yes” vote from the rest of Istanbul is also required. That is what is making things more difficult. A serious campaign must be conducted for both sides.

AA: Let’s say if a “yes” vote comes out of Muslim-majority regions but a “no” vote from Christian-majority regions. Would this affect the final results?

HO: In such a case, they will not join Bangsamoro. It would affect the final results because a 51 percent “yes” vote is required. Here, a campaign addressing both sides must be conducted. This makes it even harder for those regions that want to join. However, as I said, it is not impossible. At first, Muslims must be effectively told what they would gain by joining Bangsamoro and the well-being that they will achieve. Secondly, Christian-majority areas must be told of the comfort that they will get after annexation to the Muslim regions. They will definitely gain a good deal of demographic comfort. Economically, the amount of funds they receive from the center will not change but a large part of the population will join the jurisdiction of Bangsamoro.

AA: Would there be a migration?

HO: There will not be a migration but the region will be incorporated as it is. These regions experience a serious dilemma one way or the other. There is a center that is mostly Christian populated. There are some fractions where Muslims live and this damages the harmony when we look from the Christians’ perspective. This must be told to them that the incorporation to Bangsamoro of the Muslim regions within their provinces will ease relations within their neighborhoods.

There are efforts towards this end. There is a positive turn among both the people and administrators. It was not very easy but in the beginning, this was seen as impossible. Efforts in the three-month period after the law was passed have brought people [Christians] to a point of considering to accept the arrangement.

AA: Are there any surveys related to this matter?

HO: There aren't many good surveys. There are studies suggesting that it [plebiscite] will be a neck and neck situation.

AA: If the plebiscite passes and 51 percent say yes, is there an international guarantee that will ensure the functioning of this mechanism? Is there any international guarantee that will ensure the continuation of this practice?

HO: None. After all, this is a matter of sovereignty. An autonomous area is being formed for Philippines’ sovereignty. There are no guarantors. There are only mediators. Malaysia is the main mediator of the agreements. There is a contact group in which Turkey is present. They take charge as facilitators. There is an international committee of five people, including one from IHH (Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation). We, as IHH, are included in this Monitoring Committee. These five people will evaluate whether all terms of 2014 agreement are met or not. We continue our observations on this issue by constantly working both in the field and the region. As the representative of IHH, I visit the region once in two months. We will conduct these observations for three and a half years of the transition period. At the end of period, all the articles of [2014] agreement should have been met.

Both parties, MILF and the state, along with our committee and the Malaysian mediator will gather and say: "Okay. All the terms of the agreement have been fulfilled." If [terms] are not met, that means the agreement hasn't been fully put into practice and we will go through a prolonged process. The only guarantor I could mention in this context is the one led by us [international committee of five] and Malaysia, which doesn't have sanction powers and it is more about moral values. If the parties or the Philippines says "no, it is over", then the only thing we can do is just say that Philippine state called “it’s over.” And, we will have the responsibility of announcing this to the world. Other than that, we don't have any power of imposing sanctions.

Since the law has to be passed through the plebiscite, it is predicted that the incoming administration will have to go through a plebiscite in order to change it. Therefore, it is not easy to change it [law]. It is a law established with a special status, more like a structure similar to that of a constitutional amendment. Accordingly, it is not easy to achieve this in the parliament, however, it is not impossible either.

AA: We also need to monitor the upcoming process as well. Let's suppose the plebiscite passes with 51 percent, are there any other expected developments? How will the process work

HO: After the plebiscite is conducted on Jan. 21, a body called "Bangsamoro Transition Authority" will be formed by the president. It will include 80 members and it will be the transitory parliament of Bangsamoro. This temporary parliament of 80 people will assume the administration of Bangsamoro until May 2022. The existing ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) will cease to exist. This 80-member parliament will actually get the keys [of administration]. This parliament will form a cabinet within itself and elect a prime minister, who will form the government and Bangsamoro will be ruled by this transitory government for three and a half years. These 80 people will be appointed by the president, however, the law suggests that the majority of them will have an affiliation with MILF, including the prime minister. That is to say, Moro Islamic Liberation Front will experience a transition period of three and a half years. At the same time, the other terms of the agreement will advance simultaneously. In fact, the most important aspect of this, which you previously asked, is laying down arms. The goal is to return to politics. Periodically and gradually, MILF will give up its existing military power.

Within the frame of this agreement, after the referendum is passed, 35 percent of the weapons will be laid down. Then, in the following one and a half or two years, another 30 percent of disarmament will occur. The remaining 30 percent of weapons will later be handed to the independent body. I previously mentioned once the terms of the agreement are fulfilled and the Monitoring Committee, including IHH, Malaysian mediator and both sides (MILF and the Philippines state) say, "Okay, we have fulfilled everything" , [they] hold parliamentary elections and the Bangsamoro Parliament is elected. Symbolically, five percent of the weapons had already been handed. Following the plebiscite, 35 percent of weapons will be handed, and it will be followed by 30 percent and another 30 percent in a gradual manner.

AA: What kind of benefits will this agreement offer to the ordinary people of Bangsamoro once it goes into effect? What will the agreement bring?

HO: The agreement and law didn't fully coincide with each other. There was an agreement inked in 2014 after negotiations of 17 years. The expectation was that the whole agreement would be enacted and come into force. That was not the case. The Front [MILF] was aware that some articles wouldn't pass. There are two authorities in this country -- the government and the parliament. When it comes to the parliament, we have yet to know what the third authority will be. And there is also the constitutional court; all in all, there is a risk involved.

AA: Is there a danger that it could be taken to the Constitutional Court following the plebiscite?

HO: Yes, of course. Before or after the plebiscite, some might claim that this law violates the constitution and take it to the Constitutional Court.

AA: Are there any people nosing about this matter?

HO: Not many, that's because [President Rodrigo] Duterte is really a strong leader. Under his strong leadership, nobody wants to be in a negative position now. Besides, the articles regarded as a violation of the constitution were put aside amid legalization of the agreement. However, the general idea is that: “This region is the region of Muslims. This is the ancestral domain of Muslims. There have been great injustices in this region, starting with the Spanish and continuing with the Philippines state, and we admit [our] injustice acts. We made mistakes against you. Crimes have been committed in this region. We confess them, apologize and get necessary precautions that will prevent such incidents from repeating again.” This is what this agreement and law say.

This [agreement] underlines the Bangsamoro identity and the fact that Moros are the true owners of these lands. However, it says: "This was in past, and now we will live together under the roof of the Philippines state." This agreement clearly underscores the meaning of "living together". In addition to the moral frame, it will also bring material benefits. The most significant difference here [Bangsamoro] is that this region is the least developed in the conflict environment. This region is worst off in the country when it comes to education, health infrastructure, industrialization; it is a region where there have been great security issues, internal migration level is really high and people live under poverty line. It is the least developed region of the Philippines. These [issues] must have been eliminated and [Bangsamoro] should have been taken at par with other regions of Philippines. For this reason, there is a fund allocation called “Block Grants”. The Philippines state will allocate five percent of the annual revenue to the Bangsamoro government. This figure alone is two times more than that of present ARRM budget.

AA: In accordance with the budget and population ratio, is this a reasonable budget?

HO: The budget is reasonable and fine. I mean, it is a budget far higher than that of other local regions. And, this is not all. Normally, 75 percent of the collected tax is allocated for the region and 25 percent is transferred to the center. However, for ten years, 100 percent of the tax will be used in the region. So, 100 percent will be used by the Bangsamoro government. This will be under the control of the Bangsamoro government as an additional budget. For natural resource revenues, 75 percent will remain in the region and the central government will get 25 percent.

The share of fossil-based mines will be 50-50 [between Bangsamoro government and central administration]. The region possesses great reserves of natural gas and oil. Also, significant reserves of Uranium, one of the strategic minerals of the world, have also been detected there. The share of fossil resources and uranium will be 50-50. This, given the budget size, is not a bad agreement for the state. I think Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) experiences the most comprehensive autonomy in the world today, even their share of oil is 17 percent. [The share has been even decreased to 12.5 percent in March 2018]. Bangsamoro's share will be 50 percent. This actually provides Bangsamoro with a financial broadness which isn't present in any other autonomous region. This is only the financial content of the agreement. In addition, there is this content related to the moral and historical identity, which might be unique. As you know, this is an issue highly voiced but not fulfilled.

One of the most important demands of Muslims in countries where they are a minority is a dual courts system. The Philippines is a secular state with a secular judicial system. However, as per this agreement, Sharia courts that are exclusive to Bangsamoro will be established. There will be two stages, the first of which is civil law. In the application of the civil law, the Sharia courts will be authorized if both -- the defendants and complainants -- are Moro Muslims. If one of the [conflicting] parties in the court is Christian or local, present secular Philippine courts will step in. The Sharia courts too will be the courts of the Philippines, they will be an institution within the court system of the Philippines. These "de facto" courts, which are run without formality, will officially be recognized and they will gain status through "de jure", hence enhancing the quality. There will be certain terms for the judges there [in Sharia courts].

AA: So, Islamic law will be practiced in the region. Will it be limited to family law only or will Islamic criminal law be practiced as well?

HO: There is an agreement involving crimes that require basic penalties. However, as I stated before, it [Sharia law] is a legal system anticipated to be practiced gradually. Basically, there will be courts capable of implementing family law and some penalties. There are various limits mentioned. It is said that crimes with month-long penalties can be taken care of by these courts as well. However, as I said, the agreement is something that covers the whole criminal law. During and after the transitory process, negotiations regarding the attachment of criminal law in addition to the family law will continue.

AA: What should be understood of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL)? Is it related to these measures which you have just told, or rather the frame of the peace negotiations? What is BOL?

HO: BOL is kind of a law that covers a part of the peace talks. It is not a law to be implemented. I mean, BOL is an official framework that will establish the soon-to-be formed Bangsamoro. It is a text that draws the frame [of Bangsamoro].

AA: Why did Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) transform into BOL?

HO: They explained this as a constitutional obligation. An article of the constitution says, "The assembly makes organic law in order to administrate the autonomous regions to be formed in these areas." In fact, the word "organic " is much stronger than the word "basic". It has constitutional implications; however, the change actually was related to concerns on the part of the senators of being left out. In a way, senators said, "We, too, have a will. We are making changes here. It is not just the government. It hasn't been a process sought only by the government". This attitude [of senators] led to a constitutional change as a material response by bringing up this article.

AA: You said Islamic Law would be practiced in the region, which brings to mind the church -- which is really strong here in the Philippines. What is the church's attitude towards this process? How do they view it?

HO: Actually, the church is the most welcoming structure. Especially in Mindanao, the coexistence has a meaning. The Mindanao church and its head have a pretty positive attitude towards the whole agreement and not just towards this [Islamic] law. I directly asked this to him [Cardinal Orlando Beltran Quevedo]. I asked Cardinal Quevedo, the archbishop who is in charge of the church of the region: "How do you trust Muslims? Why do you support such an agreement? You will be the minority with this agreement." His answer was something striking that summarizes the peace process there. He said: "They [Muslims] didn't even hurt me in the time of war, why would they do it in the time of peace?"

AA: So, this expression describes the way in which the struggle and resistance was run.

HO: It is a structure that demonstrates the resistance without violating the lines drawn by Islam and how such a resistance can win the hearts of Christians. This is significant. Especially now, given what's happening in Syria and Iraq, this is a principled movement that should be highlighted for all to see. It is a community that has succeeded. Here, we are talking about a structure that has looked out for Islamic principles regarding war, peace and minorities. A resistance organization with such morals and principles is something really rare worldwide. It isn't wrong to say that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the only revolutionary organization that doesn't collect revolution tax. Now, the main source of revenues of the resistance organizations, wherever they are in the world, is the tax collection from the regional trade, which is much more than that of the state taxes; or taxes collected from the regional tenders.

AA: Doesn't MILF collect taxes given that the state isn't there?

HO: The state exists [in the whole region]. There is the tax collected by the state. MILF hasn't collected any taxes up till now.

AA: What about the times when [MILF] itself was dominant?

HO: It is still dominant. The field is under MILF control and state is nonexistent there. Mainly, there are some 50,000 armed elements. It is geography with a population of some five million people. They have got 50,000 elements who are permanently armed. They have military camps. The geography is not that big. MILF regions are fully freed areas [from the state control].

AA: Speaking of the camps, they are not small-scale ones. As far as I know, the state doesn't have control over subjects such as trade and life.

HO: The state has no control. No taxes were collected.

AA: In addition to the MILF, there is this Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) under the leadership of Ameril Umbra Kato. There is this group Abu Sayyaf. Are the other groups, like these, convinced in this process? Were they addressed? Were they recognized as terror groups? If they were convinced, then what was the method followed?

HO: They are all in different positions. Abu Sayyaf is an old structure. Its leader was someone who appeared in Afghanistan. It was established as a resistance organization, like MILF. However, after its leader died, it lost this trait [of being a resistance group]. It continues to exist through the ransom obtained following kidnappings. Lately, it became an organization affiliated with Daesh. They perform kidnappings of civilian people, particularly foreigners. This autonomous region has got three island states. Located in the middle, Sulu island is the most troubled one. Transportation to Sulu is quite difficult. They have got their headquarters there. It doesn't have a structure representing the society. I mean, Abu Sayyaf doesn't correspond to a resistance organization anymore. Let's put them aside. Anyway, nobody cares about "What they would say". The second is BIFF, as I previously mentioned. It is an organization founded by Kato, one of the leading commanders of Hashim Salamat. He passed away three or four years ago. [BIFF] is a structure separately founded after he left [MILF]. It is a resistance organization. They approached Daesh as well. Especially one of them, a commander called Abu Turaipe, joined Daesh. They were involved in Marawi incident. They also had attempts to spread Marawi incident to other regions of Mindanao. They were minimized following the fight by the state and [Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation] Front. They don't have too much military presence.

AA: Are there foreign fighters among them?

HO: There are foreign fighters and this issue, in particular, remains before us as a grave danger. It is a mystery that where the Daesh members, who disappeared in [Syria's] Raqqah, will reemerge in the world. Where did they go?

AA: Did they leave, or were they taken away?

HO: Actually, they were taken away. I mean, there are too many witnesses suggesting their taking away. I have been briefed in my last visit that some of them [Daesh terrorists] were brought to Sulu. It is like Daesh is being directed to this region and it is striving to find ground there. This is possible. Here is a resistance zone. There is a resistance engraved into the character of the region. In other words, no matter how much peace is voiced, one used to ask whether the Philippines government will break the agreement. Yes, the Philippine government might break it, but so might Moro. Let me explain this in a small anecdote: There is an old mother we met during the negotiations. She experienced all pains of the war. She lost her husband in a war and she has got two children, a doctor and an engineer. She told how bad war is. She doesn't want the war to make a comeback and she wholeheartedly supported peace. In our conversations, she always spoke of these. Then, I asked a question to her in order to understand if the resistance in Moro ended. The understanding of our committee members after hearing the response of the women was that " Moros don’t want a resistance anymore." I asked what her reaction would be if her children, who were a doctor and an engineer says "we are joining the jihad." Tears coursed down her cheeks and she said: "What could I say to those going to jihad in the name of Allah? Of course, they'll go." But, she was crying. Accordingly, the resistance there will not come to an end. [Resistance] is still alive even in the hearts of those who paid the heaviest price. This is the reason why this agreement is so important. It must be brought to a certain level. In the sense you mentioned, the only thing that will prevent diversions is that an agreement pleasing the majority was made.

AA: You addressed Malaysia as the main mediator here. Isn't it interesting that the Philippine government accepted as a mediator the country, which supported a separatist movement within its [Philippines'] borders? How did this work out?

HO: Firstly, if you are seeking a deal, you have to forget about the past. I mean, this is the most important thing I have learned during my five-year mediation process. You have to disregard the past. You will not forget [the past] but you won't blame anyone. This is what the Philippines did.

AA: It looks a bit like the Mandela model.

HO: Yes, in fact, there is no other way. This is the Philippines’ position; however, the loss in Moro side is said to be between 120,000 to 200,000. You lost 200,000 of your own people. Two and a half million of your people turned into refugees. Out of four million people, two and a half million of them were sent abroad. They experienced the worst of poverty and carried out an armed fight in the forest for 50 years. But, you do this for the sake of independence. You [Moro] forgot about the costs paid and sat down for a deal. The state did the same thing. The state didn’t say, "Malaysia did this. Indonesia did that," it said, "We have opened a new page. We will continue with that."

AA: Has Turkey had any role in this process? What kind of role can Turkey play in the future?

HO: Well, let me tell you Turkey’s role in detail. Turkey has got roles in three stages. Turkey is one of the contact countries amid the negotiations. This was an important responsibility. So, that was done. [Turkey] participated in some of the meetings; however, it is noteworthy that Turkey was present in the meetings in Malaysia. The second [stage] is the independent commission to which the weapons would be handed. It has a structure made of Norway, Brunei and Turkey, and Turkey holds the presidency. This is important for the people of Moro. They say: "We deliver the weapons to a Turk. We entrust a Muslim [with weapons]. Our trustee is a Muslim." Also, Bruneian is Muslim as well. Norwegians, for their part, provided a serious amount of technical support to this subject as well. The third stage of Turkey's involvement in the subject came through IHH. As IHH, we are the Monitoring Committee. As an NGO, IHH took part in the international committee of five people, which inspects all structures of the process. This is the first time an NGO from Turkey got such a big responsibility in the international arena. In fact, as Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim, leader of the Front, puts it: "This is the pinnacle of all the IHH’s efforts for the services of all Muslims." That is to say, it became a structure in which they [MILF] promoted the IHH and not themselves. Thank god, we labored over to fulfill the responsibility given to us. I believe we have provided a significant contribution.

Turkey has made contributions in these three stages.

What to do next? We also need to highlight the NGO’s contribution. IHH from Turkey maintains humanitarian relief projects to a great extent in the region. Turkiye Diyanet Foundation [tied to the state Religious Affairs Directorate of Turkey] has got operations. TIKA [Turkish state-run aid agency] is also operating. They go to the region under various initiatives and carry out humanitarian relief works. The present process is crucial.

In particular, a country like Turkey -- which is at the highest level in terms of training, efficacy and administration capability -- will have serious responsibilities during the establishment process of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. A new structure is being formed. A fresh administrative body will emerge. Serious preparations continue in this regard. Efforts coordinated by the Turkish state and IHH are ongoing. We have a plebiscite ahead. A study regarding the plebiscite is being conducted. This will be the first time the MILF enters an election in the region. They don't have any experience or knowledge, therefore they will be supported in this regard. What's more important is that the structure is supported by Turkey until it is capable of standing on its own feet in the technical and administrative level -- both financial and personnel support.

It is of great importance that those [Turkish personnel] who are going there set a fine example and the bureaucrats coming here [from Bangsamoro] receive a fine training. There is an important study conducted by the Presidency of Turks Abroad. In accordance with the study, more than 100 students from Mindanao were brought to Turkey in line with Turkiye Scholarships. Their education is provided in three levels -- undergraduate, graduate and PhD. God willing, we will have our first graduates in the coming semester. When the interim government starts, some of the people to be graduated in Turkey will return [to Bangsamoro] and take responsibility. God willing, with more intense help in all these fields, we will have to prioritize making the region [Bangsamoro] a success. Muslims have gained an autonomy which they never had before. It might set a really serious model for the regions where Muslims are a minority. A structure, which might set a model for the Muslims in Indian-occupied Kashmir, Rohingya and Patani Muslims or any organization with a similar character, shines out now. We have to work for success of this model by all means so that Moros and other Muslims worldwide could keep their hopes alive for future.

AA: Is the principle of being self-sufficient applied in the organization [MILF]?

HO: Yes, it is the case in the organization. For instance, Malaysia and [Muammar] Qaddafi provided support; however, none of these represent the main support. The organization was formulated in a way that could continue to make progress without them. It was an operation run by the almsgiving from the public. The foreigners were absolutely never given the driver seat. The foreigners came to the region, but they were never placed at the administrative level. They were never included in the central command. Hashim Salamat never allowed foreigners to be active in any region. He clearly stated: "Help if you want to help, but this place is ours."

AA: Is MILF an extension of any movement within the Islamic world such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami?

HO: What I've been telling indicates that the movement is a structure based on the society, and it is national and local. There are serious ethnic differences, diversity, and they have 13 different nations. It is not a tribe as we would imagine and they are like Turkish, Kurdish, Georgian. They are considered to have come from the Malay race. However, they all have separate languages. People from the Sulu region and Maguindanao can't communicate [with each other]. They speak two completely different languages. What ensures their communication is the Tagalog language, which is spoken in the entire Philippines. People of different ethnicities in this region get together in Tagalog language. Tagalog and English are the official languages spoken there. Returning to the subject, Hashim Salamat received his high school education in Saudi [Arabia] and went to Al-Azhar University.

AA: We know that he attended the meetings of Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) in Al-Ahzar and faced legal proceedings.

HO: He was the head of the student union of the Association of Moro Muslims and the Southeast Asian Student Association. Then, there is this period when he was an immigrant (Muhajir) in Pakistan. He was exiled to Pakistan.

He wasn't able to return home in this period, staying there [in Pakistan]. In 1987, he returned to his home country. I mean, he spent a couple of years [in Pakistan] in the mid-80s. He met various Islamic communities there. To my understanding, he read the negative role of the foreign fighters in Afghanistan and did not allow the same mistakes to be repeated in Moro.

Hashim Salamat was a scholar. He had examined the world very well and gained much experience. That’s why he was able to build a movement unique to himself and his people. Moro Islamic Liberation Front is actually an Islamic movement. It's armed structure is Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), which is similar to the Ezzeddin al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas. He wrote a book on the "responsibilities and duties of the Bangsamoro Mujahideen". He transformed resistance into a people’s resistance and all of them got involved into it. I mean, it is a structure that effectively transformed the fight into a mass movement.

AA: It is a great success that he didn't terrorize the Jihad.

HO: The Bangsamoro Summit was held last year, which was attended by a million and two hundred thousand people. The Front doesn't have any financial support. These million and two hundred thousand people attended the event through their own means, coming from various parts of the country. The state to be founded in the region will have a population of five million. There are four million Muslims. The Front made a call and people came through their own means. I mean, this is the degree to which this movement has influence over people.

*Translated by Ahmet Salih Alacacı,Ali Murat Alhas

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