Kilometer Zero: Treading the Three-decade Mindanao Conflict

The roots of the Moro rebellion can be traced to as far back as the American occupation, when the colonizers prevented the Moro people’s democratic participation in local administration.  The American colonizers also crafted policies and programs that sequestered ancestral lands, voided Sultanate property, and awarded deeds to landless families from Luzon and Visayas.

Philippine Collegian
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 33, September 23-29, 2007

An eight-hour skirmish ensued on July 10 after government troops in search of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) stepped onto Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) territory. The MILF suffered four fatalities while the marines 14. Of the 14 dead, 10 were found beheaded. Thus began President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s renewed orders for “punitive” actions against Moro rebel groups, deploying five extra battalions to Basilan on July 27. The incursion of soldiers in Mindanao, however, has only heightened the clashes against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), MILF and ASG.

Consequently, the uncertainty and poverty that fueled the Muslims’ rebellion have escalated due to the crisis. Already, unarmed civilians have been caught in the crossfire; more than 40 towns in Basilan and Sulu have been vacated; thousands of families have been displaced. The casualties are expected to increase along with the mounting violence of the three-decade Mindanao conflict.

Continuing colonization

The roots of the Moro rebellion can be traced to as far back as the American occupation, when the colonizers prevented the Moro people’s democratic participation in local administration. Instead, it allowed only foreign and Filipino elites to participate in the region’s politics. The American colonizers also crafted policies and programs that sequestered ancestral lands, voided Sultanate property, and awarded deeds to landless families from Luzon and Visayas.

During the Commonwealth period, the Filipino administration still adhered to the previous colonizers’ system, further neglecting the plight of the Muslims. This ignited the Bangsamoro separatist movement, which sought to regain control over ancestral territories and is embodied by the MNLF, MILF and the early ASG

Land of broken promises

The growing force of the Bangsamoro movement eventually compelled the government to enter into peace talks and reconciliatory agreements with the separatist groups. But an evaluation of the actions undertaken by various presidencies suggests a half-baked attempt at genuinely answering the demands of the Muslims. History reveals that it is often when the government endorses peace it will start the war anew.

The Tripoli Agreement of 1976 between the Marcos administration and the MNLF was supposed to grant autonomy to 13 Muslim areas. To the MNLF’s frustration, however, the territory of the resulting Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as provided by the Organic Act was reduced to four provinces: Sulu, Maguindanao, Tawi Tawi and Lanao del Sur.

Various attempts have been made for the expansion of the ARMM. However, Simeon Ilago, director of the UP Center for Local and Regional Governance, commented that the system of inclusion through plebiscites is problematic. The city of Cotabato, for example, remains the administrative capital of the ARMM although it is not part of the region’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Basilan is now included in the region even though one of the province’s municipalities, Isabela, is not. The factions within the region create problems with governance as well as politics.

Ilago adds that, despite the “autonomy” of the ARMM, its politics is largely determined by outside influence. According to Prof. Muhammad Abdulnazeir Matli of the Institute of Islamic Studies, although Muslims are already under-represented in national government, local positions in ARMM are generally filled by the elite or national government representatives acting as interim officials. Consequently, the programs and policies of the regional government mirror the priorities of the national regime. Ramos’
“Philippines 2000” saw the majority of public spending in ARMM geared towards commercial infrastructure, to the detriment of education, health care, and other basic social services.

Hidden Agenda

The neocolonial condition of the country is perhaps even more magnified in Mindanao. The region is home to numerous transnational plantations like those of DOLE and Del Monte Incorporation, as well as foreign mining companies and other similar business corporations. The Arroyo administration itself claimed that the nation has over $1 trillion in unexplored copper, gold and nickel. With so much money at stake, the government is under pressure from both foreign and local investors to keep its hold on the “goldmine” of the south.

The proposed House Bill 5369 in 2006 for a separate autonomous region for Sulu, Tawi Tawi and Basilan met opposition from the MILF and several Islamic groups for allegedly being backed by American interest in Sulu oil. They also condemned the presence of American troops in the region, pointing that the real motives of the U.S. is not to end the ongoing war but to safeguard foreign interests. However, former Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes justified the entry of up to two thousand American soldiers for the Balikatan military exercise as a necessary move in the elimination of the ASG. Five years later, however, the ASG remains active in kidnap-for-ransom and hostage-taking activities.

Meanwhile, the U.S.’ “war on terror” has emphasized Mindanao’s strategic location – at the center of Southeast Asia and in close proximity to Middle East and Northeast Asia, where Iraq and China are located respectively. The proscription of separatist groups as “terrorists” therefore carries monetary gains for the Arroyo administration. Her “all-out-war” against “rebel groups” is largely funded by the American government, receiving approximately $2 billion as military aid in 2002 alone.

Despite talks of a drastic cut in U.S. aid due to the Arroyo administration’s record of human rights violations, Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chair of the US House of Representatives’ armed services committee, assures that U.S. military aid to the Philippines will not be reduced due to Arroyo’s commitment and “good track record” in the war against terror. This after the administration sent out five additional battalions against the ASG in an alleged attempt to preempt the purported cut.

In the light of the government’s protracted and deliberate failure to uplift the Moro people’s condition, the rebel groups insist that there is little reason for them to give up their bid for autonomy. It is with misguided policies that the Arroyo administration has virtually guaranteed the persistence of the war in Mindanao. Philippine Collegian/Posted by Bulatlat

Sidebar: Armed Conflict

·    Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – created in March 1968 after the Jabidah Massacre, in which government troops gunned down about 28 recruited Muslims to cover up military operations in Sabah. The MNLF later relinquished its goal of independence after the 1976 Tripoli agreement and RA 6734 or Organic Act, which created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Leader Nur Misuari is currently detained on charges of rebellion.

·    Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – created in 1977, when Sheikh Salamat Hashim led the separation from the MNLF after an internal disagreement over the 1976 Tripoli Accord. The MILF contested that the agreement only provided for regional autonomy instead of the separate Islamic republic originally advocated by MNLF.

·    Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – collapse of peace talks between the MNLF and the government in 1988 aggravated Muslim youth to revolt under Janjalani Abubakar, a veteran of the war against Soviet Forces in Afghanistan. Both the MNLF and MILF have denied affiliation with the ASG, which employ extreme methods such as beheading and mutilation.

References :
Abubakar, Carmen (1999). Ang Hijrah ng MNLF: 1974-1996.
Tan, Samuel (2003). History of the Mindanao Problem.
Jacinto, Al (2003). Mindanao Peace Process timeline.
Wadi, Julkipli (2003). They’ve Come So Far.

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