The Bangsamoro Struggle for Self-Determination
by Guiamel M. Alim, Executive Director, Kadtuntaya Foundation, Inc.

Source:  Bangsamoro Struggle
European Solidarity Conference on the Philippines
Philippine Solidarity 2000: In Search of New Perspectives
23-25 June 1995
Hoisdorf, Germany



The Bangsa Moro struggle for self-determination is already a struggle of generations. The longest in Asia and maybe the whole world, it started in the 16th century and up to now there is no clear indiator yet as to when it will end. Other peoples' struggle in the world have either succeeded or been totally crushed. The Moro struggle is still going on. It is an ongoing struggle for survival, cultural identity and for the right to self-determination.

The Bangsa Moro : Who are they?

Bangsa Moro ("the Moro People") is the generic name for the 13 ethnolinguistic Muslim tribes in the Philippines which constitute a quarter of the population in Mindanao in the Southern Philippines. They number from 5-6 million and are found in every major island of the country. They share a distinct culture, speak different dialects, are varied in their social formation but share a common belief in Islam. This is a uniting factor among the different groups.

Of the 13 groups, there are three major groups on the bases of population and their leadership. These are the Maguindanaons (the people of the flooded plains), the Maranaos (people living around the lake) and the Tausogs (people of the current). These major groups have rallied the support of the Bangsa Moro in their struggle for self-determination.

The history of the struggle

The Bangsa Moro struggle for self-determination cannot be placed in proper perspective without a brief account of the Islamic era which began in the year 1310 A.D. through the efforts of Arab traders, travellers, sufis (saintly Muslims) and Muslim missionaries. Islam as a way of life (politics, governance, economic systems, justice systems, etc.) spread and soon Islamic principalities in Sulu and Maguindanao were established. In the 15th century and early 16th century, the Sultanate of Sulu and Maguindanao came into being. Each sultanate was independent, had sovereign power and had diplomatic and trade relations with other countries in the region.

Other Muslim principalities known as emirates, like those of Rajah Solaiman in Manila and the emirates of Panay and Mindoro, were also born. This goes to show that Islam stands on record as the first political institution, the first institutional religion, the first educational system and the first civilization in the Philippines, and that its economy was far advanced than those of the other indigenous communities. But before the Bangsa Moro could fully grow into full nationstatehood, a series of foreign colonial interventions came their way.

Colonial Aggression against the Bangsa Moro

The Spanish invasion and colonial aggression about 160 years after the existence of the Islamic Sultanates and principalities marked the beginning of Spanish tutelage and the halt of Islamic advancement in the northern islands of Luzon and Visayas. In Mindanao, the Moro relentlessly fought against Western colonialism for a span of more than 300 years.

The Spanish expedition in Mindanao in the second half of the 16th century with 1,500 Christianized indios also signaled the beginning of centuries of wars and bitter relations between the Christians and the Muslims in the Philippines. The Spanish colonizers succeeded in imparting to the Christianized majority their chauvinist outlook of the Moro people and the other indigenous people. The moro-moro play, for example, which became an integral part of many a folk and religious festival, instilled in the conquered peoples the belief that everything wicked and treacherous is synonymous with the Muslims and that everything noble and good was done by Christians. The Moros were vilified as juramentados, herejes, feroces, etc. who will burn in hell.

Today, this relationship, characterized by mutual prejudices between the Muslims and the Christians, have become a blocking factor in their cooperation and harmonious co-existence. The Hispanization and Christianization of early Filipinos provided a strong base for the Spanish anti-Muslim campaign, militarily and otherwise, even after the Treaty of Paris on December 19, 1898 which ceded the Philippines to America for $20 million. Spanish aggression did not subjugate the Moro people who remained determined to resist any colonial rule in their homeland.

America delivered the death blow to their right to self-determination

The Moro people fiercely fought against American imperialism. However, unlike her predecessor, the Americans did not solely depend on the use of military force and divide-and-rule tactics to quell the Moro resistance. They employed several policies of attraction, namely: establishing the so-called Moro province which will look after the welfare of the Moro prople. However, the same Moro province was meant to administratively facilitate colonization of the Moro people.

An amnesty program allowed Moro rebels to surrender to American authorities. An education program which granted free higher education to sons and daughters of Moro leaders and the forging of agreements like that of the Bates Treaty with the Moro leaders were all part of the convenient colonization process. As effective conquest tools, the Americans had been able to neutralize Moro resistance and delivered the death blow to the Bangsa Moro struggle for self-determination.

After gaining political control, the American colonial government declared the entire archipelago as public land, including those considered by the Bangsa Moro as their ancestral homeland. They established foreign education, put up foreign government, brought in settlers from the North and started the exploitation of Mindanao's rich resources. Thus the beginning of the minoritization and marginalization of the Bangsa Moro. The impact of such colonial machination is still very much felt today.

Legally, the Bangsa Moro lost their lands because of the Torrens land titling system. They became acculturated due to the public school system which is foreign to their culture. The indigenous political system was replaced with a new system. Today, many of their territories are either controlled by elite settlers or by foreign multinational corporations.

After ensuring its continuous political control and economic interest in the Philippines, the Americans granted independence to the Philippines. Despite protest from the Moro leaders, Mindanao was annexed to the soon-to-be-independent Philippines. Thus, the most awaited transfer of power and reins of government to the Filipino elite.

The post-colonial annexation of the Bangsa Moro homeland to the Philippines

While the Filipino elites of Luzon and Visayas joyfully celebrated what they considered to be the beginning of their freedom and independence and the birth of a new nation, the Bangsa Moro considered the event as the death of their own freedom, independence and long-held sovereignty.

The succeeding presidents of the Republic pursued the task of nation-building that integrated the non-Christians to the mainstream of Filipino culture. In so doing, they used the carrot-and-stick approach against the resisting indigenous people. They continued the scholarship program, the Torrens system, co-opted traditional leaders and brought in more settlers.

Land-grabbing, legal and otherwise, became rampant. The settlers became conscious to grab political power. They organized and armed a Christian extremist group, the Ilaga, to protect their interests, namely, to acquire more land and grab power. On the other hand, the Moro people organized their own defense force and resisted the encroachment of settlers into their territories. The short-lived and traditional-leaders-led Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) was organized.

Soon the situation turned out of control. Civil war broke out. The succeeding events saw Christian settlers fighting against the Moro people in a war where both protagonists turned out to be the losers in the end.

Despite the neutralization of the MIM, there were no signs of the turmoil in Mindanao abating, until the worst episode of Muslim-Christian conflict in the early '70s, when a series of massacres against the Moro people was committed. This also partly justified the declaration of martial law or the continuance of Marcos rule.

Martial Law and the Birth of new resistance

At the height of the much-talked-about Martial Law and responding to the imminent danger of ethnocide, a new revolutionary movement, more aggressive and youth-led, came into being. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) pursued the struggle for Muslim independence. Moro society rallied behind the move to create an independent state. A destructive war ensued between the MNLF and the AFP that would reach its peak from 1972 - 1975. Christian settlers were allowed to arm themselves to join the war. Seventy percent of the total AFP strength, with all the available war materiel, was used in Mindanao to neutralize the Moro resistance.

All told, the war was disastrous, on the one hand. So many lives were lost-- 150,000-200,000. The value of properties destroyed was put in billions, including government infrastructure. Some 200,000 refugees fled to Sabah, Malaysia and hundreds of thousands of local refugees wandered around for safety. Many have become permanent refugees in many urban centers in Mindanao.

In urban areas, the refugees feel safe but their lives are miserable. They have no permanent jobs. They stay in congested areas. They become manual laborers, pedicab drivers, domestic helpers and sidewalk vendors tending ambulant stalls along roadways. Many Moro women become prostitutes; others married Christian men. The impact of war is also disastrous to children. Moro children are prone to violence. Poverty forced many school-age children to join parents to eke out a living or stay home to take care of small kids.

On the other hand, the MNLF in particular and the Bangsa Moro in general, consider the war, inspite its disastrous impact, both in terms of lives and properties lost, as an initial victory of the struggle. This is so, because the soon-to-be-signed Tripoli Agreement was a formal written document which made the Philippine government recognize the Moro people's right to self-determination.

The Marcos government and the infamous Tripoli Agreement

The Marcos government was pressured from both within the country and outside to stop the costly war. The war has become known in Muslim countries especially the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference). The government was spending big amounts of money to sustain the war. Investors were shying away and parents of soldiers who died in the war were showing concern over the death of their sons in a war where there is no winner but only losers.

All these pressures made the Marcos government sign an agreement with the MNLF known as the Tripoli Agreement of 1976. The agreement was aimed at providing a political negotiated settlement to the Moro problem through the grant of autonomy to the Muslims in the Southern Philippines. The government insisted on a plebiscite to settle the territories of the autonomous government as allegedly provided for in the agreement.

The MNLF did not recognize the result of the plebiscite, thus the negotiations bogged down. In the meantime, Marcos won over many of the MNLF ranks through various forms of attraction, ranging from amnesty to luxurious government posts. He pursued the creation of two administrative autonomous regions. This was reminiscent of the province set up under the colonial American regime. Another legacy was the creation of the Muslim Affairs Office directly under the Office of the President. All these were meant to appease the Moro people. Amid all these government programs, the armed struggle continued, though quietly.

A splittist group within the ranks of the MNLF broke away and formed what later would be known as the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). The MILF, which is dominated by the Maguindaons, is asserting Islamic ideology as distint from the nationalist tendency of the MNLF, although both are for the implementation of the Tripoli Agreement. The MILF is continuously building up its organized and armed strength.

The Cory Aquino policies to the Moro problem

Under the Aquino government, another attempt at negotiated settlement was made with the MNLF. The focus of the negotiation was also the Tripoli Agreement. But before anything could be agreed upon, the new Philippine Constitution was ratified. The talks bogged down.

The Constitution provides for a commission to draft an Organic Act that would shape the autonomous government in the region. This has become the legal basis for the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindaqnao (ARMM). Four provinces out of 13 provinces voted to join. This is far from what the Tripoli Agreement provides.

The ARMM is essentially an extension of the elite-dominated Congress. It has not lived up to the expectations of its constituents. It has not made any significant improvement both in the economic life of the people and their security. In fact, it has become a congregation of the Moro elite as an extension arm of the President. Worse, it has become a source of corruption and polarization of the Bangsa Moro.

The prospects of the ongoing peace talks with the Ramos government

The Ramos government also entered into peace negotiations with the MNLF. The agreement is to discuss the modalities of implementing the Tripoli Agreement. The MILF has declared a supportive stance and a wait-and-see posture to avoid any excuse form the government to derail the talks. The peace negotiation has been dragging on for two years. According to a government panel member, nothing substantial has been achieved except the exchange of proposals. Legally speaking, the Tripoli Agreement could not be implemented through an Executive Order. The Congress must amend or change the Organic Act and come up with a new law to implement the creation of an autonomous government. This pushes the Tripoli Agreement to the sideline.

As in the past two governments, the present government of Ramos is tied with the Constitution. In the meantime, some sectors of the population demand participation in the ongoing peace talks. Amidst optimism by both camps, many observers feel that the ongoing peace negotiations is a case of history repeating itself.

Emergence of new forces

In the meantime, while the MNLF and the government are talking peace, other armed groups are coming out. The MILF, with its growing strength, warns that "in the event the talks will collapse, it will pursue the struggle at all costs, as it will feel there is no more point of talking, saying they have no more choice except to return to the barrel of the gun."

Another group bannering the right to self-determination of the Bangsa Moro is the national democratic-inspired Moro Revolutionary Organization (MRO). The MRO, with undetermined strength, is demanding for equal participation in the ongoing peace talks with the government saying peace is the project of all.

The birth of Fundamentalism/Extremism?

Lately, another armed group espousing an Islamic state for the Muslims in the Philippines came to the picture. This is the Abu Sayyaf, which the government has accused of terrorism in Mindanao. The Abu Sayyaf, working for an Islamic state, is opposed to the ongoing peace talks between the MNLF and the government. The Abu Sayyaf is linked to international terrorism by the government. Since the emergence of the Abu Sayyaf (father of the sword/children of the sword) in southern Philippines in 1992, particularly in Basilan, Zamboanga, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the government authorities, in their desperate effort to stop the growth of this group, has raised the issue of Islamic fundamentalism, extremism or terrorism--a legacy of Western bigotry against Islam.

The government, responding to the atrocities of the Abu Sayyaf, has launched an all-out sawyer (war?) and repressive measures against Muslim religious groups in the country, including Pakistanis, Iranian and Arab nationals, on suspicion of supporting and sympathizing with the Abu Sayyaf.

Even Bangsa Moro Muslim missionaries engaged in active religious work are being surveilled and some have been arrested on suspicion of being Abu Sayyaf members.

Observers say that government authorities, in their efforts to dismantle the Abu Sayyaf, have linked Islamic fundamentalism or extremism in the Philippines to international terrorism in order to please the enemies of Islam and to demonize Islam through black propaganda.

However, some evidence would show that the carnage in Basilan and Zamboanga were purely the handiwork of criminal elements manipulated by the government. And also on the Ipil carnage, the Islamic Command Council, a breakaway faction of the MNLF, and the military were allegedly responsible.

The MNLF, MILF and other Moro organizations are one in denouncing the kidnappings, bombings and other forms of criminal acts. However, they also believe that such extremist option will continue to plague the Philippines for as long as the problems of the Moro people are ignored by the authorities.

Philippines 2000: Another threat to the Bangsa Moro struggle for self-determination

Like in the colonial periods, programs like agricultural colonies and settlement projects were established in Moroland in the guise of development. But all these were found to have worked against the interest and rights of the indigenous people. 

The Philippines 2000 project of the Ramos government, which aims at industrializing the country to be at par with the other economic "tigers" of Asia, is viewed with antagonism by the Moro people. Like in the past, this can be another ploy, in the guise of development, to grab the ancestral lands of the Moro people to give way to infrastructure, road
expansion, big industries and agricultural plantations, which will drive away the Bangsa Moro and the other indigenous communities. Despite opposition, ongoing construction of industrial sites are paving the way for the dislocation of Moro families in the South.

The Moro people are already starting to pay the costly price of industrialization. For example:

1. Some 22 poor families will be ejected in General Santos City to pave the way for the construction of a government Philippine Fisheries Development Authority International Fishport;
2. Moro communities were demolished to con struct a park and a hotel for tourists;
3. Badjaos' homes were demolished to make way for the expansion of a wharf;
4. To construct an international fishport, homes of fisherfolk have to be demolished. Another community is to be demolished for the expan sion of international airport;
5. Even a cemetery was not spared, to give way for the construction of a shuttle bus terminal;
6. Staple crops have to give way to exportable crops at the expense of the poor people.

The Bangsamoro, not having enough capital, could not invest in big industries but merely provide a source of cheap labor.

Industrialization would pave the way for development aggression and would sidetrack the real roots of the Moro people's quest for self-determination. Philippines 2000 certainly is a grand design for a continuing effort to eliminate the basic rights and prerogatives of the Moro people from their ancestral land.

This would only facilitate the intrusion of foreign and local agricultural plantation, heavy industries and the like that would only drain the natural resources within the ancestral domain of the indigenous people.

Already, some countries from the Middle East are scouting around for land in the ARMM, particularly those within the site of Regional Industrial Centers, for agro-industrial plantation sites. Eventually, due to the high cost of farming and the lack of support from the government, the farmers will be enticed to sell their lands to foreign investors.

Tourism, which is an important package of industrialization, would be disastrous to the cultural life of the indigenous people. As foreign culture proliferates, acculturation among the local people would become easier.

Where and How are the Bangsa Moro: Their socio-economic situation

As the Bangsa Moro are pre-occupied in their war for survival, identity and nation-in-making, their economic life is becoming more difficult. In the hierarchy of poverty, the Bangsamoro belongs to the poorest of the poor with majority of them earning a living as peasant farmers and fisherfolk. Moro farmers generally suffer from low productivity due to lack of access to technology aside from lack of capitalization for farm inputs. This is not to mention pest-infestation, soil erosion and the increasingly longer dry spell due to the continuous denudation of the surrounding forests. The drying up and pollution of the rivers have likewise deprived Moro farmers with reliable irrigation systems and safe water.

The lack of support from government in the form of subsidies and credit facilities has forced them to turn to local traders who subject them to usurious practices. In remote barangays, where there are no farm-to-market roads and where there is no immediate buyer nor storage facilities, crops are sometimes left to rot. Those who manage to transport their crops to the market are likewise at the mercy of traders who often underprice their products.

Among the Moro fisherfolk, the incursion of foreign trawlers, mainly Japanese and Taiwanese, results in a poor yield because of the depletion of marine resources in the region. To compete with the giant vessels, small fisherfolk often resort to cyanide fishing and other disastrous means of catching fish.

To add insult to injury, many Moros are hired as rice planters by Christian families. During harvest, they go back to gather the palay hulls and sort out the grain from the straw. In congested areas in urban areas, they are sidewalk vendors, manual laborers, pedicab drivers and vegetable vendors. Prostitution has become a source of employment despite its being prohibited by Islam.

Moro women have to join their spouses in the farm or in fishing. Hundreds of thousands of them are domestic helpers in the Middle East. Many come home with horrifying stories. School-age children have to take care of the small kids. Malnourishment and high mortality rate are found in dominantly Muslim communities, especially in the rural areas.

Five of the thirteen poorest provinces in the Philippines are populated mainly by the Moros. And yet, the same provinces are vulnerable to unstable peace and order conditions caused by sporadic armed clashes between Moro armed groups and the revolutionary forces on the one hand, and the AFP, on the other hand. Thousands of Moro evacuees are still languishing in refugee centers.

The perennial problems of dislocation

The Moro people started to experience evacuation since the latter part of the '60s. This has culminated in the '70s during the height of the war against the Marcos regime. A lull was created after the signing of the Tripoli Agreement in December 23, 1976. During these periods, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the MNLF and the government. It was indeed a breathing space for the Bangsa Moro who had been economically and politically displaced by the war.

When the peace talks bogged down, the tension started again, though evacuation was not as frequent as before. This situation prevailed all throughout the Aquino government until 3 years ago when a renewed militarization took place against kidnapping syndicates and against the MILF in Maguindanao who opposed the construction of a dam that would deprive the local inhabitants of their rightful claims over their ancestral lands, and the Abu Sayyaf in the Zamboanga, Basilan and Sulu areas of Western Mindanao.

In all of these military operations, thousands of Moro civilians had to flee to safer places. Hundreds of thousands worth of properties were lost. There were many casualties on both sides and there were also many civilians who became casualties of crossfire between the Moro armed groups and the military. The situation became another burdern to the already miserable life of many Bangsa Moro.

The Moro people's response

The Bangsa Moro people's reactions vary. The traditional political leaders emphasize maintaining loyalty with the Philippine constitution and cooperating with the government. Those in government positions are either silent or are for the status quo.

The religious leaders give emphasis to spiritual enrichment to overcome human problems in the homeland. To be obedient to God is their battlecry.

The MNLF is engaged in peace talks with the government. The MILF is in a wait-and-see stance while doing heavy indoctrination and spreading the concept of Islamic government. Another Moro armed group is the MRO, whose activities combine education and guerrilla formation. The Abu Sayyaf is also building up its forces and strength.

Amid all these responses by the armed Moro groups, the traditional leaders and those in the government, are the NGOs which combine education work with direct services and advocacy. In a span of a decade, more NGOs have been organized in Moro areas doing literacy work, socio-economic activities, community-organizing and capability-building among organized communities. The challenge is great considering various threats, including that of being labeled as rebels or their supporters.

The need for collective action: The task of solidarity

The peoples in the Philippines have shared a common history of struggle against colonial aggression and national oppression.

The problem of poverty, illiteracy and oppression and exploitation, while being heavily felt by the indigenous people, are also common to majority Filipinos. We also have a common desire to be free from the pangs of poverty, ill-health and oppression. We have the same dream of a better life. All these are binding factors that calls for eightened solidarity among the oppressed people, on one hand, and between the oppressed people and concerned people of the First World countries, as is the case in Europe. Along this line, the Moro people view the present solidarity between the Filipinos and the people in Europe with great appreciation.

It suggests, however, that such solidarity be extended too to struggling indigenous peoples in the Philippines considering their distinct culture, way of life and perspective of society. This would, therefore, entail a thorough study of the life and history of the Moro people, their culture, and their dreams. Towards achieving a common goal, the success of the Moro struggle will be the success of the Filipino struggle. The success of the struggle of the oppressed nations will be the success of solidarity.

Areas of Concerns

Solidarity work can consider the following as its areas of concern in dealing with the issue of the Moro people and other indigenous people of the Philippines:

1. The broad issue of the right to self-determination which ranges from ancestral claims to demands for a meaningful autonomous set-up;
2. Programs of Moro NGOs and other indigenous peoples related to the protection
3. Programs related to the welfare of women and children, especially those in the Moro areas and other indigenous peoples' communities;
4. Programs for exchange of information and for exposures;
5. Programs that can respond to here-and-now needs of the indigenous people in the Philippines.

Thank you and more power to solidarity. May your tribe increase.

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