The Moros and Muslim Separatism in the Philippines

Although Spain never achieved lasting sovereignty over the Moros, Mindanao and Sulu were included in the territory ceded to the United States in 1898. By 1913 Moro resistance to US rule in Mindanao and Sulu had been effectively subdued and administration of the predominantly Muslim areas was transferred from the US army to civilian authorities.

Although US officials made some attempt to accommodate Philippine Muslim customs and Islamic law, US policy was nevertheless aimed essentially at assimilating the Moros into mainstream Christian Filipino society. From 1914 integration was pursued through a ‘policy of attraction’. In Muslim areas, the government allocated substantial spending to roads, schools, hospitals and other services; education was made compulsory, and scholarships were provided for Muslims to study in Manila and in the United States. Muslims began to participate in the emerging political system. The United States administration also encouraged migration to Mindanao from the populous northern islands of Luzon and the Visayas through the provision of timber and mining concessions and land for plantations and cattle ranches. Between 1903 and 1939 the population of Mindanao, estimated at around 500,000 at the end of the Spanish period, had grown by 1.4 million. Increasingly, the new settlers encroached on ancestral Muslim and tribal lands.

In 1920 control of Mindanao and Sulu was passed from the United States administration to the Philippine legislature, and in 1935 to the newly established Commonwealth. In the latter year a group of 120 Moro datus [community leaders] from Lanao petitioned the US president, repeating earlier requests either to give the Moros political independence or to let them remain under US rule. Christian Filipinos, they claimed, discriminated against Muslims and treated them abusively. Under an administration dominated by Christian Filipinos, the ‘policy of attraction’ did indeed lapse, and there was an increasing incidence of clashes between Muslims and Christian settlers.

Following independence in 1946, there was a further heavy influx of settlers into Mindanao, doubling the population in several provinces between 1948 and 1960. By the end of the 1960s disputes over land between the Muslim population, tribal peoples and Christian settlers were becoming more frequent and more violent, and the growing number of settlers was threatening the electoral bases of several Muslim politicians.

In 1954 a special committee of the Philippine Congress was set up to report on ‘the Moro problem’, especially with regard to peace and order in Mindanao and Sulu. Partly as a result of its report a Commission on National Integration (CNI) was established in 1957. The CNI, however, was regarded with suspicion by most Philippine Muslims, who resented being referred to as a ‘national minority’ and saw the real objective of the commission to be the destruction of Philippine Muslim identity under the guise of ‘national integration’. Apart from providing scholarships to Muslim students, the CNI achieved little before its abolition in 1975. Two further reports were produced in 1963 and 1971 by a Senate Committee on National Minorities, which identified in-migration and land-grabbing as the major sources of conflict in Mindanao, but the Senate comrnittee maintained the view that the solution to the Moro problem should be sought through social and political integration and economic development.

In 1968 tensions between Muslims and Christians were heightened by an incident in which a number of Muslim recruits to the armed forces, reportedly being trained for an invasion of the Malaysian state of Sabah, were shot during an alleged mutiny. That year a Muslim (later Mindanao) Independence Movement was created to push for a separate Bangsa Moro (Moro nation). From this point, armed clashes between Muslim and Christian groups escalated, and by 1971 Muslim Mindanao and Sulu were in a state of rebellion. A government task force was sent to Mindanao to mediate between the rival groups, but had little success. Official sources acknowledged that by the end of the year clashes between Muslim and Christian groups and the military had killed over 1,500 people.

In the early 1970s the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) emerged at the forefront of the Moro movement, demanding a separate homeland, the return of ancestral land to Muslims and reform within Muslim traditional society. The leader of the MNLF, and its military arm, the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA), was Nur Misuari, one of several young Philippine Muslims who had received guerrilla warfare training in West Malaysia in the late 1960s. The international Islamic community also became involved in the conflict, supplying arms and finance to the MNLF, sending two fact-finding missions to Mindanao, accusing the Marcos government of genocide and threatening to cut off oil supplies.

The Marcos government’s response to the MNLF was multi-faceted. Its primary response was a military one. The decision to impose martial law in the Philippines in 1972 was partly rationalized in terms of the conflict in Minadano, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched a major offensive against the MNLF/BMA, which resulted in heavy casualties on both sides and a massive displacement of people. The AFP was assisted in this by local Civil Home Defense Force (CHDF) units, which acquired a formidable record for human rights abuses and general indiscipline, and extremist Christian right-wing vigilante groups. Marcos also announced a package of social and economic measures intended to placate separatist demands, including a commitment to the codification of Shari’a law and the creation of a Southern Philippines Development Authority to promote and coordinate economic development in the region. A third strategy , encouraged by reports of surrenders of BMA soldiers in the mid-1970s, was the commencement of a series of peace negotiations with the MNLF, through the mediation of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Islamic Council of Foreign Ministers (ICFM), and Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. These initiatives culminated in the signing of an agreement in Tripoli in December 1976, which provided for a ceasefire and set out tentative provisions for a broader political settlement. The latter included Muslim-dominated political autonomy in thirteen provinces of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan, which the MNLF considered to be the minimum claim for a Moro homeland. Further talks were scheduled for early 1977 to discuss the details of implementation, but negotiations collapsed and the ceasefire was abandoned.

The main sticking point in negotiations in 1976-7 concerned the geographical boundaries of Moro autonomy. By 1980, as a result of heavy in-migration, the proportion of Muslims in Mindanao’s population (which had been estimated at 76 per cent in 1903) had fallen to 23 per cent. Of the (then) twenty-three provinces in Mindanao and Sulu, only five (and in Mindanao only two) still had a Muslim majority. The MNLF, which had already compromised on its original claim to the whole of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan, nevertheless insisted that the area of Muslim autonomy should include the thirteen provinces of historical Muslim dominance. In 1977 Marcos proposed to put the issue to a plebiscite in these provinces. Realizing that this would produce a negative vote, Misuari accused the government of violating the Tripoli Agreement. Marcos nevertheless proceeded to appoint a provisional government and to organize a referendum on the form of the autonomy. The MNLF rejected an invitation to participate in the provisional government and boycotted the referendum, which predictably rejected the MNLF’s claim and endorsed a more limited proposal put forward by President Marcos. Marcos’s proposal involved the creation of two small autonomous regions in the Muslim-dominated areas of Western Mindanao and Sulu, and Central Mindanao. Elections for the two regional assemblies in 1979 were boycotted by most Muslim groups, and, with limited powers, inadequate funding and low levels of perceived legitimacy, the two regional autonomous governments were largely ineffective and did nothing to overcome the grievances of Philippine Muslims.

At about the same time, the Moro movement began to lose momentum. A number of Moro fighters surrendered to the Philippine government under amnesty arrangements, while others, as part of ‘lost commands’, turned to brigandage. More significantly, the MNLF split into three factions, along personal, ethnic and ideological faultlines. The main MNLF group, under the leadership of Misuari (a Tausug) and with the support of the OIC, was geographically centred in Sulu and ideologically the most progressive of the three….

The Moro movement received a boost, however, following the overthrow of President Marcos in 1986. Marcos’s opponents had earlier held talks with Misuari, promising to address Muslim demands if elected. In September 1986 Misuari returned to the Philippines and met with new President Aquino in Sulu. Subsequently, talks were held in Jeddah under the auspices of the OIC, at which Misuari and the Philippine government agreed to continue negotiations on autonomy through a joint commission….

Negotiations between the MNLF and the Aquino government broke down in mid-1987. By this time, however, a new Constitution had been enacted, which made specific provision for the creation of an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and a Cordillara Autonomous Region in the north…. Despite President Aquino’s good intentions, the new autonomy arrangements thus did little to satisfy the demands of Philippine Muslims.

In 1992 Aquino was succeeded as Philippines’ president by General Fidel Ramos, who had been closely involved with the Mindanao conflict as head of the Philippine Constabulary under Marcos. In his first year of office he visited Libya and, with backing from Qaddafi and others, revived negotiations with the MNLF. In 1996 these efforts were rewarded with the signing of a Peace Agreement between the Philippine Government and the MNLF….

In some quarters the 1996 Peace Agreement was hailed as an historic breakthrough, ending decades–if not centuries–of Muslim-Christian conflict. Among Christian communities within the SZOPAD [Special Zone of Peace and Development], however, the agreement aroused deeply entrenched fears and distrust. Some Christian leaders denounced the agreement and opposed it in Congress. The legality of President Ramos’s action in securing the agreement was even challenged in the Supreme Court. As a result of this opposition, the executive order intended to give effect to the Peace Agreement was a significantly watered down version of the document signed with Misuari….

Another limitation of the 1996 Peace Agreement was that it was specifically an agreement with the MNLF. The [more religiously oriented Moro Islamic Liberation Front] MILF, which during the early 1990s appears to have grown significantly in strength and militancy and which was said to be undergoing a transition from a guerrilla force to a ‘semi-conventional army’, was not party to the negotiations leading to the 1996 agreement and continued the armed struggle for a separate Bangsa Moro. Intermittent attempts were made during the Ramos presidency to establish a dialogue with the MILF, and formal peace talks were resumed under Ramos’s successor, Joseph Estrada. Following MILF attacks on non-Muslim communities in early 2000, however, Estrada abandoned the talks and declared ‘all-out war’ against the MILF.

In August 2001, despite objections from Misuari and the MNLF, the long-awaited referendum on the proposed expansion of the ARMM was held. Not surprisingly, of the (now) fifteen provinces and nine cities covered by the SZOPAD, only five provinces and one city voted in favour. Shortly after this, elections for the ARMM took place and in the election for governor, Misuari was displaced by a rival candidate supported by the newly incumbent president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Misuari subsequently made good his threat to return to the hills, launching an armed attack on government troops before fleeing to Malaysia, where he was arrested and repatriated.

Meanwhile, in the early 1990s another renegade Muslim group emerged in the western Mindanao-Sulu area. The Abu Sayyaf was founded by a former MNLF supporter, Abdurajak Janjalani, who had received religious training in Libya before returning to the Philippines where he became a charismatic preacher and advocate of a separate Islamic state in the south. He recruited a small but committed following, some of whom had fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan and appear to have had links with radical Muslim groups overseas, including al-Qaida. A confrontation with police in 1998 killed Janjalani but his group survived, primarily carrying on kidnapping and extortion. In 2000 Abu Sayyaf attracted international publicity with a series of kidnappings, which included several Europeans and Americans. Its ransom demands included recognition of an independent Islamic state, the release of international terrorists held overseas, the banning of foreign fishing vessels from the Sulu Sea and protection for Filipinos in Sabah, as well as payments of up to $US1 million per hostage. Some hostages were executed. Others were released following intervention by President Qaddafi.

Initially other Muslim groups, including the MNLF and the MILF, condemned Abu Sayyaf and dissociated themselves from it. Following the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, however, the situation became more complex. The United States was already providing specialist military advisers to assist with training in counter-terrorism after Abu Sayyaf groups had taken American hostages. As US air strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan began, there was a protest rally in the Islamic City of Marawi, during which crowds burned an American flag and shouted support for Osama bin Laden; hundreds of Philippine Muslims reportedly volunteered to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Increasingly, Philippine Muslims have accused the Macapagal-Arroyo government of joining the United States in a war against Islam.

These developments, along with the arrest of Misuari and the continuing slow progress in talks with the MILF, are a reminder that many Philippine Muslims have little identification with the government in Manila, and retain a strong sense of being part of the international community of Islam.

SOURCE: “Ethnicity in the Philippines,” by R. J. May, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 142-149

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2 Comments

Filed under Philippines, religion, Spain

2 responses to “The Moros and Muslim Separatism in the Philippines

  1. ariel

    thank you for the peace………….i hope this will be the symbol of unity…..not only for our country but also to the other country in this world…i have only one suggestion regarding our country, i hope the corruption of our government will stop

  2. I remember of hearing of the exploits of a Captain Furlong of the American
    Constabulary. It was said that the Moros equated him with the devil. They
    said that he was without fear.

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