The Philippines: Muslims Fight
for an Independent State

by Lela Noble
Southeast Asia Chronicle, No. 75, pp. 12-17

October 1980

The origin of the current fighting between the Muslims and the predominantly Christian government go back approximately 400 years, when Spaniards discovered the islands they called the Philippines just as many of the islands were being converted to and organized through Islam.  Both the conversion and subsequent socio-political organization had occurred primarily in the southern islands, though seafaring Muslims had also made contacts and conversions in the north.  The Spaniards managed to consolidate their control in the northern islands, converted the people to Christianity, and conscripted them into their wars against the Muslims in the south.  The Spaniards called the Muslims "Moros" --a term reflecting the historical context and hence the hatred involved in the struggle.  The Spaniards had been fighting Moors for years.  They were convinced that the only possible terms for coexistence with such infidels were conquest and conversion.  The Muslims perceived the stakes accurately, and were determined to prevent the conquest which would inevitably destroy both their religion and the way of life it mandated.  Hence Spaniards --aided by Filipino Christians --fought with Muslims intermittently for 300 years.

In 1898, the United States displaced Spain in the Philippines.  American perceptions and policies were different; more importantly, American power was decisively greater than Spanish power.  Most Muslims eventually capitulated to American military might.  The American policy of integration which replaced the Spanish policy of conversion --was less directly a threat, but nevertheless aroused the suspicions of many muslims.  Muslims saw land registration and education, for example, as threats to their way of life and hence to their religion.  They avoided both whenever possible.  Some Muslim leaders also explicitly opposed plans for Philippine independence which assumed the incorporation of Muslim areas into a Republic of the Philippines.

Their opposition was ignored, and after the independent republic was formed in 1946, increasing numbers of Muslims began to participate in its political and educational systems.  They faced two fundamental problems in the new state.  Partly because of their own earlier policy of withdrawal and because of continuing suspicions, Muslims were in fact comparatively disadvantaged.  Muslims constituted  only five percent of the Philippine population and were concentrated in the southern islands of Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi.  While it is difficult to generalize, it is probably accurate to say that a smaller percentage of Muslims were educated and hence able to compete effectively in Philippine political and economic life.  Many were very poor, and economic infrastructure was much less developed in their areas than in most Christian areas.  Second, the government was sponsoring a program of migration which brought thousands of Christians into areas the Muslims regarded as theirs.  The result was unending land disputes, which frequently ended in litigation and/or fighting.  Since laws, courts, and the constabulary were generally controlled by Christians, Muslims felt doubly discriminated against.  Moreover, the migration had political implications.  As issues became more polarized and Christian majorities formed in more and more southern provinces, Muslim politicians felt increasingly threatened.  Both Muslim and Christian politicians developed private armies.

Violence was particularly bad during the period preceding the 1971 elections.  In both Lanao and Cotabato --two areas of mixed population in which Muslim-Christian balances were changing --rival bands were involved in several major incidents.  The most publicized incidents were massacres of Muslims by Christian gangs with come connections with the Philippine Constabulary.  Not surprisingly the massacres caught attention of the Islamic World.

Full-scale fighting did not break out, however, until after Marcos's declaration of martial law in 1972.  There were three reasons why martial law caused an escalation in the fighting: (1) the centralization of the regime left power almost exclusively in the Christian hands; (2) by restricting the range of legitimate political activity, the regime left as options only the acceptance of the regime and its promises, or anti-regime revolutionary activity; and (3) the regimes to collect guns from civilians meant the compliance removed the potential for eventual resort to force.

In this context the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which had been formed in 1970, quickly emerged to lead the anti-government resistance.  It was led by young men who were generally educated in universities in the Philippines or the Middle East.  They were self-consciously Muslim rather than Maranao, Maguindanao, or Tausug, the major ethno-linguistic groups in Muslim Philippines; and they were committed to change in the distribution of wealth and power.  Originally linked with older Muslim politicians, they quickly associated themselves from them  --while conserving some of the benefits of their earlier connections.  Most important of these were their contacts with Muslim leaders like Tun Mustapha, then chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sabah, and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.  These men provided money, arms, and refuge.  Arms and supplies were channeled through Sabah; refugees fled there.  Libya provided most of the money, and increasingly, a base from which the MNLF leadership could lobby other than Muslim states, separately and through the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers.

In 1973, 1974, and probably the first half of 1975 the MNLF steadily improved its position, reaching a height of possibly 30,000 armed men.  As it consolidated organizationally it also extended its control through significant areas of Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago.  It broadened its external base of support from people like Qaddafi and Tun Mustapha to all the states connected with the Islamic Conference.  As a result, the MNLF could count on attention from the annual meeting of conference foreign ministers, who commissioned a "Committee of Four" and the organization' secretary general to keep them informed of developments and to oversee negotiations.

In late 1975 and 1976, however, the MNLF lost much of its momentum and at best held its own.  Battlefield fatigue and government amnesty programs made "returning to the fold of law," in government parlance, attractive.  It is possible to know how great the inroads were during this period, because government figures were not reliable --more were reported to have surrendered than the government had ever admitted were fighting --and because it was never clear who was and who was not part of the MNLF.  The MNLF said most of those who surrendered were "bad elements," not their people.  Nonetheless there were some who defected during this period who had held positions of leadership in the MNLF and whose loss mattered.

Also in 1975, Tun Mustapha feel form power in Sabah.  His own aid to the MNLF and his willingness to use Sabah as a conduit for Libyan aid had been critical in sustaining the scope and intensity of the fighting.  Aid from Sabah was drastically curtailed by late 1975.  MNLF units henceforth had to depend mostly on weapons and ammunition captured in encounters with the Marcos military or brought from corrupt troopers.  Consequently, resistance groups which had joined the MNLF primary to secure their weapons supply had little incentive to remain loyal.

External connections did remain important for facilitating negotiations between the MNLF and the Marcos regime.  Because of the implicit threat of an oil embargo, which Libya at times made explicit, the Islamic states had influence on the Marcos government.  Thus Marcos had to consider negotiations on terms more favorable to the MNLF than he otherwise would have.  The MNLF, then, benefited form having partisan and powerful mediators.  Yet it also had to compromise its goals in exchange for that mediation: it reduced its demands form independence to autonomy for a meeting in Jeddah in 1975; and it probably made other concessions before and after a meeting in Tripoli in December 1976.

Nevertheless the MNLF had every reason to be satisfied with the ceasefire and preliminary agreement approved at Tripoli (through joint efforts of Imelda Marcos and Qadaffi.  While it originally demanded that 21 provinces be included in the Bangsa Moro State and was forced to settle for 13, eight of the 13 had Christian majorities.  Moreover, the principles agreed to follow closely the MNLF demands.  Within the areas of the "Autonomy for the Muslims in the Southern Philippines," Muslims were to have the right to establish their own courts, schools, and administrative system.  The Autonomy was to have a legislative assembly, executive council, special regional security forces, and economic and financial system.  The ceasefire also allowed the Bangsa Moro Army to recoup and regroup, whatever the outcome of the negotiations to work out final details. The Tripoli Agreement also benefited Marcos.  The Philippine Armed Forces also badly needed a ceasefire.  By approving an agreement which at first appeared to contain substantive concessions on his part, Marcos managed to reduce Islamic Conference pressure and even neutralize the Libyans, the MNLF's strongest supporters.  Moreover, Marcos had the power to implement the agreement as he saw fit.

The Philippine government had inserted on a clause in the preliminary agreement that it would take "all necessary constitutional process for the implementation of the entire Agreement."  According to Philippine documents, it was understood by all parties that "constitutional processes" included a referendum and elections for public officials.  Marcos announced immediately after the preliminary agreement was signed that a plebiscite was "under study," then twice postponed the date because of Muslim objections. Meanwhile the Tripoli meetings had reconvened and deadlocked, with each side blaming the other for the problems.  Finally Imelda Marcos flew to Tripoli to work out another compromise.  An exchange of cables between Marcos and Qaddafi produced an illusion of agreement, which quickly vanished when Marcos pushed ahead with the referendum over the protests of Qaddafi, the MNLF, and the Islamic Conference representatives.  The results of the referendum were similar to those all votes held under the martial law regime.  Marcos got what he wanted:  opposition to the inclusion of certain provinces, opposition to the degree of autonomy presumably wanted by MLNF, and support for his plan for two autonomous regions under central control.

Other gains for Marcos became evident only after several months.  By holding out the possibility that the conflict might be settled by negotiation and then maneuvering carefully to nullify what he had agreed to, Marcos exacerbated already existing differences within the MLNF.  Soon after negotiations finally broke down in April 1977, other muslim leaders began to challenge both Misuari's leadership of the MNLF and the MNLF's role as representative of Muslims in the Philippines as a whole.  There is now a three-way split among Muslims operating outside the Philippines. Personal rivalries are reinforced by differences in ethnic background, ideology and sources of support.

Nur Misuari is the original chairman of the MNLF's Central Committee.  He was a member of a revolutionary group linked to the New People's Army (NPA) when he was a student at the University of the Philippines, and he remains more radical than either set of rivals.  People associated with him, however, have consistently denied that he is a Marxist or affiliated in any way with Communist organizations.  His radicalness is manifested in a militant nationalism which is defined primarily in terms of Islam and the experiences of Muslims within the Philippines, though MNLF spokesman have tried to describe a "Moro" identity which would include a sympathetic non-Muslims.

Misuari and his closest lieutenants are primarily Tausug and/or Samal from the Sulu area, and the headquarters of the MNLF military command is in the Zamboanga area.  But Misuari also has loyal allies among the Maguindanao of Cotabato and the Maranaos in the Lanao provinces.  He is also generally admitted to have a stronger following among the younger, more committed, non-elite commanders of the MNLF than any of his competitors.  Most of his external support has come from Libya, though he has also received aid form other states.  He has recently paid particular attention to developing relations with Iran, the only state which has cut off oil deliveries to the Philippines.

Hashim Salamat is a former member of the MNLF Central Committee who publicly broke with Misuari in late 1977 for both ideological and personal reasons.  Educated at Cairo University and connected with Muslim reformers in the Philippines, Salamat is generally seen as a more orthodox Muslim than Misuari and other MNLF leaders.  According to Manila sources, his primary external support came from an Egyptian official later fired by Sadat for malfeasance.  He also has contacts with, and perhaps support from, two private Muslim organizations, the World Islamic League and the World Islamic Conference.  He has had support from some rebels in the field, particularly in the Cotabato area, and from some Cairo-based Filipino Muslims.  Most of his supporters in the Cotabato area, however, have apparently decided to abandon military opposition to the regime in favor of a policy of cooperation.

The Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization (BMLO) is a Jeddah-based movement led by Rashid Lucman, Salipada Pendatun, and Macapanton Abbas.  Lucman and Pendatun were both pre-martial law politicians --Lucman a Maranao Pendatun a Maguindanaoan,  Abbas served as the executive of the Marcos's main civilian task force for the Muslim areas for two years after the declaration of martial law.  These three men have worked primarily to secure their participation in any negotiations between the MNLF and the Philippine government.  They claim that the BMLO preceded the MNLF (by their account the MNLF is a breakaway faction and Misuari a radical renegade) and that they represent traditional Muslim society. Jamil Lucman, Rahsid's nephew, has sometimes been considered a pro-BMLO commander, but he has recently surrendered.

Quick to see the benefits of a divided MNLF, the Marcos regime has recognized the BMLO.  Some observers in fact suspect that Marcos is secretly supporting it.  Meanwhile Islamic organizations and states look with concern at the attention given to BMLO because they fear that the divisions among Philippine Muslim groups will delay a settlement of the conflict.

Such attention as the BMLO has received from Muslims outside the Philippines seems to have been primarily a result of this concern, although it is conceivable that Saudi officials and others associated with private Muslim organizations have also been sympathetic to the group's conservatism.  there were reports in August 1980, however, that the Saudis had ended their support and ordered the BMLO leadership to leave the country.  Earlier efforts at getting U.S. support failed.

Thus far the foreign ministers of the Islamic Conference have recognized only Misuari's MNLF.  But recent conference statements included pointed references to the need to "unify" among Muslim Filipinos --a tacit warning to Misuari.  For his part, Misuari took the May 1980 meeting of the Islamic Conference to task for not providing enough support to the MNLF.  He also reminded the Conference that the 1979 meeting had threatened to take the problem to the United Nations if the Moros regime refused to negotiate further with the MNLF, and he recounted the unsuccessful efforts to arrange negotiations.  Finally, he called for material assistance in the form of a "humanitarian fund."  He did not go as far as he had at an April Islamic meeting in London, when he asked the Arab states to stop selling oil to the Philippines.

the communiqué issued at the end of the May Islamic Conference meeting underscored the limits of its diplomatic support.  The conference charged that the Philippine government is continuing to violate Muslim rights, and it condemned the Macros regime for its obstructionist tactics with regard to peace negotiations.  But is did not support Missouri's more militant position.  The statement made it clear that the foreign ministers would not support anything more than the regional autonomy provided for in the Tripoli Agreement and would not recommend sanctions stronger than an undefined "pressure."  While the rivalry between competing factions clouds the international scene, at home Misuari apparently maintains the allegiance of most commanders in the field.  It remains difficult to estimate how seriously the divisions and defections affect the MNLF: government figures are unreliable, and leaving the hills has short term benefits and no lasting consequences.  "Defectors" may simply be taking advantage of government funded R & R leaves; they can return to the hills more easily than they left, and with new supplies.

The level of fighting continues to fluctuate, depending on weather, supplies, choice of tactics, and internal and external political needs.


[Document Source: The Philippines Reader, A history of Colonialism, Neolcolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance. Edited by Daniel B. Schirmer & Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, South End Press, Boston, MA, pp. 193-199.]