Self-Determination Regional ConflictProfile
Moros in the Philippines

By John Gershman
(revised October 2001)

Source: Filipino Muslims

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Islam was introduced in the Philippines in 1210 by Arab merchants and Islamic missionaries, preceding the introduction of Catholicism via Spanish colonialism in 1521. At the time of Spanish colonization, Islam had penetrated many of the coastal communities of the major islands in the Philippines, including Manila. Today, Muslims constitute about 5% of the total Philippine population. Members of the Muslim minority are concentrated in five provinces of western Mindanao: Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. There are also significant Muslim communities in nearby Mindanao provinces and in Manila. Approximately 19% of the population of Mindanao is Muslim, according to the 1990 census. Muslim regions in the Philippines are among the country's poorest and the social indicators (health, education) are among the lowest in the country.

Muslim nationalists in the Philippines have appropriated the term Moro as the label for the national identity whose interests they represent. There are three main Moro ethnolinguistic groups: the Maguindanao-Iranun group in the Cotabato region, the Tausug-Samal group in the Sulu Archipelago, and the Maranaws of the Lanao region. Three major Moro organizations are fighting for self-determination in the Philippines: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and two groups that originated as splinters from it: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF, which split from the MNLF in 1977 but was formally founded in 1984) and the Abu Sayyaf ("Bearer of the Sword," formally founded in 1991).

Although Muslims living in what is now the Philippines resisted Spanish and American colonialism, the modern movement for Muslim separatism in the Philippines originated among a small number of students and intellectuals in the late 1960s, primarily young men from non-elite Muslim families. Major grievances were discrimination, poverty, and inequality, linked primarily to the displacement of Moro communities from their lands by Christian settlers. The movement gained popular support after the eruption of violence in Cotabato in 1969-1971 and in response to the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. The MNLF, which became the largest grouping of armed separatists at the time with as many as 30,000 troops at their peak, fought the Philippine military to a stalemate in the mid-1970s.

In December 1976, with the aid of Libya, and under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Philippine government officials and MNLF leaders negotiated a settlement known as the Tripoli Agreement. The agreement included a ceasefire and the granting of autonomy to thirteen provinces where the majority of Muslims lived. However, the Tripoli agreement was never genuinely implemented by the Marcos regime. As a consequence, fighting broke out once more before the end of 1977, but did not again approach the level of intensity experienced prior to the ceasefire. The Muslim separatist movement entered a period of disarray marked by factional infighting (including the founding of the MILF) and a weakening of popular support. By the early 1980s the separatist struggle gradually transformed itself into a popular, mostly unarmed movement.

With the fall of the Marcos regime in 1985, the MNLF negotiated a ceasefire with President Corazon Aquino in 1986. In January 1987, the MNLF signed an agreement relinquishing its goal of independence for Muslim regions and accepting the government's offer of autonomy. The MILF refused to accept the accord. Talks between the government and the MNLF over the proposed autonomous region continued sporadically throughout 1987 but eventually deadlocked. The MNLF officially resumed its armed insurrection in February 1988, but little fighting resulted.

The government, meanwhile, pressed ahead with plans for Muslim autonomy without the MNLF's cooperation. Article 10 of the 1987 constitution mandated that the Congress create an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. In a November 1989 plebiscite, only four provinces opted to accept the government's autonomy measure. The four-province Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was officially inaugurated on November 6, 1990, remains the only subnational region with its own executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the administration of Fidel Ramos. The 1996 Peace Agreement provides for two phases of implementation. The first phase, a three-year transition period, was to be followed by the establishment of a new Regional Autonomous Government that would operate from September 1999 on. The final outlines of the autonomous region were determined by a second plebiscite held on August 14, 2001, when citizens of 15 provinces and 10 cities in the southern Philippines decided whether they would join the new autonomous region. Turnout was low in many areas and the plebiscite resulted in the expansion of the ARMM to include the province of Lanao del Sur and Marawi City while also ratifying the law officially creating the ARMM. The scope of ARMM now covers five provinces (Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur) and Marawi City. Elections for governor, vice-governor, and the ARMM regional assembly are scheduled for November 26, 2001, the fourth set of elections in the ARMM's history.

Following the 1996 peace agreement, the MNLF entered civilian politics. As provided for in the peace agreement, two new governance entities were created: the Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD), comprising 14 of Mindanao's 24 provinces; and the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), which was established to manage peace and development efforts within the SZOPAD. Nur Misuari, who is also governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, serves as the chair of the SPCPD. The current autonomy arrangement is hampered by the lack of funds for reconstruction in the region and by the government's failure to implement the 1996 peace agreement fully and on schedule.

Both the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf opposed the 1996 peace agreement. The MILF engaged in on-again off-again negotiations with the Philippine government until early 2000, when the Estrada administration launched an all-out attack on the MILF, capturing several of its camps. The MILF's demands differ from those of the MNLF in that the former wants a greater role for shariah law and demands that the Philippine government address the issue of land distribution. Following Estrada's ouster in January 2001, the current administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed a ceasefire agreement with the MILF in August 2001. The MILF had earlier agreed to put aside its demands for independence in order to achieve progress on the rehabilitation of war-ravaged areas, the implementation of previous agreements forged by the MILF and the government, and economic development for Mindanao. Negotiations are ongoing, with the third round of negotiations scheduled for October 15, 2001 in Kuala Lumpur.

The main declared objective of the Abu Sayyaf is to establish an Islamic state based on Islamic law (shariah) in the southern Philippines. It has issued no definitive policy statements and has not demonstrated any significant political support. It engages in a range of violent acts including bombings and kidnappings, most recently in early 2001. The MNLF and MILF as well as other Moro political figures have denounced the activities of the Abu Sayyaf. Since May 2001, the Arroyo administration has been engaged in a military assault on Abu Sayyaf positions in Basilan. Human rights advocates have criticized human rights abuses by the military during their operations.

Profiles of Major Organizations

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF): Founded in 1969, the MNLF draws its members
primarily, though not exclusively, from the Tausug, Samal, and Yakan ethnolinguistic groups. Its first members were youth recruited by the traditional Muslim leadership for military training in Malaysia. Like Nur Misuari, MNLF's chairman, these young men generally had a secular education, and some had briefly taken part in left-wing student politics. When the MNLF was founded, its objective was to create an independent Bangsamoro homeland. However, under pressure from the Islamic states, it has accepted autonomy within the Philippine state. MNLF leaders currently serve in the ARMM administration.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF): While the MILF was officially founded in 1984, its origins were in a group led by Central Committee member Salamat Hashim that left the MNLF shortly after the collapse of the Tripoli Agreement in 1977. At first called the New MNLF, it formally established itself in 1984 as the MILF. The organization puts much greater emphasis on Islam than the MNLF, and most of its leaders are Islamic scholars from traditional aristocratic and religious backgrounds. The MILF claims to have 120,000 armed and unarmed fighters and many more supporters. Recent Philippine government estimates put the MILF strength at 8,000 while Western intelligence sources put it at 40,000. Most members come from the Maguindanaon and Iranun ethnic groups, although Maranaw recruits seem to be increasing.

Abu Sayyaf ("Bearer of the Sword"): Founded in the mid-1980s, Abu Sayyaf aims to propagate Islam through jihad. Its founder and long-time leader, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, was an Islamic scholar and previously a member of the MNLF. He was killed in an encounter with the military in December 1998. Since then the group has splintered into different factions, and its activities are driven more by banditry and kidnapping than political struggle. The group's main base is on the island of Basilan, and is headed there by the founder's brother, Khadafi Janjalani. Accurate data on the group's size is difficult to find. While the U.S. State Department estimates the number of Abu Sayyaf partisans at 200, the Philippine military has since upped official estimates to more than a thousand guerrillas and 2-5,000members, many of whom have joined recently because of its success at obtaining ransoms from a round of kidnappings in August 2000. The extent of their popular support appears to be linked to their effectiveness in obtaining large ransoms from kidnapping as opposed to representing a broad-based demand for self-determination. The Philippine military and police are widely believed to have agents operating in the Abu Sayyaf for information-gathering purposes as well as for extortion activities. Philippine military officials say the Abu Sayyaf received material and financial aid as well as training from Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network until 1995, and that the two groups have maintained contact since then.

Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC): This intergovernmental organization involving
representatives from fifty-six states was founded in 1969. It has facilitated negotiations between the MNLF and the Philippine government since the 1970s and has been involved in monitoring the implementation of the 1996 peace agreement. The MNLF has been an official observer of the OIC since 1977. The MILF failed to obtain observer status in 2000. Libya, Indonesia, and Malaysia are the members of the OIC that have been most active in mediating between the Philippine government and the Moro groups.

Proposed Solutions and Evaluation of Prospects

There are several proposed solutions. The creation of an independent Muslim state seems unlikely given the lack of international support for such a goal, as well as the lack of popular support among a large number of Moros. Of the three main Moro self-determination groups, Abu Sayyaf makes the most insistent demands for independence, but its small social base and lack of an alternative political program suggest its projection will be mainly a police and military issue in the Philippines, not a political one. Although the MILF ostensibly demands independence, it has put aside that demand in the current negotiations with the government, and would likely accept a genuine autonomy agreement.

While Moro self-determination demands focus mostly on achieving genuine autonomy and to a lesser extent on creating an independent state, another proposed solution that counts some support among non-Muslims is a federalist governance structure. Federalism would entail greater government decentralization and broader reforms of the 1987 Constitution. No substantive progress has been made toward this solution.

In the short term, the agenda for Moro self-determination will likely mean working with the current autonomy arrangement. Making the autonomy option work will require addressing the lack of resources available to the autonomous region's government as well as the lack of basic infrastructure in the region. Historically, the Philippine government has responded with military solutions to Moro political mobilization. If this practice persists, it will likely spark continuing armed conflict.

Role of the United States

Because of its historical role in colonizing the Philippines, the U.S. has long been a factor in
self-determination issues in the Philippines. Today, however, the involvement of the U.S. derives primarily from the U.S. military alliance with the Philippines, based on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and its foreign aid program. The U.S. government maintains an active interest in the Abu Sayyaf in particular, and has classified the group as an official terrorist organization. The U.S. State Department's annual Human Rights Report on the Philippines discusses human rights violations by the government, the MILF, and the Abu Sayyaf. It has also discussed problems of discrimination against Muslims.

U.S. military ties (including military aid) to the Philippines weakened after an agreement leasing land for two major U.S. military bases was not renewed in 1992. However, after a Visiting Forces Agreement was signed in 1999, U.S. military assistance and ties resumed. In early 2000, the U.S. and the Philippines engaged in their first large-scale joint exercises since 1995. Military assistance in the form of Economic Support Funds increased from zero in FY2000 to an estimated $4 million in FY2001and $15 million are requested for FY2002. Financing for weapons purchases increased from $1.4 million, $2 million, and $19 million over the same period. A group of Republican congressional representatives, led by Dana Rohrabacher of California, is spearheading a drive to further increase military support for the Philippines.

In late October a team of an estimated two dozen U.S. civilian and military advisers will go the Philippines to train Philippine soldiers engaged in operations against the Abu Sayyaf and to provide advice to the Philippine military in their operations against the Abu Sayyaf . U.S. advisers have already trained a "light reaction company"--about 100 Filipino soldiers--and provided equipment for counterterrorism operations in Basilan.

U.S. military assistance is also linked to concerns that the Philippines may be used as a base of operations by Islamist terrorist organizations, including those with ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. For example, two years after bombing the World Trade Center in 1993, Ramzi Yousef and some accomplices planned to target 20 U.S. commercial airliners for mid-air explosions. They tested a bomb on a Philippines Airlines flight from Manila to Tokyo in December 1994, killing a Japanese businessman--under whose seat Yousef had placed the explosives--and injuring 10 others. A month later, Yousef made a mistake while mixing various chemicals, causing a fire to break out in his Manila flat. He fled and escaped to Pakistan, where he was later arrested.

Through the mid-1980s, the U.S. was the Philippines' largest source of foreign aid. By the late 1990s, the U.S. was number five after Japan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and Australia. Grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were declining through the 1990s but have recently increased to $45 million. USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives provided $3.5 million from September 1997-March 2001 specifically in support of the implementation of the 1996 peace agreement for MNLF combatant reintegration and community development in MNLF-controlled areas of Mindanao. It also supported community-based reconciliation efforts in 2000 after the resumption of hostilities between the MILF and the Philippine military. USAID also participates with the principal donors in the Mindanao Working Group, chaired by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), through which donor activities are discussed and opportunities for cooperation identified.

(John Gershma is codirector of Global Affairs Project at the
Interhemispheric Resource Center and Asia-Pacific editor of Foreign Policy In Focus.)

Sources for More Information


Young Muslim Professionals


Organization of the Islamic Conference

U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom report on the Philippines

U.S. State Department Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000 Report

USAID-funded Growth with Equity in Mindanao Program

Pamantalaang Mindanaw

Bangsa Moro resources from the Philippine Solidarity Centre (Netherlands)

Accord: Peace in Mindanao


Katherine G. Adraneda, "Human rights activists to GMA: Please stop Basilan siege," Cyberdyaryo
(October 11, 2001).

T.J.S. George, Revolt in Mindanao: The Rise of Islam in Philippine Politics (Kuala Lumpur:
Oxford University Press, 1980).

Eric U. Gutierrez, The Re-imagination of the Bangsa Moro: 30 Years Hence, Institute for
Popular Democracy (Manila, Philippines).

Salah Jubair, A Nation Under Endless Tyranny (Lahore: Islamic Research Academy Mansoorah,

Cesar A. Majul, "The Iranian Revolution and the Muslims in the Philippines", in John L. Esposito (ed.),
The Iranian Revolution: Its Global Impact (Florida International University Press: 1990), pp.

Cesar A. Majul, The Contemporary Muslim Movement in the Philippines (Berkeley: Mizan Press,

Thomas M. McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in
the Southern Philippines (Berkeley: UC Press, 1998).

Marites Vitug and Glenda M. Gloria, Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao (Manila:
Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs and Institute for Popular Democracy, 2000).

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