Could you briefly explain the distinctions between the three principal groups representing Muslim grievances in the present-day Philippines: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and Abu Sayyaf?
The MNLF, founded and led by Nur Misuari, is the original underground political front of the Muslim separatist rebellion. Misuari is a signatory to the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, the first peace agreement signed between Muslim separatists and the Philippine government. Until fairly recently, the MNLF was the only separatist armed organization with which the government was willing to negotiate in any substantive way. The MILF dates from 1984 as a separate organization but can trace its roots back to the beginnings of modern Muslim separatism. Its leader, Hashim Salamat, was second in command of the MNLF until 1979. The MILF is headquartered in central Mindanao, is well organized and has thousands of fighters and broad popular support in rural villages. Although the MILF has stressed the Islamic aspect of the separatist movement, and has somewhat more Islamic clerics in leadership positions (Salamat himself is a cleric), the stated goals and policies of the two groups do not differ significantly. The Abu Sayyaf faction is of relatively recent origin, appearing only in 1995, and is centered on the island of Basilan. They are a small, radical and somewhat mysterious group with limited popular support. While the Abu Sayyaf faction has garnered more headlines in the past five years with its killings and kidnappings of Christians, it is by far the smallest of the three groups. Both the MNLF and the MILF have condemned the activities of the Abu Sayyaf.
It has been suggested that Abu Sayyaf, the most militant of these organisations, was initially supported by the Philippine military to discredit the separatist movement and create divisions between Muslims. Do you think there is any truth to these claims?
I have heard these sorts of claims myself from Philippine Muslims since 1995, although I haven't seen any credible evidence to support them. It is not surprising that such suggestions have been made. Abu Sayyaf is a very mysterious and perplexing group and some of the activities credited to or claimed by them seem highly irrational and counterproductive.