[Paper read during the Round Table Discussion on Updates on Muslims in Mindanao, sponsored by the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on February 7, 2002 at Romulo Hall, UP Diliman, Quezon City.]


The MILF-GRP Negotiations

Abhoud Syed M. Lingga

Executive Director

Institute of Bangsamoro Studies



For more than three decades war is raging in mainland Mindanao, in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi archipelago and in the islands of Basilan and Palawan between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the military arm of the Bangsamoro liberation fronts. The Philippine government views this war as an attempt of the Muslims in the South to secede from the Philippine republic. On the other hand, the Bangsamoro liberation fronts contend that this is not a war of secession for they consider the incorporation of their homeland into the Philippine republic as illegal and immoral since it was done without their plebiscitary consent but a continuation of their struggle for the decolonization of their homeland. They see the Philippine government as the successor-in-interest of the Spanish and American colonialists who for centuries ruled the Philippine islands.  

Attempts to resolve the war through negotiations started on January 13-27, 1975 when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) representatives met the Philippine government delegations in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The succeeding negotiations that lasted for more than two decades resulted to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement on December 23, 1976 and the Final Agreement on the

Implementation of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) last September 2, 1996 in Manila. But formal negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the GRP started only on January 7, 1997 at the Da’wah Center, Crossing Simuay, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. Updates on the negotiations are presented in this paper.

Peace Overtures

Before the signing of the final agreement between the MNLF and the GRP on September 2, 1996, negotiations to solve the Mindanao conflict were confined with the MNLF. Peace overtures to the MILF were limited to informal contacts. This is understandable because the MNLF was signatory to the Tripoli Agreement which was the basis of the peace talks. Likewise, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), under whose auspices the negotiations were carried out, recognizes the MNLF as the representative organization of the Muslims in South of the Philippines. These legal and technical constraints forced the OIC and the Philippine government to skirt the realities on the ground and negotiated only with the MNLF despite the fact that the MILF is a strong force as the MNLF and there are many areas, like mainland Mindanao, where the MILF is dominant.

Cognizant of the realities on the ground but constrained by technicalities the Philippine government limited its contacts with the MILF to informal talks and making peace overtures. Former President Ferdinand E. Marcos sent emissaries to Cairo to meet the MILF leadership. During the administration of President Corazon C. Aquino the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Mamintal Abdul Jabbar Tamano was dispatched to Saudi Arabia to meet Chairman Salamat Hashim. During that meeting held at the Office of the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, Minister Tamano extended the invitation of the Philippine government to the MILF chairman to participate in a peaceful dialogue to resolve the Mindanao Problem. Salamat Hashim replied that the MILF is always desirous of attaining honorable peace and the MILF has been clear and consistent in its position on how to achieve peace. On the issue of ceasefire that Minister Tamano raised during the meeting, Salamat made it clear that the MILF was not bound by the GRP-MNLF ceasefire since it was not represented when the truce was negotiated. Salamat expressed to Minister Tamano his wish to have the opportunity to welcome President Aquino to Camp Abubakar and show her the hospitality of the Bangsamoro people

Following that meeting, National Affairs Secretary Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. and MILF Vice Chairman for Military Affairs Al Haj Murad Ebrahim entered into an informal agreement on February 8, 1987 for the cessation of hostilities between the government troops and the MILF forces. After that, contact between the two parties was frozen. It was revived on November 24, 1992 when Haydee B. Yorac, chairperson of the National Unification Commission, met Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and invited the MILF to join the exploratory talks for the purpose of establishing a just and lasting peace in the Philippines. The MILF was asked to form a panel but the talks were discontinued.

Realizing that as long as the GRP-MNLF talks were going on no formal negotiations between the MILF and the GRP would take place, the MILF was hesitant to respond seriously to the peace overtures and contacts initiated by the Philippine government. This is reflected in the statement of Chairman Salamat Hashim last December 1, 1993: “The MILF is maintaining a consistent policy towards the peace process. We will reject any attempt by the Philippine government to open separate negotiations with the MILF unless the GRP-MILF talk is finally concluded.”

Formal Negotiations

When the Philippine government was sure that final agreement with the MNLF would be reached it renewed its contacts with the MILF. It started when House Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Simeon Datumanong met the amir of the Bangsamoro mujahidin Salamat Hashim at the latter’s office at Camp Abubakar. Except for the statement that the meeting was an effort in search for a peaceful and political settlement of the Mindanao problem, the details of what had been discussed are not available.

On August 3, 1996 former Executive Secretary Ruben Torres met the MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar in Davao City. Secretary Torres relayed the desire of the Philippine government to enter into formal negotiations with the MILF. Another meeting was held last September 9-10 at Cagayan de Oro City where issues on cessation of hostilities and the creation of technical committees from both sides to draw the talking points and the guidelines of the proposed ceasefire were discussed. After exchanges of communications the technical committees of both parties were organized.

The first meeting of the technical committees of the MILF and GRP panels was held on January 7, 1997 at the Da’wah Center, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. The technical committees on agenda setting agreed on the nature and scope of their assigned task that is to identify and clarify the issues and concerns that shall become the agenda for the formal peace talks. The MILF technical committee presented a single talking point: “To solve the Bangsamoro problem.”

The technical committees on the cessation of hostilities exchanged position papers on the ceasefire, which was intended to generate favorable atmosphere for the formal peace talks. The GRP proposal contains among others the following: “subject to the constitution and sovereignty of the government; no display of flag; no collection of revolutionary zakat; no military training and procurement of firearms.” On the other hand the MILF proposal calls for the recognition of MILF camps and territories and recognition and observance of both parties of the Geneva Conventions on Articles of War, stop the deployment of AFP forces in MILF controlled territories and adjacent areas, and pull out of government troops in MALMAR (Malitubug-Maridagao) area in Carmen, Cotabato Province, in Sultan sa Barongis, Maguindanao, and Tipo-Tipo and Tuburan, Basilan Province.

Although the first meeting was very cordial it adjourned without reaching any agreement except to meet again on February 25-26, 1997.

But before the second meeting was held, armed confrontation between the two protagonists erupted in Buldon, Maguindanao from January 16 to 27, 1997 when the AFP attempted to intrude into what the MILF claimed as perimeter defense of Camp Abu Bakr. To prevent the conflict from spilling over to other areas, the GRP-MILF Technical Committees on Cessation of Hostilities met on January 27 and signed the interim cessation of hostilities in Buldon.

On June 17, 1997 the Armed Forces of the Philippines launched massive military operations in the municipalities of Pagalungan and Sultan SA Barongis in Maguindanao and Pikit in Cotabato Province. Consequently the MILF refused to return to the negotiation table until the situations in the area normalize. Normalization of the situation as proposed by the MILF means: “Stop to AFP military operations in Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces; pull out of government troops from Pikit area, Cotabato; stop of AFP hostile and provocative acts; and the return of evacuees to their places of origin.”

The worsening situation prompted Vice Chairman Ghadzali Jaafar and then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres and their respective parties to meet in Cagayan de Oro City on July 17-18, 1997. At the end of that meeting the agreement for general cessation of hostilities was signed. The two parties agreed, among others, “To commit the armed forces of the GRP and MILF to a General Cessation of Hostilities.” On same day another agreement was signed which provides that the Armed Forces of the Philippines would withdraw from Rajamuda, Pikit on July 23 and the MILF committed not to reoccupy the area in order to normalize the situation in Pikit, Cotabato after the heavy encounters between the two forces. Upon the request of the Philippine government, the second agreement was not released to the media.

Subsequent meetings of the GRP-MILF Technical Committees were focused on the cessation of hostilities. Agreements were mainly on the operational guidelines of the general cessation of hostilities, administrative procedures, monitoring mechanism and identification and acknowledgment of MILF positions/camps.

The agreement signed in Marawi City on November 14, 1997 identified the following as hostile and provocative acts:

Prohibited hostile acts:

  1. Terroristic acts such as kidnapping, hijacking, piracy, sabotage, arson, bombings, grenade throwing, robberies, liquidation/assassinations, unjustified arrest, torture, unreasonable search and seizure, summary execution, as well as burning of houses, places of worship and educational institutions, destruction of properties, and abuse of civilians.


  1. Aggressive action such as attacks, raid, ambuscades, landmines, and offensive military actions such as shelling, reconnoitering, and unjustified massing of troops.


  1. Establishment of checkpoints except those necessary for the GRP’s enforcement and maintenance of peace and order, and for the defense and security of the MILF identified areas.

Prohibited provocative acts are:

  1. Display of MILF flag in non-identified MILF areas.


  1. Providing sanctuary or assistance to criminal or lawless elements.


  1. Massive deployment and/or movement of GRP and MILF forces, which are not normal administrative functions and activities.


  1. Public pronouncements that will tend to undermine the sincerity or credibility of either party in implementing the cessation of hostilities.


  1. Other acts that endanger the safety and security of the people and their properties; and/or that which contribute to the deterioration of peace and order, such as blatant display of firearms.

After the assumption of President Joseph E. Estrada to office, an agreement was signed on August 27, 1998 that reiterates the commitment of both parties to pursue the peace negotiations and pledge to implement the joint agreements/arrangements previously signed, and to protect and respect human rights. Both parties recognized that there would be lasting peace in Mindanao when there is mutual thrust, justice, freedom and tolerance for the identity, culture, and ways of life and aspirations of all the peoples of Mindanao.

On the identification and acknowledgment of MILF positions/camps, out of 46 major and satellite camps only Camp Abu Bakr as-Sidique, Camp Bushra, Camp Darapanan, Camp Omar, Camp Badre, Camp Rajahmuda and Camp Bilal were acknowledged. The other 39 camps were scheduled for verification and acknowledgment before the end of December 1999 but overtaken by the all-out war.

After twenty months of talks at the technical committees level, the formal negotiation was opened on October 25, 1999 at the Da’wah Center, Crossing Simuay, Sultan Kudarat, Maguidanao. Then on December 17, 1999 both peace panels met and agreed on the rules and procedures on the conduct of the formal peace talks.

The peace panels were supposed to tackle the substantive issues but the all-out war posturing of the military diverted the attention of the peace panels to salvage the ceasefire.

All Out War

Substantive issues were tabled for discussion but never been tackled seriously because of reported ceasefire violations in Maguindanao, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Lanao del Norte provinces.

The two peace panels met on April 27, 2000 in Cotabato City and before midnight signed an Aide Memoire enumerating what steps they would take to defuse the tensions but at dawn the following day the AFP launched an attack against Camp Abubakar opening the start of the all out war policy of the Estrada Administration.

In response to the call of the different sectors of society to save the peace process, a meeting between the two peace panels took place on June 1, 2000 where the GRP peace panel presented a political package as solution to the problem. The political package was a draft of the amendments to the ARMM Organic Act, which was earlier rejected by the MNLF. After the meeting of the Technical Committees on June 15, 2000 the MILF central committee decided to withdraw from the talks, and the16th MILF General Assembly held in September of that year confirmed that decision. The MILF would only return to the negotiations if it would be held in a foreign country, all previous agreements would be respected and implemented and it would be under the auspices of the OIC or mediated by an OIC member country.

Resumption of the Negotiations

After President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed office, she sought the assistance of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and Indonesian President Abdulrahman Wahid to convince the MILF to resume the stalled negotiations. Prime Minister Mahathir sent his top aide to talk with Chairman Salamat Hashim. After series of trips of the Malaysian emissaries to the MILF camp, Salamat Hashim agreed to resume talks with the government and sent his top deputy Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim, Vice Chairman for Military Affairs and Chief of Staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), to Kuala Lumpur to meet the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Eduardo Ermita. The meeting was kept secret that even Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza, was not informed. On March 24, 2001 Murad and Ermita signed the agreement for the resumption of the talks.

The Murad-Ermita agreement provides for the resumption of the peace negotiations and “continue the same from where it had stopped before April 27, 2000 until they shall have reached a negotiated political settlement of the Bangsamoro problem.” It also provides a commitment “to honor, respect and implement all past agreements and other supplementary agreements signed by them.” Both parties agreed to undertake “relief and rehabilitation measures for evacuees, and joint development projects in the conflict affected areas.” The MILF and the GRP “commit themselves to negotiate with sincerity and mutual trust, justice and freedom, and respect for the identity, culture and aspirations of all peoples of Mindanao.”

Following the Kuala Lumpur talks, the MILF declared the suspension of offensive military action (SOMA) against the AFP forces on April 3, 2001. Earlier, the government declared its suspension of offensive military operations (SOMO) against MILF forces.

The MILF and the GRP reorganized their respective negotiating panels. The MILF panel is headed by Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim, the vice chairman for military affairs and chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), and the GRP panel is chaired by Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza.

For the venue, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Tripoli were considered, but the strong Libyan lobby influenced the choice of Tripoli as the venue of the first meeting of the peace panels. The meeting in Tripoli on June 19 – 22, 2001resulted to the signing of the Agreement on Peace Between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, otherwise known as the Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001.

The agreement calls for discussion of three issues: 1) Security aspects (ceasefire); 2) Rehabilitation and development of conflict affected areas; and 3) Ancestral domain.

Although basically it is a bilateral agreement between the MILF and the GRP, the Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001 has international recognition. The negotiations was mediated and facilitated by Libya, Malaysia and Indonesia, and its signing was witnessed by representatives of other countries.

The agreement recognizes the distinct identity of the Bangsamoro as a people occupying a definite territory, referred to in the document as the Bangsamoro homeland, and the inherent right of the Bangsamoro people over their ancestral domain. It also acknowledges the fundamental right of the Bangsamoro people to determine their future and political status, and therefore the problem is political in nature that needs a comprehensive, just and lasting political settlement through negotiations, and that negotiations and peaceful resolution of the conflict should involve consultations with the Bangsamoro people free of any imposition. The agreement allows the evacuees to be awarded reparations for their properties lost or destroyed by reason of the conflict.

While previous agreements do not mention of participation of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), this time the MILF and the GRP want the OIC to act as observer and monitor implementation of all agreements, not just the ceasefire agreement.

The talks in Kuala Lumpur in August 2001 focused on the implementing guidelines of the ceasefire. At the end of the meeting of the two peace panels agreement on the Implementing Guidelines on the Security Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement of Peace of 2001 was signed on August 7, 2001 at Putrajaya, Malaysia.

The third round of the formal peace talks in October 2001 was supposed to tackle the issue of the rehabilitation of refugees and development of conflict-affected areas. Since there was no agreement on the agenda, the GRP panel presented the Manual of Instruction for CCCH and LMTs for consideration. The contents of the manual were culled from provisions of previous agreements. The manual was signed on October 18, 2001 at Mines Resort, Selangor, Malaysia.

Since then, no announcement was made when the panel will meet again. Even the Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), which is tasked to supervise the implementation of the ceasefire, met for the first time only on January 12, 2002. The Local Monitoring Teams (LMTs) are not yet organized.


Both parties, as provided in the Agreement of March 24, 2001, are committed to “negotiate with sincerity and mutual trust” and to continue the negotiations “until they shall have reached a negotiated political settlement of the Bangsamoro problem.” But there are intervening events that might affect the progress of the negotiations.

Mindanao Balikatan 02-1

The U.S.-Philippine joint military exercise, code-named Mindanao Balikatan 02-1, is being held in Zamboanga peninsula and Basilan. In previous years the joint military exercises were held in various parts of Luzon and Mindoro and avoided areas where rebels are actively operating to prevent U.S. forces involvement in internal conflicts. This time, 1,200 Philippine troops and 660 U.S. troops are engaged in six months joint operations against live targets, the Abu Sayyaf.

Although the MILF forces are not the targets, at least in official statements, but the refusal of the military to identify MILF camps in Basilan to facilitate coordination as provided in the ceasefire agreement and to prevent mis-encounter increase the risk of involvement of U.S. troops in the conflict between the MILF and the government. If there will be mis-encounter between MILF forces and government troops and accidentally an American soldier is killed, how would the U.S. react? Certainly, the U.S. commander will call for operation against the MILF and will start the cycle of attacks and counter-attacks. We can only wish that this will not happen.

The presence of U.S. troops in Mindanao may strengthen the position of those who want to solve the Mindanao Problem militarily. My fear is that the negotiations would be sidetracked in favor of military action. The deadlock in the third round of talks in Kuala Lumpur and the seemingly lack of interest on the part of the government to resume immediately the peace talks are signals of the dominance of the military approach in solving the Mindanao Problem within the circle of government decision making. Military solution has been tried several times before and it always failed, and to use it again would only bring more destruction to lives and properties of Bangsamoro civilians.

All-out war posturing of the military  

The present posturing of the military is similar with their posturing before the 2000 all-out war against the MILF. The accusations against the MILF that it has connections with al-Qaida and the Abu Sayyaf are meant to get the U.S. support once the government decides to launch another all-out war. The military insistence that the MILF is harboring the “Pentagon Group”, despite reports that the “Pentagon Group” is the creation of the Philippine National Police (PNP), is to influence public opinion in favor of an all-out war approach.

It will not surprise us if the government will announce that it will suspend or totally abandon the negotiations for the military posturing is leading towards that direction.

Lack of interest of the OIC to organize the monitoring team

There seems to be lack of interest of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to be directly involved in the peace process. Probably it does not want to repeat the experience with the MNLF-GRP peace process that was brought to conclusion but it did not solve the Mindanao Problem.

The Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001 provides that the OIC has to organize a monitoring team to monitor implementation of the ceasefire and other agreements. Both the MILF and the GRP have sent officially requests to that effect but until now the OIC has not organized its monitoring team.

The OIC monitoring team can play important role in preventing incident that would violate the ceasefire and other agreements. In the absence of the OIC monitoring team, accusations and counter accusations will be sensationalized in the media instead of being investigated.

Even if the negotiations will proceed smoothly and agreements are reached on the agenda items in the Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001, there is no assurance that solution to the Mindanao Problem will be reached. The issue on the political status of the Bangsamoro people is not in the schedule of discussion between the two parties.

I understand that the Malaysian go-betweens struck the compromise between the MILF and the GRP, just to have the talks started, that the issue of Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity over the Bangsamoro homeland as well as the use of the Philippine constitution as basis of the negotiations should not be raised by the Philippine peace panel. On the other hand, the MILF should not table the discussion on the issue of Bangsamoro independence.

It should be noted that the core issue of the Mindanao Problem that has to be addressed is the continuing assertion of the Bangsamoro people for their fundamental right to freedom and independence. Unless this is being discussed and agreement is reached, negotiations like the ongoing MILF-GRP peace talks will just be another exercise in futility.

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