Thursday, January 12, 2006

MUSLIM FILIPINOS: The Bangsamoro Struggle - Religious Conflict or War of National Identity?
By Edilwasif T. Baddiri Posted Feb. 09, 2005

Today, a war for liberation is being waged in the Philippines by the Bangsamoro People. Its contemporary revival began in 1968 when Moro youths, being trained by the Philippine military, were massacred by their military trainors. The call for an independent Bangsamoro Republic was heard and it resonated all over Muslim Mindanao.

The call was there all along, beneath the cacophony of Philippine politics. All it was waiting for was an event that made clear how the Christian Filipinos were an “other” who would never accept the Moro into the Filipino nation. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was born to carry the torch of the Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination.

The mission was to establish a secular independent state for the Bangsamoro People. The justification was the Bangsamoro's right to self-determination and the Christian Filipinos' utter rejection. Determined to keep the integrity of the country's territory, the Philippine government responded with a massive military effort, major redress of grievances and opening of peace talks.

Ultimately, the resulting peace agreement gave autonomy to the Bangsamoro people on the condition that they relinquish their bid for independence. When the agreement failed to achieve the desired peace, the liberation movement fragmented and new secessionist groups carried a more religious message and a religious aim.

While it began as a struggle for self-determination on the basis of a different national identity, the character of the conflict has become more and more religious. Recognizing that the nature of conflict changes through time, this paper aims to examine characterize the Bangsamoro struggle, and determine the present driving forces that fuel the current movement for independence. To provide proper context, this paper will include an incisive and exhaustive history of the conflict. Moreover, it will examine the role of religion in the conflict and delve into the factors that molded the Bangsamoro identity.

The History of the Bangsamoro People

The Bangsamoro people are the traditional inhabitants of the southern part of the present Philippines comprising Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago and the island of Palawan. They mainly consist of thirteen ethno-linguistic groups: Iranun, Magindanaon, Maranao, Tao-Sug, Sama, Yakan, Jama Mapun, Ka'agan, Kalibugan, Sangil, Molbog, Palawani and Badjao.
[1] In the Philippines, the term Moro is synonymous with Muslim and has a history associated with Spain.

The Spaniards called the Muslims in the Philippines Moros, whom they connected to the Muslims of North Africa who ruled the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. The Malay word bangsa, which means nation, was prefixed to suggest distinct nationhood.
[2] The term Bangsamoro, therefore, reflected a nation whose identity was influenced by an enemy and by its faith in Islam.

Islam played the essential role in the creation of the Bangsamoro nation. Before the arrival of Islam, the different peoples of the historical Bangsamoro territory barely had anything in common except their Malay race. Islam arrived in the Philippines as a result of international trade. As early as the 9th century, Sulu was part of an international trade route that was frequented by Muslim traders from Johore, Sumatra, Borneo and Arabia. By the last quarter of the thirteenth century, if not earlier, there existed a Muslim settlement or community in Sulu. By 1450, the Sultanate of Sulu was founded by Sayyid Al-Hashim Abu Bakr, and by 1515 the Sultanate of Maguindanao was established by Sharif Mohammad Kabungsuwan. At the height of their power, both sultanates had control and sovereignty over Sabah, Sulu, majority of Mindanao and Palawan.

The Sultanates were multi-ethnic states that observed and implemented Islamic laws and traditions. Islamic law was encoded and called the Luwaran. [4] Moreover, they had the legal status of nation-states as defined under international law. Spain, their main colonial adversary, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands and the United States recognized their sovereignty and independence by entering into treaties with them. [5]

The existence of the Sultanates signified that Islam had already established a very strong political and social foundation in Sulu and Mindanao. By the arrival of Spain in 1521, majority of the people of Sulu and Mindanao had already adopted Islam as their religion and as a way of life.

The events in the Iberian Peninsula strengthened Spain's determination to pursue similar policies against the Moros in this area, which they had automatically linked to the Moors in Spain. By the year of their arrival in the Philippines in 1521, the Spaniards were dealing with their problems with the native Muslims in their territory. After an initial policy of tolerance, the policy of the ruling monarchy turned to repression and brutality when their native Muslims resisted conversion to Christianity. King Philip II gave this instruction to his soldiers, “We give you permission to make such Moros slaves, and seize their property… You shall endeavor to persuade or convert them to our holy Catholic faith…”
[6] Some kind of thought transference seemed to have transpired: the enemy in Spain had suddenly appeared in Asia and must be treated in the same way. [7]

While Islam shaped the Bangsamoro identity, Spain's wars re-enforced it. In sum:

“For three centuries, Spain tried to conquer and Christianize the Moros but the latter resisted with awesome ferocity. Spain repeatedly launched military expeditions against the Moros only to be repulsed. In the end, Spain's intransigence left an even more unyielding Moro community intensely devoted to the preservation of their faith and their Islamic identity, and a seething hatred between a people of the same race but of different faiths – the Moros and the Christian Indios.”

By the late 19th century, Spain's world dominance got it entangled with a rising power – the United States of America. Spain's world hegemony ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1898 when it ceded most of its territory to America. It also sealed the fate of the Bangsamoro people when the treaty included Sulu and Mindanao among the islands ceded to the United States even though Spain failed to conquer the Moros.

In their colonization efforts, America's goal was not to Christianize the natives but to subjugate and rule over them, only in the political and economic sphere. America saw their regime in the Philippine colony as one in which church and state were firmly and traditionally matters and it repeatedly expressed its position as one of complete and tolerance of Muslim religion.

The Americans realized that the Moros were different from the Christian Indios. Although they shared the same Malay race, Americans saw differences in beliefs, customs and mannerisms and the animosity between the two groups. Thus realizing the necessity for a separate form of government for the Moros, the Moro Province was created on June 1, 1903, to provide a separate form of civil government.

While it was the intent of the U.S. to grant political independence to the Philippines as soon as the Filipinos learned the “science of self-government,” the Moros registered their opposition to be part of an independent Philippine republic. In a petition addressed to U.S. President dated June 9, 1921 and signed by Moro leaders, they declared, “We have been independent for 500 years. Even Spain failed to conquer us. If the U.S. quits the Philippines and the Filipinos attempt to govern us, we will fight.”

The petition came to naught with the enactment of the Tydings-McDuffie Law, authorizing the Filipinos to draft their own constitution. [12] With the declaration of Philippine independence on July 4, 1946, the U. S. officially annexed Mindanao and Sulu into the territory of the Philippines. The Moros were never given neither the right to self-determination nor the right to vote on the issue through a referendum. [13] As U.S. Congressman Francis Bacon implored, “The Christian Filipinos have no right to determine the government of the Moro people. If a reversionary right of these southern islands…exists in anyone, it is in the Moro and not the …Christian Filipinos.” [14]

The U.S. annexation of Mindanao and Sulu into the Philippines set the stage for the Bangsamoro struggle to reclaim their sovereignty. The Moros' opposition towards being part of a Philippine republic was further exacerbated by the integration policies of the new Filipino administration. In 1935, the Commonwealth government headed by Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon imposed new laws without deference to the Moro belief system and culture. [15] Worse, integration included resettlement of Christian Filipinos from Visayas and Luzon and government's taking of Moros' land such that by 1960, 77 percent of the Minadanao's population was non-Moros from 5 percent in 1902. [16]

In 1961, the call for Moro independence was heard again. Sulu Congressman Ombra Amilbangsa introduced a bill in the Philippine Congress, asking for the independence of Muslim Mindanao and Sulu. Nothing came of the bill, but the yearning for independence was clearly still alive. It would surface again a few years later, and Christians and Muslims would once more fight each other in Mindanao and Sulu. [17]

In March 1968, explosive news of a massacre of Moro trainees by members of the Philippine military was in the headlines. The trainees were supposedly part of a secret government scheme to split Islamic ranks, provoke a war between Sulu and Sabah, and then invade and reclaim Sabah. The lone survivor of the killing explained that the trainees were shot because, after they refused to attack Sabah, the army feared a leakage of the plan. [18] The massacre roused the Moros into fiercer opposition of the Philippine government and aroused the attention of the international Islamic community. [19]

The Jabidah Massacre gave birth to the contemporary movements bringing forth a re-emerging sense of Moro national identity to the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu. The MNLF was organized for the purpose of creating of an independent Moro state. This demand was later softened to autonomy, upon the insistence of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). [20]

In their disillusionment over the softening of demand to autonomy, the Salamat Hashim faction of the MNLF separated and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). With the Al Azhar University-educated Hashim as leader, the main goal of the MILF was the establishment of an independent Islamic state encompassing the traditional Bangsamoro homeland and the full implementation of Shariah Law. In 1992, former MNLF Commander and Afghanistan War veteran Abdurajak Janjalani formed the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). [21]

In 1996, the MNLF entered into a Final Peace Agreement with the Philippine government, and the MNLF Chairman, Nur Misuari, becoming the new Provincial Governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Today, it is clear that the 1996 Peace Agreement failed to bring peace and autonomy. It also failed the hopes of the Bangsamoro people. The armed clashes between the government and the members of the liberation movement continued unabated with major clashes in 2001 when Philippine President Joseph Estrada declared an all-out war against the MILF and the ASG resulting in the deaths of thousands and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Bangsamoro people. Despite the peace talks and the ceasefire under the new administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the struggle for a Bangsamoro nation continues.

The Bangsamoro Identity: Islam and Ethnicity

The concept of identity is indispensable but hard to define. Most scholars, however, agree on the theme that identity is an individual's or a group's sense of self. It is a product of self-consciousness that an individual or group possesses that differentiates them from others. As long as people interact with each other, they have no choice but to define themselves in relation to those others and identify their similarities and differences from those others.
[22] To define themselves, people need an other. [23]

Before the arrival of Spain, the Muslims in the Philippines did not call themselves Moros. Although they were ruled by the Sultan, and thus were commonly held as his subjects, there was no other ascription to his identity other than his place of origin. The people living in island of Sulu were known as the “Taosug” or people of Sulu and as subjects of the Sultan of Sulu, while people living in the region of Maguindanao were known as “Maguindanao” and as subjects of the Sultan of Maguindanao.

The arrival of Spain, however, changed the dynamics of their identity. Inasmuch as identity is defined by the self, the Moro identity was also the product of its interaction with Spain. The Spaniards called the Muslims in the Philippines as Moros after they realized that they held the same religion and beliefs as their Muslim enemy in the Iberian Peninsula.

Thus, Spain can be credited for the creation of the Bangsamoro identity. Thirteen peoples who differentiated each other through place and tribal affiliation began to see themselves as one Moro nation. Islam provided the initial impetus that resulted creation of the Sultanates uniting the various groups under one institution with one group holding political power. Islam sustained the national identity of the Bangsamoro people and Spain re-shaped and re-enforced it.

While the Bangsamoro people held on to their identity and faith through 333 years of war with Spain, the national identity of the Indios, their fellow Malays in the north were being shaped by their subservience to Spain and adoption of Christianity. At the end of Spain's rule, the Indios began to identify themselves as Filipinos which were actually what Spaniards born in the Philippines called themselves. In their aspiration to become like their colonizer, they assumed an identity that came so close but was still different.

The Indios fought with the Spaniards against the Moros. They began to see the Moros as the enemy. As Spain ratcheted up its propaganda of portraying the Moros as pirates and bandits, the Indios began to see themselves as the good Christians with the mission to spread Christianity. The Moros considered themselves as part of the Ummah and viewed the Indios with contempt and derision for surrendering their freedom and then fighting for the Spaniards who came to enslave them. Indeed, this was not lost to Andres Bonifacio, the leader of the Filipino Revolution against Spain, when he declared in 1898: “We have wasted our wealth and blood and even given our lives in the Spaniards defence; we have fought our compatriots who would not willingly submit to their yoke.”

By the end of Spanish-Moro war, Islam had become the distinctive character of the Bangsamoro identity. It held together all the Muslims in Sulu and Mindanao to the idea of one nation. The collaboration of the Indios with the Spaniards was etched in their consciousness. The fact that the Muslims shared the same Malay ancestry with the Indios only served to underscore the difference in religion. Religion, therefore, became a significant factor in the antipathy and hatred between the Moros and the Indios.

The Spanish-Moro wars, however, became more political than religious as it progressed to the 19th century. By the 1700s, the Spaniards negotiated with and recognized the Sultanates. Christianization was no longer their main goal, and it became political control.

When the reins of government were transferred to the Filipinos by the Americans, the Filipino nation-building project was shaped by American principles and Filipino ethos, and with no participation from the Moros. It was one wherein the Moros were to be integrated into mainstream Filipino society and transformed into Filipinos. This was not acceptable to the Moros who viewed the project as the continuation of foreign colonization. They saw themselves as a different nation forcibly included into the Philippine state.

Today, the same is still true. However, it cannot be denied that many Moros have tried to integrate into Philippine society and have aspired to instill in themselves the Filipino identity. Nevertheless, people can aspire to an identity but not be able to achieve it unless they are welcomed by those who already have that identity.
[25] Time and again, there have been incidents wherein the Christian Filipinos have shown unwillingness to accept the Moros as Filipinos. From the 1968 Jabidah Massacre to the 2001 all-out war by the Estrada administration, the Moros are still seen as the “other” that must be conquered and integrated instead of accommodated and accepted into the Filipino identity.

Contemporary Grievances and the Liberation Movement

The 1968 Jabidah Massacre was the rude awakening that caused the Moros to realize that, want as they may, they are not welcomed by the Filipinos. It brought out the simmering grievances that had been pestering at the surface of Moro-Filipino relations. Foremost of them was the massive land grabbing of the government in favor of Christian Filipinos. The Quezon administration enacted Commonwealth Act No. 141 declaring all Moro ancestral lands a public lands. By this simple piece of legislation, the Moros became landless. Under this law, a Moro can only apply for a piece of land not exceeding 4 hectares while a Christian was entitled to apply for 24 hectares. According to Dr. T.J.S. George, this “was the single most important factor behind the Muslim unrest which was to spawn an insurrectionary movement in the Marcos era.”

Secondly, the government carried out a massive resettlement of Christian Filipinos from Visayas and Luzon in a vigorous effort to open and colonize Mindanao. As a result, the Moros became a minority in their own homeland. The insertion of Christian Filipinos in the homeland of the Moros created an animosity that sometimes ended in violence. It contributed to the Moros' feeling of assault.

Thirdly, the inequality of government assistance and development between the Muslim areas and the Christian areas, especially in Mindanao, made the Moros feel like second-class citizen in their own homeland.

Fourthly, and most important, the continuous and unabated military operations and human rights abuses committed by soldiers of the Philippine military, mostly Christians from the north, has made the Moros feel not just an “other” but an enemy. When the Bangsamoro people rose in arms after the Jabidah massacre, the Philippine government sent 70 percent of its Armed Forces to quell it. In the course of its militarization, there have been massive human rights abuses committed by the Philippine military against Moro civilians. These abuses served to heighten the resistance of the Bangsamoro people.

These grievances not only strengthened the Moros' “feeling of otherness” but also had a legitimizing effect on their right to self-determination. They felt that there is a continuation of colonization with the unabated land grabbing in the past and the application of laws that are not in accordance with their traditions and culture. The 1968 Jabidah Massacre made them feel that they were being killed because of their identity as a Moro. It united them to in one liberation movement to reclaim their independence.

The liberation movement has gone the path of fragmentation. Like most secessionist movements, this tendency to fragment results from the movement's lack of success.
[27] As the secular MNLF failed to deliver the dividends of peace, the more religious faction of the group left to form the MILF with emphasis on Islam as an ideology and identity.

Despite the support of the Bangsamoro People, the MILF has not had success. Confronted by a more powerful and better-equipped Philippine military, it has found much difficulty in winning the war. As a result, new groups have sprouted up to wage a different kind of war. One of these groups had early successes, rose to world infamy, and then lost itself to banditry.

In 1992, another group separated from the MNLF to form the Abu Sayyaf Group. Led by Abdurajak Janjalani, a learned Islamic scholar and veteran of the Soviet-Afghanistan War, its aim was to establish a separate Islamic state in southern Mindanao. Espousing the two world principle of Dar ul Islam(World of Islam) and Dar ul Harb(World of War), it considered all Christian Filipinos who had re-settled in traditional Moro homeland as guilty of injustice and can be targeted for killing and kidnapping.

The ASG, however, appeared to have no support of the Bangsamoro people. After the death of its ideological leader Abdurajak Janjalani in 1998, the group seemed to have turned into a bandit group focusing on criminal activities such as kidnapping and extortion. As a result, most of its leaders and members had not been protected by the community and had been captured by the Philippine military.

Of the three organizations, the MILF appeared to have the strongest support from the Bangsamoro people, and was seen as the legitimate torchbearer of the Bangsamoro struggle. There are three possible reasons. First, the MNLF has lost most of its appeal since the failure of the peace agreement and the failure of governance by the MNLF leadership while controlling the ARMM. Second, the MILF is the remaining group engaged in an armed struggle against the Philippine government. Lastly, the banner of Islam had provided a powerful attraction and legitimizing effect to the MILF in the eyes of the Bangsamoro People. Indeed, religion has played an important role in the dynamics of the liberation movement.

Role of Religion

In most secessionist wars, religious differences often exist.
[29] In this case, the minority Moros seeking a separate state are Muslims with a long history of statehood and the Filipino majority controlling the government are Christians with an inherited tradition of colonization and integration. It is however, important, to emphasize that the Bangsamoro people's movement for a separate state did not arise from religious difference.

Religion has played an important and crucial role in the Bangsamoro struggle for a separate and independent state. Religion can serve as a powerful motivator and recruiting tool.
[30] With Islam ingrained in the Bangsamoro identity, the Moros responded with greater fervor when their struggle for survival and independence were justified in religious terms. For them, it is difficult to separate Islam from their nationhood. Islam and the preservation of the self and the community have intertwined itself in the Moro psyche.

Despite the importance of religion in this conflict as reflected by the popularity of the MILF, it is still not a conflict about religion. The drivers of this conflict are the grievances that have remained un-addressed, grievances that are connected to the difference of identity that encompasses more than the differences in religion, grievances that make the Moros feel that they can never be part of the Filipino identity because they will never be accepted as such by the Filipino people.


According to Professor David Little, religion and nationalism are very firmly connected.
[31] The Bangsamoro nation has had Islam indelibly marked on it. For the Christian Filipinos, they have defined their nationhood under the tutelage of Spain and in the name of Christianity. While the new Philippine state set on its nation-building project to build one Filipino identity, it set on it with eyes that were shaped by the Spaniards who saw the Moros with suspicion and antipathy, and were unable or unwilling to accept their identity. Rather, it viewed the Moros through Spanish eyes as a people believing on a wayward faith and living a sinful life. Thus, it instituted integration policies that did not depart from the foreign colonizers.

It is not, therefore, surprising why the Moros still see themselves as a different people with a different identity. And with Islam's deep roots in their history and way of life, it is not surprising that it is that badge of identity that they brandish and hold on to against a Christian “other” that they see as committing injustice against them. Time and again, both the Moros and the Christian Filipinos have tried to settle their differences. And time and again, they have failed. With each failure, the Moros have moved to religion and have steadily identified the conflict in religious terms. It is not clear, however, whether this development have made resolution more difficult or easier.

Sometimes though, religion makes resolution of the conflict difficult.
[32] It is not easy to resolve a conflict about Gods. Fortunately, this is not a conflict about Gods but about a people who want to preserve their identity as a nation and as Muslims. It is a conflict for rights that have been withheld and violated and grievances that have been unanswered. It is a conflict for justice by a people that have been wronged. Ultimately, it is a conflict about identity – about whether the Moros will be part of the Filipino identity or will forever be the “other”.

The writer is currently taking his Master's in Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard.

2 Abhoud Syed M. Lingga, Muslim Minority in the Philippines, [unpublished paper delivered during the SEACSN Confrence 2004: “Issues and Challenges for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Southeast Asia”, Shangri-La Hotel, Penang, Malaysia on 12-15 January 2004].
3 Ibid.
4 Melvin Mednick, The Muslim Filipino 18-19 (1974).
5 Asiri J. Abubakar, Muslim Philippines: With Reference to the Sulus, Muslim-Christian Contradictions, and the Mindanao Crisis, 11 Asian Studies 115.
6 Quoted in Cesar Adib Majul, Muslims in the Philippines 91 ( 1973 ).
7 Peter G. Gowing, Christian and the Moros: The Confrontation of Christianity and Islam in the Philippines, 10 South East Journal of Theology 31 (Nos. 2-3, 1968).
8 Edilwasif T. Baddiri, Islam and the 1987 Philippine Constitution, 45 Ateneo L.J. 175 (2001)
9 Peter G. Gowing, Mandate in Moroland 26-34 (1977).
10 Stuart A. Schlegel, Muslim – Christian Conflict in the Philippine South, The Southern Philippine Issue: Readings on Mindanao Problem, Twelfth Annual Seminar on Mindanao-Sulu Culture 6 (Alfred Tiamson and Rosalinda Caneda comps., 1986).
11 Quoted in Salah Jubair, A Nation Under Endless Tyranny 79 (1997).
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid, at 95-103.
14 Quoted in Abdurasad Asani, Moros not Filipinos, 10 (1992).
15 W.K. Che Man, Muslim Separatism: The Moros of the Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand 55 (1990).
16 Salah Jubair, A Nation Under Endless Tyranny 95-103 (1997).
17 Ibid, at 102.
18 Nur Misuari, The Rise and Fall of Moro Statehood, 6 Philippine Development Forum 1, (1992) 16.
19 T.J.S. George, Revolt in Mindanao: The Rise of Islam in the Philippine Politics 107 (1980).
20 Salah Jubair, A Nation Under Endless Tyranny 95-103 (1997), at 126 – 127.
23 Ibid, 24.
24 T.J.S. George, Revolt in Mindanao: The Rise of Islam in the Philippine Politics 71 (1980).
25 Ibid.
26 T.J.S. George, Revolt in Mindanao: The Rise of Islam in the Philippine Politics 107 (1980) [hereinafter George].
27 Lecture of Professor Samuel Huntington, November 10, 2004.
29 Lecture of Professor Samuel Huntington, November 10, 2004.
30 Ibid.
31 Lecture of Professor David Little, October 27, 2004.
32 Ibid.


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