Mindanao land of promise
Philippines is made up of 7,100 islands (some 1,000 of which are
populated) divided into three groups: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. With
a population of 16 million, Mindanao is the second largest island and is
seen by many Filipinos as a frontier — a dangerous place but also a land
of promise. It evokes contrasting images of bounty and want, of war and
peace, of rapid development amid the increasing impoverishment of its
rule started a process that was to alter Mindanao’s demographic
composition. It deprived the indigenous inhabitants of their land and
spawned deep-seated prejudices among the different ethno linguistic
groups. It also marginalized an Islamised people with their own distinct
history. In the early 1970s the Bangsamoro people (see box, below)
united in a struggle for self-determination which has invariably,
although erroneously, been referred to as a ‘Muslim-Christian’ conflict.
Muslims in the
are at least 13 ethno linguistic groups indigenous to Mindanao that
have adopted Islam as a way of life. The three largest and
politically dominant are the Maguindanaon (people of the flooded
plains) of the Cotabato provinces (Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat,
North and South Cotabato); the Maranaw (people of the lake) of the
two Lanao provinces; and the Tausug (people of the current) of the
Sulu archipelago. The remaining ten are the Yakan, Sama, Badjaw,
Kalagan, Sangil, Iranun or Ilanun, Palawani, Melebugnon, Kalibogan
and Jama Mapun. There is also a growing number of Muslim converts
from various ethno linguistic groups all over the Philippines.
the Philippines, the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Moro’ have been used
interchangeably to refer to the various ethno linguistic groups.
Whereas the term ‘Muslim’ refers to a universal religious identity,
the term ‘Moro’ denotes a political identity distinct to the
Islamised peoples of Mindanao and Sulu. The Spanish colonizers
originally used the term for peoples of Mindanao who shared the
religion of the Moors who had once colonized Spain. The term ‘Moro’
was used in the same derogatory way as the epithet ‘Indio’ for
Filipinos whom they converted to Christianity.
the rise of a self-assertive attitude expressed in the organization
of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the early 1970s, the
term ‘Moro’ gained favorable connotations among the Muslim youth. It
expressed their distinctiveness as a people who had resisted foreign
domination. Used together with a Malay word, Bangsa (nation) as in
‘Bangsamoro’/‘Bangsa Moro’, it indicates a nationality distinct from
that of the majority Filipinos.
the MNLF and its rival, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
apply the term Bangsamoro to all native inhabitants of Mindanao and
Sulu, whether Muslim, Christian or Highlanders (Lumad), who accept
the distinctiveness of the Moro as a separate nationality from that
of the Filipinos in Luzon and Visayas.
mid-16th to the end of the 19th century Spain subjected most of the
archipelago to colonial rule. Arab traders had visited between the 10th
and 12th centuries bringing Islam to the islands.
Spaniards took possession of most of Luzon and the Visayas, converting
the lowland population to Christianity. But although Spain eventually
established footholds in northern and eastern Mindanao and the Zamboanga
peninsula, its armies failed to colonise the rest of Mindanao. This area
was populated by Islamised peoples (‘Moros’ to the Spaniards) and many
non-Muslim indigenous groups now known as Lumads (see box, below).
Lumads and ancestral
‘Lumad’ is a Cebuano Visayan term meaning native or indigenous.
For more than two decades it has been used to refer to the groups
indigenous to Mindanao who are neither Muslim nor Christian.
There are 18 Lumad ethnolinguistic groups: Ata, Bagobo, Banwaon,
B’laan, Bukidnon, Dibabawon, Higaonon, Mamanwa, Mandaya,
Manguwangan, Manobo, Mansaka, Subanon, Tagakaolo, Tasaday, T’boli,
Teduray, and Ubo.
the beginning of the 20th century, the Lumads controlled an area
which now covers 17 of Mindanao’s 24 provinces, but by the 1980
census they constituted less than 6% of the population of Mindanao
and Sulu. Heavy migration to Mindanao of Visayans, spurred by
government-sponsored resettlement programmes, turned the Lumads
into minorities. The Bukidnon province population grew from 63,470
in 1948 to 194,368 in 1960 and 414,762 in 1970, with the
proportion of indigenous Bukidnons falling from 64% to 33% to 14%.
Lumads have a traditional concept of land ownership based on what
their communities consider their ancestral territories. The
historian BR Rodil notes that ‘a territory occupied by a community
is a communal private property, and community members have the
right of usufruct to any piece of unoccupied land within
the communal territory.’ Ancestral lands include cultivated land
as well as hunting grounds, rivers, forests, uncultivated land and
the mineral resources below the land.
Unlike the Moros, the Lumad groups never formed a revolutionary
group to unite them in armed struggle against the Philippine
government. When the migrants came, many Lumad groups retreated
into the mountains and forests. However, the Moro armed groups and
the Communist-led New People’s Army (NPA) have recruited Lumads to
their ranks, and the armed forces have also recruited them into
paramilitary organisations to fight the Moros or the NPA.
the Lumad, securing their rights to ancestral domain is as urgent
as the Moros’ quest for self-determination. However, much of their
land has already been registered in the name of multinational
corporations, logging companies and wealthy Filipinos, many of
whom are settlers to Mindanao. Mai Tuan, a T’boli leader explains,
‘Now that there is a peace agreement for the MNLF, we are happy
because we are given food assistance like rice. . . we also feel
sad because we no longer have the pots to cook it with. We no
longer have control over our ancestral lands.’
Mindanao Muslim society was organised,
socially and politically, in ‘sultanates’ which had evolved as
segmentary states whose territories increased or decreased depending on
the overall leadership abilities of their sultan. In these quasi-states,
lineage and kinship combined with more elaborate organisations for
production and defence. Their wealth was based on maritime trade with
China and the Middle East.
sultanates provided Mindanao Muslims with an identity as peoples
distinct from the inhabitants of Luzon and the Visayas. Islam was the
anchor in their defiance of any group of colonisers.
centuries, Spain used the Christians of the north in battles against the
Moros of Mindanao, at the same time befriending some Moro rulers in
their attempts to subjugate the more defiant. These tactics sowed the
seeds of animosity among the various indigenous groups. Although Spain
failed to establish political control, it caused the strategic decline
of the sultanates, undermining their economic base through trade
blockades and war.
and the Visayas, the Spanish colonial government imposed land tenure
arrangements, making local people tenants on lands their ancestors had
tilled. Mindanao and Sulu were not covered by these systems, but this
changed under the American regime.
US colonial rule
Treaty of Paris, ending the Spanish-American war of 1896-98, the US paid
$20 million to Spain in return for full possession of the Philippines,
including Mindanao. By this time, however, a Filipino nationalist
movement had ejected the Spanish authorities from all but a small
enclave around Manila. Philippine independence was proclaimed and a
revolutionary government established, which soon faced the might of the
imperial US. The fledgling government sought an alliance with the Moro
sultanates, who refused because of a lingering distrust towards
Christians that resulted from the Spanish campaigns. The US military
exploited this unease, came to an arrangement with the sultanates and
concentrated their war of ‘pacification’ in Luzon and the Visayas.
Having crushed the new Philippine nation, the US moved on to subdue
colonial government created a Philippine Commission which passed several
laws formalizing US dominance, especially with regard to land ownership.
It also cultivated the development of a compliant local elite, first by
limiting suffrage to property owners, then by pursuing rapprochement
with the politicians who emerged claiming to represent the ‘people’. The
Moro leaders found a role in the new colonial order as brokers between
state and society, sometimes defiant but often compliant. Although some
were given token positions in the central government, few Moros saw
themselves as members of the Philippine nation-state emerging under the
independent Philippines provided the local elite, including some Moros,
with the opportunity to participate fully in the politics of self-rule.
But for most Moros, the creation of a nation-state dominated by
Christian Filipinos simply reinforced their marginalized and minoritized
establishment of a Philippine nation-state inevitably led to the
entrenchment of a national identity based on the values of the majority
group, the Christian Filipinos. Whether through gentle persuasion or
outright coercion in the guise of nation-building, these values
undermined the identity of certain population groups, relegating them to
the political and economic periphery (until the 1970s the Philippine
Constitution and jurisprudence completely ignored Muslim personal law).
Post-independence governments continued to encourage the landless poor
of Luzon and the Visayas to settle in Mindanao in order to defuse rural
unrest. Thousands of settlers arrived every week until the 1960s, and
competition for land, aggravated by the clash of Moro and majority
Filipino concepts of land tenure and ownership, fuelled social tensions.
The government saw this as a manifestation of the ‘violent’ character of
the Moros, and launched pacification campaigns against defiant Moro
leaders. The Moros, however, felt they were asserting their right to
self-determination as a formerly sovereign people under the sultanates.
creation of private armies by both native and settler elites further
increased the tensions in Mindanao. The predominantly Ilonggo (people
from Iloilo, in the Visayas) migrants in the province of Cotabato
organized a private army called the Ilaga (Visayan for rat). To counter
the terror of Ilaga attacks on Muslim civilians, members of the Moro
elite organized their own heavily armed groups — the Blackshirts in
Cotabato, and the Barracudas in Lanao — who responded in kind.
result of the influx of immigrants, the late 1960s had reduced Muslims
to around 25% of Mindanao’s population, from about 75% at the turn of
the century. The most productive agricultural lands had been taken over
by settlers growing rice, corn and coconuts, or transnational
corporations producing rubber, bananas and pineapples. Wealthy loggers
grabbed giant concessions and started to deforest the island. While
Mindanao contributed substantially to the national treasury, little was
sent back in the form of public infrastructure and social services,
especially in the Muslim areas. Soon their leaders could no longer
mediate and Moro defiance turned into open rebellion.
Colonial land laws and
Customary law — adat among the Moros — is based on the
notion that there can be no absolute ownership of land. Islamic
principles hold that land and all creation belong to God and that
human beings are trustees or stewards of God’s creation. Thus
among Moros land-holding was based on the right to the produce of
US colonial government passed several land laws which became the
legal prop for dispossession of Moros and indigenous groups all
over the Philippines. These laws provided for registration of land
ownership through land titles and set limits on hectarage that
individuals and corporations could acquire. Unregistered land
automatically became open for exploration, occupation and purchase
by citizens of the Philippines and the United States.
first, very few Moros were sufficiently literate in English to
understand the bureaucratic intricacies of land registration. Many
refused or did not bother to register the lands they had been
cultivating. However, several Moro rulers took advantage of the
new law to register large territories in their own names. They
became the ancestors of today’s Moro landed elite.
US authorities recognised land titles issued by the Spanish
colonial regime for the lowlands of Luzon and the Visayas. In
Mindanao, vast tracts of arable land occupied by Moros and Lumads
were sold or leased to settlers and plantation companies.
Between 1913 and 1917 seven agricultural colonies were opened by
the colonial government, where Christian settlers were mixed with
the indigenous Muslims purportedly to promote ‘good working
relations’ between the two groups. In fact, the government’s aims
were to defuse peasant unrest in Luzon and remove troublemakers
from northern and central Philippines. Christian migrants were
entitled to larger tracts of land: 16 hectares compared to the
native inhabitants’ ten (later reduced to eight). A predominantly
Christian Philippine Constabulary was used to quell any Moro
Almost all titles granted under the Land Registration Act of 1902
were for large private holdings. By 1912 there were 159 major
plantations (100 hectares or more) in Mindanao, 66 of them owned
by Americans, 39 by Filipinos (mostly Christians), 27 by
Europeans, and 27 by Chinese. The Moros and Lumads became
impoverished squatters on their own land.
The Moro armed struggle
resistance and assertion of self-determination were already widely
established during and immediately after colonial times but it was not
until the early 1970s that a revolutionary movement — the Moro National
Liberation Front (MNLF) — was formalized.
emerged in the wake of a resurgence of Islamic identity among Philippine
Muslims who felt oppressed at the hands of a Christian-dominated
government and marginalized in the Philippine body politic. This
sentiment was exacerbated by a series of incidents that convinced many
Muslim intellectuals and politicians that armed struggle was the only
way to redress Muslim grievances.
of these incidents was the Jabidah massacre on 17 March 1968, when at
least 28 young Muslim recruits to the Philippine Army were killed by
their Christian superiors on the island of Corregidor, off Luzon.
Reports leaked out that the government was training these recruits to
infiltrate the Malaysian state of Sabah (North Borneo) as a prelude to
Investigations were unable to establish the truth and several versions
of the story exist. Most Muslims believe that when the recruits learned
that they were to fight against fellow Muslims in Sabah, they rebelled.
Government officials vehemently denied the plan to use the recruits to
invade Sabah and said they rebelled because of inadequate pay. Whichever
is the truth, the incident provoked all Muslim groups in the Philippines
to cooperate, kickstarting the creation of the MNLF.
1968, Datu Udtog Matalam, a prominent Maguindanaon political leader,
formed the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM). Matalam attributed the
separatist goals of his movement to the Jabidah incident. The MIM’s
youth section was sent to train in Malaysia, and soon after some of the
trainees organized the MNLF. Their leader was Nur Misuari, formerly a
political science lecturer at the University of the Philippines in
Manila, who returned to Mindanao after Jabidah.
Meanwhile, in Mindanao, the Ilaga and similar paramilitary groups
launched attacks on Muslims in places where the number of northern
Filipino migrants was growing and the Muslim population decreasing.
Their aim was to evict all remaining Muslims.
indications that these squads were supported and coordinated by the
Philippine Constabulary. Their attacks were systematic, methodical and
widespread. Estimates put their membership at about 35,000 by 1975. Some
sources suggest that aside from Philippine military support, these
groups enjoyed the financial sponsorship of timber merchants who sought
the rich forests of the Moros and indigenous groups for logging.
October 1972, a month after Marcos declared Martial Law in the
Philippines, Maranaw Muslims staged a violent uprising in Marawi City.
By this time, the conflict in Mindanao was approaching full-scale civil
war, with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and its various
paramilitary units conducting military campaigns against the Moros. In
1973, the newly formed military arm of the MNLF, the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA),
openly emerged. The MNLF was to become the rallying symbol of the Moro
struggle for self-determination, which aimed to defend the homeland and
Islam as the way of life of its peoples. The MNLF made it clear that
their target was the Philippine government, rather than the Christian
population, and by 1975 they had become a popular revolutionary
movement, enjoying almost universal support from Muslims in the
Philippines and abroad.
conflict was gory, brutal and costly: around 120,000 people were killed
(government estimate), more than one million were made homeless and over
200,000 Muslim refugees fled to Sabah. During the mid-1970s about 80% of
the AFP’s combat strength was concentrated in Mindanao and Sulu.
According to the late president Ferdinand Marcos, 11,000 Philippine
soldiers were killed in the first eight years of the war (1972-80).
peaked in February 1974 in a fierce two-day encounter in the town of
Jolo. The AFP shelled the town from the sea, then set it ablaze.
Estimates of the numbers killed vary from 500 to 2,000, and 60,000
people were made homeless. Elsewhere, major military offensives were
directed at Muslim settlements in Maguindanaon territory, while the
Ilaga continued its attacks on Muslim civilians. The war dragged on and
the death toll increased.
Attempts to manage the conflict
start of the war in 1972, the government approach has been one of
‘carrot and stick’, in which the stick — the state’s superior
instruments of violence — has received more emphasis. But the past 27
years demonstrate the inefficacy of a military approach which defines
the armed struggle as the problem, rather than the conditions that
brought it into existence. The government’s use of military might has
only sustained and intensified the armed struggle. The carrot, designed
to entice the Moro mujahideen (fighters) and their sympathizers
to return to the fold, included amnesty for the rank and file, offers of
government posts to their leaders, and funds for livelihood projects.
Occasionally, grandiose development programms for Muslim Mindanao were
the Marcos government recognized that the conflict had reached a
political and military stalemate. Moreover, oil-producing Muslim
countries, which supported the Moros, were threatening an embargo.
Marcos called for a ceasefire and opened the door to negotiations.
first organized panels to negotiate with the MNLF leadership in Jeddah
and rebel commanders in the field. This was a direct response to calls
from the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) for a peaceful
solution to a conflict it had recognized as internal to the Philippines.
At the same time, Marcos realigned his foreign policy to win over the
Islamic world: recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization,
opening embassies in seven Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia, and
upgrading relations with 13 others. The first lady, Imelda Marcos, was
sent to the Middle East as a special emissary. She laid the groundwork
for social and cultural exchange with Egypt, sought the Algerian
president’s advice on resolving the ‘Moro problem’, and consolidated
other high level diplomatic contacts. Eventually, she met Libyan leader
Muammar Gaddafi, who played host to negotiations that culminated in the
signing of the Tripoli Agreement in 1976.
diplomatic offensive paid off. Under pressure from the OIC, the MNLF
dropped its demands for independence and acquiesced to political
The Tripoli Agreement
Tripoli Agreement provided for the grant of autonomy to 13 of the 23
provinces in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan islands, and the cities located
therein. The autonomous regional government would have its own
executive, legislative and judicial branches, and a regional security
force independent of the AFP. However, the agreement left out many
significant issues and implementation became bogged down in
interpretation. In particular, the MNLF viewed the territorial coverage
— 13 provinces — as a settled issue, while the government insisted on
subjecting it to a plebiscite.
months after signing the agreement, Marcos implemented his own version
of autonomy by establishing two separate regional governments which, as
Senator Santanina Rasul later remarked, were ‘regional but not
Hostilities resumed, with the MNLF accusing the Philippine government of
insincerity in the peace negotiations. Some MNLF leaders argued that the
agreement’s primary objectives were to halt the MNLF’s military
successes, to gain time to factionalise the front’s leadership and
strengthen the AFP, and to pre-empt an oil embargo by OIC member
countries dissatisfied with the failure to implement the agreement. The
government claimed that it was merely applying constitutional processes
in order to implement the agreement.
Fragmentation of the MNLF
resumption of hostilities was accompanied by fragmentation of the
previously united MNLF. Breakaway factions emerged: the MNLF-Reformist
Group under Dimas Pundato, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
under Hashim Salamat.
government capitalized on the resulting demoralization of MNLF members
by offering them amnesties and other forms of co-option. Marcos welcomed
surrendering MNLF leaders to Manila like visiting dignitaries. Lumber
concessions, barter market licenses, and export-import permits worth
millions of pesos were given to those rebel commanders accepting
amnesty, in addition to livelihood assistance projects and political
positions in the new autonomous regional governments. MNLF
organizational cohesion was sapped in a way that military force alone
could not have done.
the root causes of the armed struggle (economic, political and cultural
marginalization) were not addressed, hostilities continued throughout
the late 1970s and the early 1980s.
The Aquino government
February 1986 People Power Revolution, ended the authoritarian Marcos
era and provided an opening for peace in the entire country, especially
in Mindanao. Corazon Aquino’s new government launched initiatives
designed to bring peace and development and to democratize governance.
It started talks with the left-wing National Democratic Front (NDF),
whose New People’s Army (NPA) had grown during the Marcos regime from a
small group in Central Luzon to a guerrilla movement operating all over
the country. To show her concern for peace in Mindanao, Aquino broke
protocol and went to Jolo to meet MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari.
appointed a 50-member commission to draft a new constitution. The body,
which had token Muslim representation, drew up provisions for the
establishment of autonomous regional governments for Muslim Mindanao in
the South and the Cordilleras in the North. A new Congress was elected
in 1987 and passed an Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim
Mindanao (ARMM), that was subjected to a plebiscite on 19 November 1989.
Only four provinces —Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi —
voted for inclusion in this new autonomous structure.
Aquino Administration viewed this legislation as its blueprint for peace
in Mindanao and considered it to be in compliance with the spirit of the
1976 Tripoli Agreement. The MNLF rejected it — not only had the front
been excluded from the process of drawing up the autonomy law, but also
the autonomous region had little real power and the plebiscite had
reduced its territorial coverage from 13 provinces to four.
these initiatives were an improvement on the past, they were an
inadequate response to the conditions that caused the Moro armed
struggle. The new autonomy law did not give the Moros the means to
redress the suffering and insecurities arising from relative and
absolute poverty and political subordination. The government of the area
of autonomy had very little financial independence, and there was no
provision to enable Muslims to overcome the effects of past deprivation.
Marcos-inspired autonomous structures, the ARMM failed as a policy
response. Autonomy came to mean concessions for rebellious Muslims, not
processes for democratic participation for the benefit of all. The ARMM
became another bureaucratic layer providing little except position and
privilege for self-interested Muslim politicians.
The peace process under Ramos
1992, the Moros welcomed a new president, Fidel Ramos, who turned peace
with the different rebel groups — military, communist and Moro — into
the cornerstone of his administration’s policy. Mindanao was a primary
component in Ramos’s overall development vision, and he was determined
to forge a comprehensive and enduring settlement, starting with the MNLF.
Administration made serious advances on key dimensions of the Mindanao
conflict. One was the need to return to the 1976 Tripoli Agreement as a
framework, an indispensable move in ensuring the acceptance of the
resulting agreement, not only by the Moro mujahideen and
civilians, but also by OIC member states. This move was also calculated
to ensure the support (especially financial) of OIC states for post-war
reconstruction. After four years of tortuous negotiations, the Final
Peace Agreement was signed in 1996.
Implementation of the Agreement was to come in two phases. The first
phase was a three-year transition period of confidence building that
included Nur Misuari running for the ARMM governorship. This was
intended to make him ‘official’ with a clear mandate from a recognized
constituency. The second phase was explicitly designed to meet Moro
aspirations by providing for substantial autonomy. Transitional
institutions set up under Phase I covered the area defined in the
Tripoli Agreement (the 13 provinces had become 14, owing to a redrawing
of local government boundaries in 1992). Phase II would go into
operation after a plebiscite to determine which areas would join a new
autonomous region with greater powers than the ARMM.
presidential backing, the Final Peace Agreement had a mixed reception.
Christian settlers in the areas affected were particularly suspicious
and feared the rise of Moro authoritarianism. Ramos assured them that
‘there were no hidden motives, no secret agenda, no backroom deals’.
Every decision, he maintained, ‘redresses valid grievances in a manner
consistent with our Constitution and our laws’. The negotiations were
concluded in September 1996. ‘We were well aware’, said Ramos, ‘that if
a final agreement could not be signed before the ARMM elections on 9th
September, and assuming that Chairman Misuari would win the ARMM
governorship, we would be confronted with an absurd, yet entirely
probable situation of having to continue to negotiate with a local
official of our own Government!’
within the framework of the Final Peace Agreement, many key issues
remain to be tackled: representation and rights of Lumads and Christians
in a Muslim-led autonomous region, the balance between religion and
secularism, reparations, economic redistribution, conflicting land
claims, affirmative action policies, and the redefinition of relations
with Manila. It remains to be seen whether the promises made to Mindanao
can indeed be fulfilled.
Macapado A Muslim and Rufa Cagoco-Guiam