The Moro National Liberation Front is a separatist rebel organization in Mindanao, Sabah, Palawan, and the Sulu archipelago (called Bansamoro Land by the separatists), founded in 1969 and chaired by Nur Misuari. Misuari had previously founded a Muslim advocacy group called the Mindanao Independence Movement, in 1963, to protest the perceived oppression of the Muslim (Moro is derived from the Spanish moor, for Muslim) population of Mindanao by the predominantly Catholic Christian Filipinos. Mindanao and Sabah were not originally Philippine territories, but were claimed by the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
The Philippine government had been shipping poor farmers to Mindanao since the turn of the century, and launched influence operations in Mindanao among the Tausug and Sama ethnic groups, the two primary non-Malay ethnic groups and traditional allies of the Filipinos. Out of these operations came the Jabidah massacre, where a group of Tausug and Sama Muslims, recruited into the Philippine Army, allegedly mutinied when they found out what their mission would be, and were executed by machinegun fire on Corregidor. Numbers of dead range from 11 to 200, and there has been no official acknowledgement of the incident. It has even been said to be mythical. Regardless, it served as a catalyst for the formation of the MNLF, which celebrates its birth on March 18th, which is considered the commemoration of Jabidah. (Jabidah was reportedly the name of the unit the executed recruits were a part of.)
Nur Misuari was also a part of the leftist Kabataang Makabayan, and was recruited to be the Chairman of the new MNLF by Abul Khayr Alonto and Jalalludin Santos. As open war broke out between the Moro groups and the government in 1972, the MNLF quickly grew to 30,000 fighters. The government committed close to 70 to 80 percent of its forces to the southern islands to fight the Moros. By 1975, 50,000 people had been killed in the fighting.
Misuari’s primary job as Chairman was to solicit aid from other Muslim countries, especially members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Mohammar Qaddafi was a major backer of the MNLF, as well as Muslim groups in Malaysia.
In 1976, a cease-fire was arrived at between the Philippine government and the MNLF, signed in Tripoli. It lasted less than a year, as the Moros claimed the autonomy of Mindanao promised by the government was little more than a token gesture, and fighting resumed. This was largely because by the time the referendum on an autonomous Muslim Mindanao went for a vote in 1977, Mindanao’s demographics had shifted to a Christian majority who had no interest in living in an independent Muslim state. The referendum failed.
The 1976 cease-fire led to a breakdown in the MNLF, largely along tribal lines. In 1977, Hashim Salamat split off with a large portion of Maguindanaos and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. This was apparently a primarily ethnic split, as the MILF maintained the same stated goals and philosophies of its parent organization. At the same time, other rival leaders split off to form the Bangsamoro Liberation Organization, which drew off a number of Maranao Muslims before its eventual collapse. By 1983, the Moro fighting strength had fallen by half, and while attacks and clashes continued, they were not at nearly the intensity they had been before 1976.
In 1986, the Aquino government opened talks with the MNLF. A peace agreement was reached in 1987, when the MNLF signed an accord that withdrew its demands for an independent Mindanao and accepted regional autonomy instead. However, as the government blocked the MNLF’s attempt to join the OIC, in 1988, the insurgency flared up again, though there was little actual fighting.
In 1991, there was another split from the MNLF. Adopting a strict Islamist ideology of Jihad and intolerance of other religions, the Abu Sayyaf Group has since allied with Al Qaeda. MNLF has fought ASG, including a raid on ASG kidnappers in Patikul Sulu in February 2013. MILF has also allied with the government to fight ASG.
Despite the MNLF’s refusal to work with the government on autonomy after 1988, in 1990 the referendum for an autonomous Muslim Mindanao went forward. Only two provinces on Mindanao and two on the Sulu archipelago voted in favor.
In 1996, a new peace accord was reached between the MNLF and the government. However, only five years later, in 2001, Nur Misuari led an attack on a military base near Zamboanga that killed 100 people. While widely claiming to now be a primarily political organization, the MNLF declared the independence of Bangsamoro Land (Sulu, Mindanao, Palawan, and Sabah) in January 2012. In September, 2013, forces of the MNLF attacked Zamboanga again, attempting to raise their flag over city hall (only the second time they had attempted to raise their flag over a government building in 40 years), and taking hostages when repelled by government troops. That situation has only recently been resolved.
Nur Misuari was charged with insurrection until 2008, when the government pardoned him.
In recent years, the MNLF has backed away from its Muslim character, arguing that their philosophy is one of egalitarianism. They claim that religion plays no part in membership or advancement; John Remollo Petalcorin, the “Director for Advocacy Communication” for the MNLF, is a Christian. They have even claimed that the crescent on the MNLF flag represents “Bangsamoro WISDOM as we endlessly journey through Political Changes, Technological Progress, and Economic Development,” rather than having any Muslim meaning.