Secession or Autonomy: The Moros of Muslim Mindanao from Colonial Periods to the 21st Century 

Throughout history, countries and territories have shifted multiple times. People of different cultures and beliefs are then challenged into creating functional states that allow for the differences of its people to coexist. However, these changes don’t always go about smoothly and at times can lead to disparities between different groups within a nation, especially if they differ culturally and don’t have a basis for a joint sense of community. If a group is neglected or left out of the narrative and decision making, these nations run the risk of instability and violence as the neglected factions attempt with increased vigor to make themselves heard if the state refuses to acknowledge them. One of these instances is the case of the Muslim minority in the Philippines also called Moros

Moro is a collective term used for 16 ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao. The term originated from the Spaniards who, upon arrival in certain territories, noticed similarities between the Islamized natives and the Muslims that ruled the Iberian peninsula. Before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, Islam spread in the Philippines through Arabian traders in the 14th century and sultanates were established in the 15th century . The Muslim-dominated territories were not 1 completely conquered and controlled during the Spanish colonization and their relationship with the colonizers was regulated by treaties so there were two distinct parallel developments of the Christian Filipinos and the Moros. The Spaniards categorized the natives into a dichotomy of wild- civilized based on their religion. Those who were converted to Christianity were considered civilized meanwhile non-Christian communities like the Moros were considered wild. The Spaniards often sent Christian Filipinos to fight against the Moros for control of territories which created animosity between the two groups. 

When the Spaniards gave control of Las Islas Filipinas to the United States, they included the territories of the Moros. The system applied by the United States divided the territories into two types of provinces: general provinces and special provinces. The general provinces had Christian majorities and were considered civilized meanwhile the special provinces had non-Christian majorities and were considered uncivilized. The distinction thus maintained the dichotomy of wild- civilized used by the previous colonizers. The Muslim-dominated Moro Province was under the governance of the US military which was separate from the governance of the rest of the archipelago. Even though the US did not encourage animosity between the Christian Filipinos and the Moros, the migration of non-Muslim Filipinos, mostly Christian, into the Moro Province with the creation of agricultural colonies set up the foundations for tensions and conflicts between the two communities because of issues regarding land ownership claims of mostly-Christian migrants . 2 The creation of agricultural colonies was sanctioned by a bill passed by the Philippine Assembly, which did not have jurisdiction over special provinces, as a solution to the problems of dense population and lack of food supply particularly in the island of Luzon. During the debates for the passed bill and previously proposed ones, the Moros expressed disagreement with the contents of the bills because they were perceived as attempts of the elite Christian Filipinos to exert control over the Moro Province. The Moros did not identify themselves as Filipino unlike the Christian Filipinos and they did not consider the elite Christian Filipinos in the Assembly as representatives of their interests in the government. The datus, traditional chiefs or leaders, collaborated with the Americans and some even pledged allegiance to the US because they considered the American presence and governance as a form of protection from the ‘colonization’ of the Christian Filipinos who wanted to include them in a nation they did not identify with . The Christian Filipinos worked 3 on obtaining control over the Moro Province because of their nationalist agenda without taking into account the will of the Moros who instead wanted an independent political entity separate from the Philippines. On the other hand, Americans aimed to maintain their control of the Moro Province because of the potential economic benefits. There were bills proposed in the US Congress to turn Mindanao into a US territory that would serve as a source of rubber, hemp, sugar, and other products because of the great extension of fertile but unutilized land . In the end, the consensus in 4 the US government was that it would be more beneficial to let the independence process of the Philippines, including the Moro Province, proceed instead of investing funds into the development of the territory. In this instance, the will of the Moros was not considered again in the decision- making process. 

During the postwar period, Philippine presidents continued to encourage migration to Mindanao which led to a change in the demographic of the area with Muslims becoming a minority. Tensions and hostilities increased between the Moros and the non-Muslim Filipinos with the resettlement because of disputes on land ownership claims which caused an increasing number of violent conflicts. The Muslim Filipinos did not have land titling systems in place so it was easy for the migrants to legally claim the lands. The Moros also felt neglected by the Philippine government since they had to defend their lands by themselves and they lost representation even in local elections, dominated by mostly-Christian politicians, due to their new status as a minority. The socio-economic development in Mindanao only benefited the migrants meanwhile the local Moros remained the poorest in the whole archipelago.

“The worst episode of Muslim-Christian conflict in the Philippines was carried out by the administration of then-president Ferdinand Marcos” . The Jabidah Massacre in March 1968, 6 exposed by Senator Benigno Aquino and the sole survivor of the massacre, was the murder of Moro recruits in the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) after the recruits refused to follow orders of military officials during preparations for an operation to invade Sabah, Malaysia. News of the massacre and the planned operation against Sabah enraged Malaysia and most importantly the Moros who felt that they have to protect themselves from the Christian-dominated government of Manila. The land ownership disputes worsened with time because of the formation of Christian and Muslim militias. The unfair treatment of the Muslims by the government resulted in a rise in separatist sentiments and the formation of groups such as the Bangsamoro Liberation Organization and the Muslim Independence Movement that deemed independence as the only solution to the mistreatment of the Moros. The Muslim insurgencies and other insurgencies in other parts of the country prompted a declaration of Martial Law by President Marcos which led to state military operations to suppress the insurgencies. The Moros reacted to the violence of the military and the displacement of civilians by coming together under a single organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded by Nurullaji Misuari. 

The initial aim of the MNLF, which had a secular tendency, was secession and for years it engaged in armed conflict with the forces of the Philippine government to fight for independence. The secessionist agenda of the MNLF was abandoned with the signing of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement with the Philippine government, brokered by Muammar Gaddafi, which entails a ceasefire and the creation of an autonomous region for Muslims of Mindanao with its own autonomous government and Shari’ah justice system. The abandonment of the separatist agenda by the MNLF led to a schism in the organization when a faction led by Hashim Salamat formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which, unlike the MNLF, adopted a religious ideology by fighting for the formation of an Islamic State in Muslim Mindanao, independent from the Philippines. Initially the Philippine government did not pay much attention to the MILF that eventually grew in number and power, choosing instead to focus on the MNLF and the continued armed conflict with the organization until the signing of the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) in 1996. The rise of the MILF could be attributed to the failure of the MNLF to deliver any of the changes promised through the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as established by the Tripoli Agreement. The MNLF leader Misuari became the governor of the newly created ARMM which could be considered a success but his tenure was dominated by corruption and mismanagement . Another consequence of the failure of the MNLF was the foundation of 7 another breakaway group, Abu Sayyaf, composed of a faction led by Abdujarak Janjalani which aimed to resume the resistance against the government of the Philippines for independence. 

A pattern can be noticed from the schisms of the MNLF because the switch of agenda from independence to autonomy leads to the formation of new groups established by factions that don’t want to give up on the separatist movement. In fact, the MILF rejected the FPA because it only alluded to the establishment of an autonomous region instead of an independent Islamic State. From 1996 President Ramos engaged in peace talks with the MILF to understand the demands of the group and to establish ceasefire mechanisms managed by the Coordinating Commission on the Cessation of Hostilities and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group. During the years of the peace talks, the MILF established camps all over Muslim Mindanao without the interference of the government and the military. The situation changed in 2000 during the presidency of Joseph Estrada who declared an ‘all-out war’ against the MILF which led to a military victory but it did not have a big impact on the forces of the MILF. This stance of President Joseph Estrada was a setback for peace negotiations with the MILF that properly resumed only in 2010 with the Aquino administration. 

The MILF could not be considered as a mere armed rebel group because it has established an important network of connections with civil society organizations and the local clan leaders that have control over the political power in the various constituencies in Mindanao. “Moreover, rather than the MILF eliminating statist institutions, the strength of the MILF is often measured by the degree to which it manages to penetrate the local state.” The ties of the MILF with local clan 8 leaders puts it at a position of a mediator in cases of intra-Muslim conflicts between the different clans and political strongmen with their own private armies. The elite-based clan structures in Mindanao are considered by local residents as an extension of the elite system in place in Manila so the religious ideology adopted by the MILF is seen positively by its supporters because in Islam there is an ideal of equality. The rebel group also has mechanisms in place to help civilians escape from extortion from local politicians through the help of religious leaders and institutions. A tax system was established with tax collectors appointed by the MILF. The money collected has been used to fund the MILF and social initiatives such as financial aid for elders, widows and students in need. 

In 2010, there was an important progress in the peace negotiations with the MILF that decided to drop its demands for independence in favor of a state-substate arrangement. The negotiations with the Aquino administration resulted in the signing of two agreements: Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (2012) and Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (2014). Both agreements entailed the creation of an autonomous region called Bangsamoro and the second one also included the surrender of MILF firearms to a third party. The Congress during the Aquino administration started drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will define the framework for the new autonomous region but in 2015 there was a setback due to the Mamasapano Clash. The clash was between Special Action Force (SAF) troopers, that were executing an operation to kill the Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant Marwan, and a mixed group of MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). This armed encounter resulted in the death of SAF troopers, MILF fighters and BIFF members. Doubts about the affiliation of the MILF with foreign terrorist groups like JI influenced the work of the 16th Congress which did not pass the bill . The BBL was 9 passed by the 17th Congress and was signed into law by President Duterte in 2018. The Bangsa Sug, inhabitants of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi who don’t identify as Bangsamoro, campaigned for a revision of the BBL because they were not given the freedom of choosing to be a part of the new Bangsamoro region or not . A two-part plebiscite was done in 2019 which included a vote 10 regarding the inclusion of municipalities in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) which will have its own democratic parliamentary government. Sulu is included in the BARMM even though the majority voted against inclusion, enraging the natives, meanwhile the province of Lanao del Norte rejected the bids of inclusion of Muslim-majority towns wherein the majority voted for inclusion. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority has been formed as an interim government body before the election of the Bangsamoro government in 2022. The Bangsamoro government will have shared powers with the Central government of the Philippines and also exclusive powers on matters such as trade, finance, education, culture, and the Shari’ah justice system. The BBL also defines the ‘Bangsamoro Identity’ in Article 2 Section 1 which states that the natives of Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands during the arrival of the Spaniards and the descendants of said natives have the right to identify themselves as Bangsamoro. 


The Moros have struggled for centuries to fight for the acknowledgement of their rights as a group with a distinct identity. It started with the years of colonialism under Spanish and American rule when they were considered as uncivilized and wild because of their religion. The colonial period also encouraged animosity and tensions between the Moros and Christian Filipinos which led to a separate development and evolution of the Filipino identity and the Moro identity. The postwar period was characterized by a series of instances of bad governance and neglect of the Moros that increased the discontent and disapproval against the Philippine government that did not include the Muslim Filipinos in socio-economic development plans. The rise of rebel groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a consequence of centuries of violence and discrimination against the Moros. The cycle of emergence of new rebel groups that demand independence instead of autonomy still continues today but the majority in Mindanao, tired of the endless violent conflicts, consider the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a first step to finally obtaining peace. 



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