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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)

Impediments to Peace and the Current Crisis

Turning to the impediments to improvement in the circumstances of Philippine Muslims, the two most prominent appear from opposite directions. First is the extreme reluctance on the part of the Philippine government to transfer any real power to the autonomous region it has authorized. Second is the armed resistance on the part of certain Muslim separatists to the autonomous region as currently constituted. These two problems are clearly related in that continued armed separatist resistance is a response in part to the ineffectiveness of the present autonomy arrangement. It would be a mistake, however, to view continued armed separatist resistance as simply an impediment to a stable peace. The demonstrated capacity of Muslim separatists to mobilize armed force is better seen as the key symptom of the Philippine government's predicament in respect to its Muslim minority.

Armed separatist mobilization is the price the Philippine government continues to pay for its past mistakes (and those of its colonial predecessors) in Muslim Mindanao. By marginalizing Philippine Muslims in their own homeland through massive government-sponsored in-migration, the government created a relatively impoverished regional minority resentful of the benefits provided to Christian migrants and highly suspicious of government motives. Even so, the Muslim separatist rebellion begun in 1972 was by no means inevitable. It was the highly aggressive actions of the martial law regime that transformed Muslim suspicion into organized armed antagonism toward the central state. Armed separatist resistance, and the international support it attracted, led to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement and it is continued armed resistance (actual or threatened) that has brought about all subsequent autonomy agreements, including the most recent. It is difficult or impossible to imagine any government offer of Muslim autonomy without the armed challenge.

The Philippine government has thus found itself caught between its desire to end a costly armed separatist challenge that has proved impervious to military suppression and the significant pressures placed upon it by various interest groups, especially Mindanao Christians, not to make any substantive concessions to Muslim separatists. This has resulted in the creation of a succession of formally autonomous entities that are extremely limited in both their power and scope. It has also caused the Philippine government to ignore to the greatest extent possible the MILF--the Muslim separatist front based in Central Mindanao and operating most closely to concentrations of Christian population. Since 1987, the MILF has engaged in offensive action only to force the government to the negotiating table with a show of its armed capacity. In 1987 it turned to offensive armed action after a peaceful mass demonstration in Cotabato City drew absolutely no government response (McKenna 1998). It is likely also that the MILF changed its announced goals from its original demand from autonomy to a call for a separate state primarily to gain the government's attention.

If the experience of the past 28 years of armed conflict in Muslim Mindanao teaches anything, it is that the current administration's "get tough" policy will have the opposite of its intended effect. It will energize the MILF and increase its popular support while undermining what is left of the 1996 Peace Agreement. There is an untried alternative to an attempted military solution to the continued armed separatist challenge in Muslim Mindanao--genuine regional development. After more than 25 years of Philippine government claims to be "developing" Muslim Mindanao, recent national statistics illustrate the sad reality. In virtually all measures of physical and economic well-being, the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is found at or near the bottom of the national rankings (National Statistics Office 2000). In government-supplied services ranging from access to prenatal care to availability of college scholarships for low-income students, ARMM ranks last (National Statistics Office 1998). As found with separatist movements elsewhere, ordinary Philippine Muslims are most likely to fight for or support an armed separatist front when they perceive no alternative means to overcome discrimination and better their living conditions. Rather than empty autonomy arrangements or further military offensives, the Philippine government might substitute a genuine commitment to both protect the cultural heritage of Philippine Muslims and provide them with tangible means to improve their livelihood. Those provisions are, after all, what Philippine Muslims most require from the Philippine government.