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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)

The Muslim Separatist Rebellion

From 1972 through 1976 a ferocious war between Muslim separatist rebels and the Philippine military raged throughout the southern Philippines . An estimated 120,000 people died in the fighting, which also created one million internal refugees and caused more than 100,000 Philippine Muslims to flee to Malaysia. The war was also extremely costly to the Marcos government. It was reported that, by 1975, as much as three-fourths of the Philippine Army was deployed in Muslim areas of Mindanao.(Ahmad 1982:2; Noble 1976:418). By 1976 the fighting was stalemated, with neither side able to inflict a critical defeat on the other. The war was also contested on diplomatic and ideological fronts. Ferdinand Marcos realized early on that an exclusively repressive response to the rebellion in the South was far too costly financially and politically. The MNLF had international support from various Muslim states and also from an influential international body, the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers. The Islamic Conference threatened to suspend oil deliveries to the Philippines from Arab oil producers should Philippine policy towards its Muslims not take a visibly more benevolent turn.

Marcos responded with a campaign to convince Muslims in the Philippines and, more importantly, heads of Muslim states abroad, of his sincere desire to solve the "Moro problem". A large mosque was built in the center of Manila, important Muslim holy days were officially recognized by the government, an Islamic Studies Institute was established at the University of the Philippines and a code of Muslim personal laws was drafted and approved by the President, though never effectuated while he held power. At the same time he stepped up diplomatic efforts to end the separatist war.


The Tripoli Agreement: A Charter for Philippine Muslim Autonomy

Those efforts led eventually to a diplomatic agreement that seemed, at least initially, to be an enormous victory for the MNLF. In the last weeks of 1976, representatives of the Philippine Government and the MNLF met in Tripoli, Libya to negotiate an end to the war in the South. Those meetings culminated with an agreement on a cease-fire and tentative terms for a peace settlement (Noble 1983). That peace settlement, known as the Tripoli Agreement, "provided the general principles for Muslim autonomy in the Philippine South" (Majul 1985:73). It provided for "the establishment of autonomy in the southern Philippines within the realm of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines" (Ministry of Muslim Affairs 1983). The Tripoli Agreement was hailed as a breakthrough in the Mindanao war by all sides--the government, the MNLF, the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers and Libya, the latter two having jointly sponsored the Tripoli conference. The agreement implicitly recognized the MNLF as the official representative of Philippine Muslims and accorded it belligerent state status. The terms of the agreement were also quite favorable to MNLF demands. The cease-fire went into effect in late January, 1977 and was generally successful for about nine months. Talks were begun in February on the implementation of the peace settlement, and very soon broke down over widely divergent interpretations of the key terms of the agreement. Marcos then proceeded to "implement" the Tripoli Agreement on his own terms, principally by creating two special "autonomous" regions, one for Central Mindanao and the other for Sulu. The Marcos administration gained substantial benefits from signing the Tripoli Agreement; it obtained a much needed breathing spell from the economic drain of the war and from the considerable diplomatic pressure for settlement coming from the Middle East. In retrospect it seems clear that President Marcos never sincerely intended to implement the agreement as signed.

Although the cease-fire collapsed in much of the South before the year was out, the fighting never again approached the level of intensity experienced before 1976. After the signing of the agreement, the rate of defections from the MNLF accelerated, its support from foreign sources was reduced, and dissension intensified in its top ranks, eventually leading to a schism and the creation of a second separatist organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The armed Muslim separatist threat to the martial law state remained significant but was no longer an immediate one. The "autonomous" regional governments devised by the Marcos administration in the South have been aptly described as "essentially hollow, and productive of cynicism, frustration, and resentment" (Noble 1983:49). The governing bodies of the nominally autonomous regions were cosmetic creations with no real legislative authority and no independent operating budget. They were headed by martial law collaborators and rebel defectors. By 1983, the regional governments had developed a layer of bureaucracy that employed a number of college-educated Muslims, but the great majority of Muslims were completely unaffected by the new regional administrations. For the first nine years of its formal existence, Muslim autonomy in the Philippine state had virtually no political reality.


Constitutional Reform and the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao

It was only with the removal of Ferdinand Marcos from office in 1986 and his replacement by Corazon Aquino that Philippine Muslims saw any possibility for a genuine implementation of the Tripoli agreement and the establishment of a single Muslim autonomous region covering all the traditionally Muslim areas of the South. Their hopes were raised by the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government and the MNLF and the drafting of a new Philippine Constitution in 1987 that provided for the creation of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. They were dashed again in 1989, however, with the passage of the enabling legislation that actually established the single Muslim autonomous region. The formal autonomy that had been won in a hard-fought war was recast by the Philippine Congress as something granted to the Muslim minority by the Christian majority and implemented by means of majority rule. The enabling legislation required ratification by a plebiscite in each of the 13 provinces and nine cities included in original autonomous areas described in the Tripoli agreement. Only those areas voting in favor would be included in the new autonomous region. Because of the massive Christian in-migration of the previous 40 years, most of the affected provinces and cities now had Christian majorities. The MNLF broke off peace negotiations with the government over the majority-rule requirements of the organic act and called for a boycott of the plebiscite. When the plebiscite was held only four of the 13 provinces and no cities voted for inclusion in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). That small number was not only the result of Christians opting out of ARMM. Basilan and Marawi City, both majority Muslim areas, voted against inclusion in ARMM primarily as a result of MNLF opposition to the plebiscite. The new Muslim autonomous region was established in 1990. Despite the announced goal of the new administration to create something more substantial than the meaningless autonomy implemented by Ferdinand Marcos, the new autonomous region looked very similar in size and structure to the former ones and still very far away from the autonomy envisioned by the Muslim signatories to the Tripoli Agreement.