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The Origins of the Muslim Separatist Movement in the Philippines

This is a Christmas structure in Naawan, a lively town in Misamis Oriental in the Philippines. it depicts a mosque (crescent) and a church (cross), with two hands reaching out to each other and holding the whole world. (Mercado/Flickr)

This is a Christmas structure in Naawan, a lively town in Misamis Oriental in the Philippines. it depicts a mosque (crescent) and a church (cross), with two hands reaching out to each other and holding the whole world. (Mercado/Flickr)

by Thomas M. McKenna

The American Colonial Administration of "Moros"

The remote causes of the Muslim separatist rebellion that engulfed much of the southern Philippines in the 1970s and continues in parts of the South today may be found in the policies and practices of the Philippine colonial and national states. Early American rule in the Muslim Philippines followed a pattern quite similar to American governance of the rest of the colony--pious paternalism punctuated by brutal pacification operations. In the Muslim South, however, pacification took longer to achieve, requiring even harsher methods, while paternalism was also more pronounced. By 1914, "Moroland", as it was most commonly termed by the Americans, was considered fully pacified and civilian colonial rule was finally inaugurated 13 years after its establishment in the rest of the colony. Moroland soon came under the primary administrative supervision of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes. Philippine Muslims were grouped together with tribal Filipinos for administration because both were thought to need special attention to advance to the level of civilization of Christian Filipinos.

There were at least two ways, however, in which Philippine Muslims were viewed as distinct from tribal groups by American colonial administrators. For one, although regarded as barbaric, Muslims were not considered savages as were tribal groups. This was due principally to their possession of both a world religion and an aristocracy. In line with the popular orientalism of the time and drawing on the experiences of earlier European colonizers in Muslim Southeast Asia, American colonizers often exhibited a certain respect for the "Mohammedanism" they found in the Philippines and did not encourage Christian proselytization among Philippine Muslims. Tribal groups on the other hand became a principal target for American Protestant missionaries. As one consequence of this attitude, American colonial administrators tended to conglomerate various Muslim ethnolinguistic groups under the single label "Moro" rather than focusing on the "tribal" divisions among them.

Secondly, unlike tribal Filipinos, Philippine Muslims were overwhelmingly lowlanders and were not exempted from the land registration and individual land ownership policies of the American colonial government. The Bureau of Lands conducted land surveys throughout Muslim areas and processed homestead applications. While there is some evidence to suggest that American colonial administrators believed that land registration would improve economic security for Muslim commoners, the actual application of American land policy led to the loss of traditional land rights for a great many Muslims (Thomas 1971).

With the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, government policy toward Philippine Muslims shifted significantly. The Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes was abolished in 1936 and with it the presumption that Muslims should be governed any differently, or afforded more protections, than any other citizens of the Commonwealth. This change in attitude was accompanied by a new policy priority: the economic development of Mindanao for the benefit of the nation, especially by means of Christian migration into traditionally Muslim regions.

Philippine Muslims and the new Philippine Republic

In 1946, a severely war-damaged Philippines received its formal indepen­dence and the new Philippine Republic continued to pursue the primary policy goal of its predecessor in Mindanao with far greater vigor. Indepen­dence brought a tremendous expansion of government-sponsored Christian Filipino immigration from northern provinces to the Muslim South. Demographic data from a single municipality--Kapatagan-- in the province of Lanao del Norte in central Mindanao illustrate the scale of the post-war influx of Christian migrants. There were about 24 Christian settlers in the Kapatagan area in 1918. By 1941 their number had risen to 8,000 and by 1960 there were a total of 93,000 immigrants. By 1960, Christian immigrants vastly outnumbered the 7,000 indigenous Muslims still living in the area (Hausherr 1968/69 quoted in Thomas 1971:317). The demographic shift throughout Muslim Mindanao in the post-war years, while not as dramatic as in Kapatagan, was equally momentous. The population of Central Mindanao, the area which saw the highest overall Christian immigration, soared from 0.7 million persons in 1948 to an estimated 2.3 million persons in 1970; representing a growth rate of 229 per cent as compared with the national figure of just under 100 per cent (Burley 1973).

While the scale of Christian immigration to Muslim Mindanao caused inevitable dislocations, the manner of its occurrence also produced glaring disparities between Christian settlers and Muslim farmers. From 1935 onward, the successive administrations of the Philippine Common­wealth and Republic provided steadily more oppor­tunities and assistance to settlers from the North. By contrast, the government services available to Muslims were not only meager compared to those obtained by immigrant Christians but were also fewer than they had received under the colonial regime. The land laws of the postcolonial government defined all unregistered lands in Mindanao to be public land or military reservations (Gowing 1979). Unfamiliar with the procedures or deterred by the years of uncertain­ty, the steep processing fees, and the requirement to pay taxes during the interim, many Muslims neither applied for the new lands opened up by government-funded road construc­tion nor filed for legal title to the land they currently occupied (Thomas 1971). For their part, officials and employees of the Bureau of Lands (virtually all of them Christians) were at best inattentive to Muslims. By contrast, Christian settlers regularly obtained legal owner­ship of the best newly opened lands as well as crop loans and other forms of government assistance. The new Christian communities became linked to trade centers and to one another by networks of roads while Muslim communities remained relatively isolated.

Most rural Muslims found themselves peripheralized in place as a result of the maneuverings of Christian settlers and speculators. Others, however, were physically dispossessed of their lands. The Bureau of Lands recognized land rights on the basis of priority of claim filed, not priority of occupation. It was not unusual for individuals to obtain legal titles, either intentionally or unintentionally, to al­ready-occupied lands. In such cases, the legal owners were mostly (but not always) Christians and the previous occupants ordinary Muslims. Poor Muslim "squatters" would usually be offered small amounts of money to vacate the land and would often accept it and leave. If the occupants refused to move and the titled owner was sufficiently wealthy or influential, he would gain possession of the land by use of armed might, most often supplied by local units of the Philippine Constabulary. A 1963 survey commissioned by the Philippine Senate Committee on National Minorities concluded that the prinicipal problem in Mindanao was land (Gowing 1979). By 1970, differential access to both land and government resources had produced a profound economic gap between Muslim and Christian communities throughout Mindanao. In 1971 the same Philippine Senate Committee reported that until that year there were no irrigation projects in any munici­pality in Mindanao where Muslims were a majority (Gowing 1979).

State Efforts at Integration and the Generation of Muslim Separatism

As early as 1954 the economic disparities between Philippine Muslims and Christians generated by Christian migration to the Muslim South were already becoming conspicuous. The Philippine Congress, prompted by an intensification of Muslim "banditry" in Mindanao and Sulu, appointed a Special Committee to investigate the causes of those disparities and their possible solutions. The committee adopted the colonial discourse of Muslim backwardness and guided integration in its report. The report acknowledged the poverty plaguing Philippine Muslims but ignored the evidence linking the relative impoverishment of Muslims to Christian in-migration and blamed only Muslim culture for Muslim poverty: "In their ignorance and in their trend toward religious fanaticism, the Muslims are sadly wanting in the advantages of normal health and social factors and functions" (Congress of the Philippines, House of Representatives, 1955 quoted in Glang 1969:35). The Special Committee recommended the creation of the CNI (above). By relying on the CNI's college scholarship program as the principal policy instrument to effect integration, the postcolonial Philippine government continued the practice first established during the American period of "developing" Philippine Muslims not by providing them the material resources of the West but by endeavoring to remove (by the selective provision of university educations) the cultural disabilities perceived to be impeding their advancement and, indirectly, that of the Philippine Nation.

It should not be surprising that such efforts at integration by means of removing alleged deficiencies were mostly failures. In the case of Muslim CNI scholars, those efforts actually appear to have backfired. To illustrate the perverse effects of the CNI scholarships we need look no further than the most famous of the CNI alumni, Nur Misuari, the founder of the MNLF and presently governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Misuari was not the only young Philippine Muslim politicized by his time spent as a university student on a CNI scholarship. The shared experiences of the more than 8,000 Muslim CNI scholars studying in Manila between 1958 and 1967 profoundly affected Muslim politics after 1968. Much of their political education was gained outside university lecture halls from observing and participating in campus political activism. They also experienced at first hand the magnitude of popular anti-Muslim bias in the national capital and, after the election of Ferdinand Marcos as President of the Republic in 1965, witnessed an increasing antagonism toward Muslims by the same Christian-dominated state that had provided them scholarships. By 1968, the CNI scholarship program had unintentionally created a group of young Muslim intellectuals schooled in political activism and able to articulate the frustrations both of Muslim students disaffected by their encounters with Christian cultural hegemony in Manila and of peripheralized Philippine Muslims in general. Their political efforts eventually led, in 1971, to the formation of the underground Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) headed by Nur Misuari. With the declaration of martial law by President Marcos in 1972 the MNLF began an armed separatist insurgency against the Philippine state.