Country Profile


Situation Report

A peace treaty signed this year formally ended a long-drawn-out separatist rebellion by the Moro "Moro" was a pejorative term used by Spaniards to refer to Muslims during the Philippines was under the rule of the Spanish empire. Muslim student activists who eventually founded the MNLF appropriated the term in the late 1960s and gave it a more militant meaning. Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the islands of Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago, and Palawan island (see maps). Groups including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have been in armed conflict with the Philippine government since the 1970s.

They argued that Muslims were never part of the Philippine body politic, having forcibly been integrated under American colonial rule. Since then, the argument goes, Manila has maintained its control through the security forces, and by co-opting Muslim elites with offers of state positions. The government, they claimed, then encouraged families from the overpopulated and Christian regions to move to the country's last large island-frontier to civilise or replace the "backward Muslims" and other indigenous tribes of Mindanao.

Finally, the government left the Muslim areas of Mindanao underdeveloped, with many communities living on the poverty line. The only visible exceptions were the local elites, who held power by tradition, and maintained patronage ties with national politicians.

With no loyalty to a nation-state, kept economically poor by a central government whose knee-jerk reaction to any sign of disturbance was to send in the security forces, and believing that a flood of Christian immigrants was taking over their lands in provinces The basic regional divisions of the Philippines are called provinces. where they were once the majority, Muslim suspicion turned into widespread fear that the Bangsamoro ("Moro nation") would disappear. These fears became more evident by the mid- to late 1960s.

Catalysers of Revolt

During this period, a series of transformations catalysed the separatist rebellion. There were significant increases in Christian settler populations adjoining the Muslim areas. As these new towns and villages grew, so did their confidence in their political clout. Their leaders, once subordinate allies of the Muslim elites, could now challenge their patrons in elections and win. Their victories began in their own territories, but soon they began to support national candidates (President, Vice President, and Senators) who were not on the list of Muslims politicians. By the 1960s, they had become the most dominant electorate in the island.

The second transformation originated in the schools in the Philippine capital, Manila, and in the Middle East. By the mid-1960s, the number of Filipino Muslims who were going to institutions of higher learning had increased, thanks in part to an increase in scholarships. In the Philippines, this was a time in which universities were fast becoming centres of dissent against the widespread corruption, mismanagement, and political violence of government and elites. Foreign affairs were also significant. Students protested against the use of the Philippines as a launching pad for bombing sorties into North Vietnam, the rise in prostitution around American bases, and the perceived compromise of Philippine sovereignty. Filipinos—including Muslims—were also impressed by the fighting ability of the Vietnamese against the superior Americans.

Those who received scholarships to the Middle East witnessed the surge of Egyptian and Libyan nationalism after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Though this left a political outlook distinct from that of their counterparts in the Philippines, the role of the United States in holding pan-Arab nationalism at bay had not escaped their notice. Many of them would later be drawn to the idiosyncratic ideology of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Exposed to these waves of popular democracy and nationalism at home and abroad, many young Muslims became increasingly attracted to the idea of separating the Ummah from the Philippines.

The third transformation came in two massacres of Muslims by government troops. On 18 March1968, the government of President Ferdinand Marcos was accused of ordering the killing of a group of Muslim military trainees who protested against the severity of their training for a secret mission to Borneo. When it was exposed, the "Jabidah massacre" (Jabidah being the group's code name) gave Muslim leaders and the students evidence of government malevolence toward their people. 

The massacre gave Muslims evidence of government malevolence

Three years later, news filtered back to Manila about the killing of 70 Muslim men, women, and children in a mosque in the village of Manili, North Cotabato province in western Mindanao. To this day no one knows who was responsible for the brutality, but suspicions pointed in two directions: towards a fiercely anti-Muslim vigilante group called the Ilagas ('rat' in Filipino), and towards units of the Philippine Constabulary, a branch of the armed forces charged with internal security. Neither group was indicted for the crime. However, the "Manili massacre" turned the simmering mistrust between Muslims and settler groups into open animosity. The Manili incident also caught the attention of Gaddafi, who was convinced that genocide was underway in the southern Philippines.

These factors and the increasing intrusions of the national government provided the motivation for different Muslims political and religious leaders and their respective constituents to form an alliance with the students and establish the MNLF. Malaysia and Libya promised to arm the MNLF and opened up training camps in Borneo and Tripoli, respectively. President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, and conflict came a year later when Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops tried to impose a weapons ban in the Muslim province of Lanao del Sur. It did not take long before the skirmishes became a full-blown war that profoundly changed the political landscape of Muslim Mindanao.

Islam’s relative marginality

Historians have repeatedly noted that terms like "Muslim" or "Christian" are used as ethnic identities rather than religious markers throughout the conflict. The anthropologist Thomas McKenna, for example, noted that in his area of study – Cotabato City – religious differences were not the sole bases of distinguishing Muslims from Christians. Instead these "ethno-religious groups" identify each other based on ""cultural markers" that include speaking English or Filipino, to "wearing completely Westernised dress, and in the case of men, drinking alcohol." (See: Thomas McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 1998, p 36.) This is largely tied to the history of Islam in the Philippines.

Introduced in the 14th century by Sunni Arab missionaries, Islamic beliefs and practices fused with pre-Islamic animistic cultures to create a distinctively southern Philippine version of the norms, values, customs and practices of the Muslim community (popularly known as adat). One of the most notable features of this was a mutation of the religion from the great leveler of social and economic divisions into a religious endorser of a political structure that gave a local strongman—the datu or the sultan—the role of the secular and religious leader of the community. One possibility for the success of indigenization was that the flow of Arab missionaries into southern Philippines appeared to have ground to a halt. Sultans and datus now had to take over religious responsibilities, this time using Islam to enhance their prestige.

The strongman's power, however, was measured not by his religiosity but by his military prowess and the size of his following (including slaves). He would demand tribute and labour from his followers; in exchange he provided them with aid in emergencies and adjudicate disputes. Islam was rarely a factor in conflict settlements. And whereas the Quran and the hadith accentuated forgiveness, revenge (maratbat) was more important in settling conflicts.

The ideology of the MNLF reflected this ambiguity. Its Chairman, Nur Misuari never wrote anything to explain in detail its ideology and programme, but his student days might suggest the origins of his political leanings. At the University of the Philippines, Misuari joined the Kabataang Makabayan (Nationalist Youth, or KM) a front organisation of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and then founded his own group, the Bagong Asya (New Asia), which, together with KM and other neo-Marxist groups, pushed for a militant nationalism targeting the United States and its "puppet", the Philippine government. The declaration he wrote to announce the MNLF jihad reflected what he learned from school: It warned that Islam was systematically being destroyed by "Filipino colonialism" and predicted that if the rebellion succeeded, Muslims would be able to chart "our own national destiny." The future "Bangsa Moro Republik [would be] committed to the principle of establishing a democratic system of government, which shall never allow or tolerate any form of exploitation and oppression of any human being by another or of one nation by another" Misuari, Nur. "The Manifesto of the Moro National Liberation Front [and] Establishment of the Bangsa Moro Republik," April 28, 1974, as reprinted in W.K. Che Man. Muslim Separatism: The Moros of Southern Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 189-90.. Only in the last point did the declaration commit itself "to the preservation and growth of Islamic culture among our people."

This was not to say that the organisation simply set aside the shariah and the hadith. The movement recognized their value, but mainly as moral and spiritual invocations expressed in general terms. While the Quran was specific to Muslims, it was given the same standing in the group's ideology as "sovereignty", "republic", and other secular political concepts. There was no evidence that MNLF leaders knew about the teachings of the medieval Islamic philosophers Ibn Taymiyya and al-Mawardi, or of the more contemporary reflections of Hassan al-Banna. Nor did they seem aware of the impact the 1979 Iranian Revolution had on the revived role of Islam as the foundation of rebellions in the Muslim world thereafter. What inspired Misuari more were the Communist revolutions of Russia in 1917, China in 1949, and Cuba in 1959.

Support for the MNLF also came from a variety of quarters. There were those who joined the organisation because of the brutality of the army or its militias on their communities. Thomas McKenna ,who conducted extensive field research in the Muslim zones, observed that when he asked his respondents why they joined the war, the common answer was because of these localized acts of violence. Those with access to newspapers and radio were also agitated to join the organization after receiving news about the massacres in Manili and Manila. Others in the MNLF included supporters of Muslim politicians, angered by the increasing power of the settler communities and a more intrusive national government. The MNLF central committee comprised students inspired by modern nationalism, local strongmen and their clans, and leaders of different Muslim-language groups whose fidelity was to their patrons and not to an ideology or a philosophy. McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 1998.

Breakdown and the rise of Islamic politics

The MNLF fought the AFP on equal terms when the conflict finally broke out in 1975. However, by the end of the year, the government had moved over half of the AFP to the Mindanao war zones, together with tanks, planes and helicopters, many of which were American surplus war material that were made available at the end of the Vietnam War. Abat, Fortunato. 1999. The Day We Nearly Lost Mindanao. Manila. FCA Incorporated. As battlefield losses became serious, the MNLF suffered a string of defections. Many politicians surrendered after the government offered them a chance to regain the local power they had lost after the declaration of martial law and benefit from the spoils of serving the regime. Some of them were used to form rival organizations that challenged the MNLF for leadership of the Muslim people.

Ethnic identity did not prove a unifying factor either. In 1977, the leaders of the MNLF's largest language group—the Maguindanaos—accused Misuari of privileging his own group (the Tausogs) and, more importantly, favouring a "Marxist-Maoist orientation" at the expense of Islam. They broke away from the organisation and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), declaring it as the revolutionary and Islamic alternative to the MNLF. The MILF leaders vowed to "strictly [follow] the Islamic line and its objectives in waging jihad make supreme the word of Allah and to establish an Islamic government." "Leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Outlines His Vision of the Future from his Jungle Base", Crescent International 16–31 August 1994. Jihad, accordingly, was obligatory for Muslims because they had been occupied and oppressed by a foreign country—the Philippine government—and the goal of that struggle was to create a state modeled on the 7th- century Rashidun Caliphate presided over by Muhammad and his successors in Medina.

The MILF was an Islamic alternative to the MNLF

Like the MNLF, the MILF's ideological development can be traced back to the educational and political backgrounds of the organisation's leaders, especially its chairman, Hashim Salamat. If Misuari had been referred to as "the Chairman", Salamat's titles were representative of his Islamic education: Amir al Mujaheedin (Commander of the fighters), alim (learned man), and ustadz (teacher, professor). While Misuari's political education was Filipino, Salamat learned his politics abroad, in a madrasa in Mecca, and then at Egypt's al-Azhar University where he finished two degrees, in Islamic Studies and Philosophy. His extended stay gave him a chance to travel to Muslim-dominated states including Malaysia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. While Misuari had been radicalised by progressive nationalism and left-wing ideology, Salamat drew ideological inspiration from Muslim thinkers Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna in Egypt, and Abul Ala Mawdudi, founder of the Pakistani group Jamaat-e-Islami. Also influential were the writings of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, which gave him the inspiration to "liberate Mindanao from Manila, the colonial government". Vitug, Marites and Gloria, Glenda. 2000. Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. Quezon City. Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs and the Institute for Popular Democracy.

Salamat returned to the Philippines in 1967, joined the MNLF in 1972 and was sent to Malaysia for military training. When martial law was declared he went to Libya and than moved around the Middle East and Pakistan. It was in these places where he met with other Maguindanaos—many of them veterans of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion—to plan the creation of the MILF. They went back to Mindanao in batches—Salamat in 1987—and quietly set up training camps in areas under their influence to form the MILF army.

The use of Islam as the ideological guidepost and the linguistic commonality of the Maguindanaos allowed the MILF to maintain the organisational coherence that the MNLF had been unable to preserve. However, the MNLF continued to hog the political limelight because of the recognition of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) The association of 57 states committed "to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world." (accessed 8 March 2014) – something that the MILF has still not been able to achieve. But what it lacked in international stature, it made up for with its success in building an army and political influence. By the first decade of the 21st century, the MILF had quietly raised an 11,000-strong army and was applying Shariah law in areas under its control.

Islam, Terrorism and Banditry

The MILF was not the only group that brought Islam to centre stage in the separatist struggle. Al-Harakat al-Islamiya (The Islamic Movement), better known to the public as the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG), was headed by Abdurazal Janjalani, an MNLF fighter who had volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and who, like Salamat, had broken away from the organisation after a fierce disagreement with Misuari. The MNLF had sent Janjalani to Saudi Arabia and Libya to learn Arabic and deepen his knowledge of Islam. His next destination was Afghanistan. He came back to the Philippines in the late 1980s and taught in a madrasa in Basilan where he delivered sermons calling for armed resistance against the government. In 1990, Janjalani brought together some old MNLF comrades, fellow Afghan veterans, and children of MNLF fighters killed by the army to form the ASG.

The ASG viewed jihad as the only way to achieve peace and justice

Like Salamat, Janjalani viewed jihad as the only way to attain real peace, justice, and righteousness, and the Quran and sunnah (the way of life of the Prophet and his companions) as guiding authorities for a future new society. Like Salamat, he also envisioned a future state and society that was patterned after Muhammad's 7th-century rule, though he never went into the particulars of this alternative. But while Salamat accepted the diversity in contemporary Islamic governance, Janjalani was critical of all Muslim governments, which he regarded as having deviated from the real teachings of Islam. Janjalani did not spare Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Indonesia in his criticisms, unmindful of their importance as resource bases for any Muslim political and military movement. And while Salamat recognized that Muslims must co-exist with non-Muslims, Janjalani declared that the ASG would not hesitate to execute those who stood in the way of the struggle, including the non-Muslim communities adjoining the Muslim zones.

The tactics of the ASG were also somewhat broader than the MILF. Fighting the Philippine army was no different from engaging acts of terrorism such as plotting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, or that of Philippine Airline flight 434 in 1994, or banditry such as kidnappings for ransom and raiding Christian communities. In the name of Islam the ASG also cooperated with groups of Middle Eastern terrorists , including one associated with a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the senior Al Qaeda leader.

In 1998, Janjalani was killed in a shootout with the police, and his brother Khadaffy seized the leadership. But the ASG's fortunes would soon decline: in November 2001, the United States government had declared the Philippines and Southeast Asia the "Second Front in the War on Terror", and linked the ASG to al-Qaeda. American Special Forces began to arrive in the Philippines to help their Filipino counterparts' campaign against the group. In 2002, the ASG attempted a comeback with the kidnapping of a group of European and Filipino tourists in a nearby Malaysian resort, earning millions from the ransom money European governments paid—to the great embarrassment of the Philippine government. But Khaddafy Janjalani was killed a few years later; his body was dug up in December 2006. With his death, the Abu Sayyaf degenerated into a bandit group without even the façade of being an Islamic movement. It continued its kidnapping operations, targeting Filipinos, Muslims and other foreigners. A good concise overview of the Abu Sayyaf is the website "Mapping Militant Groups," by Stanford University

The Limits of Rebellion

In 1987, the MNLF finally accepted a government peace offer and a new body—the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)—was created to replace previous and ineffectual regional organisations for the Muslims set up by the Philippine government. The ARMM's first three governors were MNLF leaders or close supporters; Misuari himself was ARMM governor from 1996–2002. But the MNLF proved to be poor administrators: they failed to stem the corruption that had plagued past regional bodies, and they mismanaged the substantial financial support ARMM received from the national government. Further undermining their appeal, they began to act like "traditional politicians", taking advantage of the privileges that came to them. Misuari was accused of "living like an oil sheikh" by his own followers. Abinales, Patricio, Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim Mindanao Narrative, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010, p. 149.

As a result of Misuari's mismanagement, leadership of the MNLF began to shift towards the former executive secretary of the ARMM and mayor of Cotabato City, Muslimin Sema. Sema kept a firm hold over his local constituency, while maintaining a relationship with the central government. This was a trick that Misuari was unable to learn. When his term ended, Misuari refused to step down, and ordered MNLF troops still loyal to him to launch attacks in Jolo province and the city of Zamboanga in November 2001. These failed, and Misuari fled to Malaysia only to be deported back to the Philippines where he was promptly jailed. He was later ousted as MNLF chair through a "promotion" to "Chairman Emeritus." Misuari was released in April 2008, and kept away from the political scene until September 9, 2013 when – realising how marginal he had become in the negotiations over the future of Muslim Mindanao– he ordered his remaining "loyalists" to march into Zamboanga City, execute civilians and take over a part of the city. Government troops promply laid siege of what ironically was a district where majority of the population were Muslims. The "rebels" were finally forced to flee two-and-a-half-weeks later. Misuari was nowhere to be found.

Misuari was accused of "living like an oil sheikh"

With the MNLF thus compromised, the revolutionary mantle had passed on to the MILF, which had refused to accept the government offer of peace talks. It finally had the chance to test its fighting capacities when the government launched an "all-out war" against the organisation in mid-2000. Government troops captured the rebel group's main headquarters, Camp Abubakar, forcing the MILF to retreat and shift to guerrilla warfare. Military encounters continued, but these were smaller in scale and failed to dent the government offensive. But the Philippine government was unable to completely eliminate the MILF either. The military impasse led to further negotiations, and in 2001, both sides agreed to a cease-fire and started peace talks. A preliminary accord was reached in 2008, but one of its agenda items—the "ancestral domain agreement" on how to tap the natural and mineral resources of Muslim lands—was opposed by local politicians and declared "contrary to law and the Constitution" by the Philippine Supreme Court.

Though this was a major drawback, the MILF did not respond by going back to war, and instead expressed its desire to continue the negotiations. In January 2003, just six months before he died of a heart attack, Hashim Salamat even wrote a letter to George W. Bush asking the American president to mediate between the two parties. Both developments were widely unexpected, but some factors can account for them.

Chief among them was the geography of the MILF's war. Armed encounters between the separatist group and government forces had been confined to four provinces in central Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. These battles had rarely spilled over into the other twenty provinces and where they did, their effects were insignificant. The MILF's imagined Islamic state may have included the entire island of Mindanao, but the reality was that it could only claim a very small amount of territory, and even there control remained fragile. The MILF leadership was aware of this tactical shortcoming, and with the anti-Muslim bias of Christian and indigenous communities it had become quite clear to them that the struggle was going nowhere. Rodil, Rudy, Kalinaw Mindanaw: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process, 1975–1996, Davao City, Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao, 2006, p. 43.

The 2008 Supreme Court decision declaring the ancestral domain agreement unconstitutional also created fissures within the organisation. For the first time ever, a big group of fighters broke away from the MILF in protest over the compromises its leadership had made. The group called itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and vowed to carry on the separatist struggle, making itself known by attacking several coastal villages in northwestern Mindanao soon after the Supreme Court ruling. They were repulsed by government troops but remained intact as a force. The breakaway of the BIFF considerably weakened the MILF, taking with it some of the group's best fighters including a top commander, Umbra Kato. This was a handicap that the MILF could not ignore.

These military and political constraints gave the MILF a very small degree of leverage against the government. Salamat's letter to President Bush asking for assistance was one of them. The motive behind this "compromise", however, had nothing to do with the MILF retreating on its Islamic ideology. It was very much influenced by what Salamat and his comrades were witnessing around them. When the MNLF signed the peace agreement in 1996, one of the stipulations of the treaty had been for the Philippine government to seek international assistance for the rehabilitation of the war zones. The United States, through its Agency for International Development (USAID), was one of the first to respond. One of USAID's main projects—a livelihood program in which former MNLF rebels were assisted in setting up projects ranging from seaweed, abalone and fish production, to rice and corn cultivation —proved to be the most successful of these efforts. Within four years of its implementation in 1996, evidence of prosperity in MNLF villages had become perceptible to outsiders, including the MILF. The latter remained cautious of the prospects of the peace process, but it also had the strategic foresight to recognise that what the Americans had done in the MNLF areas was a model worth replicating in the event a treaty was signed between the warring parties. USAID-Philippines, 2005, "USAID/Phil Activities in Mindanao," (accessed 15 March 2014)

The Road to Peace and the Twilight of Moro Separatism

In 2010, the MILF announced that it was dropping separatism as its goal and would instead pursue the creation of a "sub-state" within the Philippines with considerable autonomy, including maintaining its own army. It said it was ready to negotiate with whoever would replace the departing President Gloria Arryo, and pledged not to leave the bargaining table until an agreement was signed. Following the election of President Benigno Aquino III – who had promised to pursue peace in Mindanao – the two sides signed a "Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro" (FAB) and began negotiating on a series of annexes that would constitute the final peace agreement. The government and MILF also agreed to form a joint "Bangsamoro Transition Commission" in that would draft the "Bangsamoro Basic Law" with the assistance of a coalition of civil society organizations.

By the end of the year, an agreement was reached over the ancestral domain and its natural resources; the agricultural exploitation of ancestral lands; the management of lands falling under the proposed regional authority including their reclassification and distribution; transportation and communications; a proposed electoral system; and, the rights of non-Muslim indigenous communities. On January 25, 2014, after resolving the last of these annexes, the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front formally signed "the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro" (CAB) ending the separatist war and formally creating a new Muslim autonomous entity that was simply called "Bangsamoro".

The BIFF opposed the negotiations and the agreement and tried to undermine them by launching frequent attacks on army outposts and coastal villages. These sorties made good fodder for the media and worried outside observers of the Mindanao peace process, many of whom have very little knowledge of what is really happening on the ground. In actual terms, however, the best that the BIFF can do is to harass the implementation of the peace agreements. They will not derail the implementation of what is so far the best and most credible attempt by both government and the MILF to finally bring peace to the war zones of Muslim Mindanao.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This situation report was first published on 14 April 2014.