July 29, 2008
I will be writing my thoughts on a historical and current topic that impinge on the life and future of our Moro countrymen. The topic is a complex one considering the numerous intertwined factors. However, the easiest lens I use is the human rights lens since, from the start, the Moro people’s struggle is framed within the human right of self-determination.
For a start, I share this article I wrote some eight years ago and which I think is still relevant today (bar the time-bound views on former president Estrada’s actions):
The Human Rights Threads of the Current Mindanao Conflict
From Human Rights Forum, Vol. IX, No. 2 January-June 2000
Despite the major military offensive launched by the Estrada government against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the gains made in capturing MILF camps and even the possibility of the destruction of its armed forces, permanent peace or the end of the conflict is nowhere in sight.
The situation at present can be characterized as “no-war, no-peace”.
The fundamental reason lies in the vast ignorance at the policy level of the real and underlying issues of the conflict. This is seen in the simplistic mind-set that sees the issues only in terms either of winning the war in the battlefield or of achieving simple peace. Worse, there is the crudest logic being peddled on both sides which argues, on religious or quasi-religious grounds, for genocide against the opposing side.
It is an imperative that people should know these issues in order to understand the whys and wherefores of the conflict and therefore the viable solution to it. Again and again, these have been pointed out by observers of the conflict but have never been really fully addressed. The major reason is that so many conditions have been attached to proffered solutions as to render them ineffective. These may have even worsened the situation.
What are these issues of the Moro people? Among them, four stand out and have been the basis for grievance in various Moro rebellions. First, there is the overriding issue of the Moro right to self-determination. Second, there is the question of pluralism in Mindanao culture and the Moro right of equality with the rest of the Filipino nation. Third, there is the problem of pervasive poverty and the right to development of the Moro people. Lastly, there is the question of the role of the Philippine state and the right to participation in governance of the Moro people.
National Self-Determination of the Moro People
Though the Spanish and American colonialists both counted Moro Mindanao as part of the colonial Philippines, it has always been asserted by both Moro historians and rebels that it was never subjugated. However, when the present Philippine republic came into being, Moro Mindanao was, as a matter of fact, considered part of its territory.
The Moro nation is said to consist of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan as its historical territory together with Sabah. These areas comprised the various Sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao and Maranao. When the Moro National Liberation Front came into being in 1973, it had the distinction of being the first unified political force encompassing the three main Moro divisions and putting forward the demand for the recognition of a Moro nation.
The unified MNLF did not last long, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization declared their own independent existence, largely along the major Moro divisions. MNLF continued to be a force among the Tausugs of Sulu, while the MILF built its forces among the Maguindanaoans. The BMLO was strong among the Maranaos but later it entered into a peace agreement with the Marcos regime and dissolved itself. The MNLF was organized as a rebel force until September 1996, when it signed a political settlement with the Ramos government. The MILF has remained a rebel force until now, even as it entered into its own peace talks with the Philippine government. A latecomer among the Moro rebel groups is the Abu Sayyaf, which preaches the creation of an Islamic state in the South, along the Afghan Taleban model. Another, the Islamic ICC, was recently organized as another splinter group from MNLF, also with independence aspirations.
All of these groups, at one time or another, espoused the secession of Mindanao, Sulu, Palawan from the Philippines and the creation of a Moro state (possibly with Sabah). However, the MNLF, having signed the 1976 Tripoli and 1996 Jakarta agreements, remains committed to autonomy, MNLF chairperson Nur Misuari currently holds the governorship of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as part of the Jakarta agreement while the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development and other agreed structures have been established. However, the plebiscite for expanding the territorial scope of autonomous regions has been delayed.
Meanwhile, recriminations have been flying thick and fast between Misuari and the MNLF, on the one hand, and other officials of the Philippine government, on the other. Misuari accuses the Estrada government of reneging on many provisions of the Jakarta agreement, such as the promised economic development of Muslim Mindanao. The other side accuses Misuari of pocketing most of the funds given to ARMM and delaying the planned plebiscite.
In a recent speech before the Islamic Conference Organization, Misuari called for “the immediate establishment of the Provisional Government contained in the Tripoli Agreement” and “the downright creation of a genuine political autonomy.”
In his speech, Misuari said that it is only the MNLF that is left arguing for autonomy. Other Moro groups now consider an independent Moro state their goal. However, he threatened that “unless the MNLF gets this genuine Autonomy, according to the letter and spirit of the Tripoli Agreement”, it will fall back on its original call for self-determination and independence.
The new element in this regard is the profound impact of the East Timorese people’s victory in their struggle for independence from Indonesia and the ongoing similar struggles of the peoples of Aceh and other Muslim groups in Indonesia on the popular Moro consciousness. The concept of the right to self-determination has definitely gained political ground among the ordinary Moro masses, although this is not necessarily translated into a secessionist call.
This has led to more strident advocacy for secession from Moro rebel groups, putting the MNLF on the defensive, and even pressing the various non-Moro sectors in Mindanao to sit up and take notice. It has also led to massive Moro rallies in Cotabato and Maguindanao.
With this development, a political crisis approaches in Mindanao, particularly among the Moro people. The MNLF and the Philippine government have to deliver on the promises of genuine autonomy based on the recognition of the right of the Moro people to self-determination; otherwise the secessionist agenda will prevail. In this case, the MNLF is in danger of being swept aside as more radical Moro groups take over the liberation agenda.
The autonomy question is a complex one, particularly when one takes into account the strident call for secession and independence from other rebel Moro groups, the minority status of the Moro people in Mindanao, and the existing international Muslim solidarity.
The Philippine government has precisely taken the path of autonomy. However, there is autonomy and there is autonomy. The Philippine government version restricts the autonomy to an exclusive regional frame only—the ARMM.
This approach has several crippling effects. One, it excluded automatically those areas of lesser scope such as provinces, towns and barangays situated outside of the ARMM territory. Second, it does not guarantee Moro leadership over the Moro people in those areas where they are situated, whether as majority or minority. Third, it does not guarantee representation of the Moro people in the national legislature and other national posts, where policies affecting the Moro people are being made.
In effect, the government concept does not address beyond a superficial territorial level the question of effective governance of the Moro people by their own leaders. The right to participation in governance by the Moro people is thereby substantially undermined.
On an extreme level, some local non-Moro politicians reject the autonomy position of the government, including an exaggerated threat to secede from the Manila government if this is implemented.
A section of the Moro resistance, on the other hand, has the tendency to qualify the offer of autonomy to mean independence. This includes the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, and to a certain extent, the earlier MNLF positions. These groups have demanded or implemented measures only an independent state usually make, such as a separate currency, independent armed forces, quasi-diplomatic relations, and issuance of passports.
Autonomy offers the best political means to settle all the conflicting claims and interests in Mindanao without resorting to a genocidal war. The government approach should be taken in a positive light if this really leads to genuine autonomy defined by respect given to the Moro people’s right to self-determination. It can only be a reality with the support of all sectors of the people, not only in Mindanao, but throughout the country.
The political base for genuine autonomy lies among the majority and influential sections of the people-those who genuinely stand for national unity, peace, and national development. The EDSA legacy can precisely accommodate political autonomy for the Moro people inasmuch as it made its stand for genuine democracy against the Marcos dictatorship.
Pluralism in Mindanao Culture
The current social reality of Mindanao revolves around the intermingling of three different cultural currents, represented by the Moro people, the settlers from Luzon and the Visayas, and the ethnic Lumad tribes. On the ground and in daily social intercourse, it is this intermingling that defines the fate of theories, plans and programs proposed by all sides to the conflict in Mindanao, including the peacemakers.
The percentage of the Moro population in relation to the entire population of Mindanao has shrunk to its present estimated 20 percent or four million out of the 20 million Mindanao/Sulu/Palawan residents. The Lumad or non-Moro ethnic tribes count for an estimated 1.5 million. The settler influx, accelerating since the 1950s, resulted in their current status as the majority population. It also engendered a distinctly Mindanaoan identity embraced by the latter.
This demographic fact underscores the complexity of any solution to the Moro issue. It is a given that any solution has to satisfy all the three Mindanao groups.
Compounding this situation is the fact that the Moro, the settlers and the Lumads have differing cultural and religious histories and backgrounds. The Muslim Moro are of Islamic religious background, which strongly influences their cultural and social practice. The settlers are predominantly Christian. The Lumads practice animist religion though considerable assimilation into both Christian and Muslim cultures occurs in many tribes.
The main protagonists in the conflict are the Moro and the settlers. To a great extent, a comfortable zone of dialogue, unity and toleration has been established on both sides, leading to possibilities for peace and common development. However, extremism on both sides has led to genocidal tendencies targeted against civilian population, both Muslim and Christian. These extremists are represented by the various quasi-religious or secular vigilante armed groups among the settlers and by the Abu Sayyaf with its jihad call against all Christians. Religion here is being twisted to serve a political purpose and there is an implicit threat to physically eliminate the other side, including non-combatants and civilians.
Balancing the extremist options is the large center composed of significant sectors among the Christian settlers, the Moro, and the lumads. This consists of the Mindanao middle classes, the religious people on all sides, most Mindanaoan leaders, and Mindanao-based educators. They provide a viable alternative based on continuing dialogue among the Mindanaoans and settlement of historical grievances. The MILF, MNLF and most other rebel groups in Mindanao have taken note of this aggrupation. It has also led to explorations on various autonomy options, such as the tri-people concept and PDP’s federalism.
However, failure by the government to grasp the dynamics of this Mindanao process often leads to accusations of “Manila imperialism” from all three major groups in Mindanao. Too often, the national government stands accused of misunderstanding the Mindanao situation, making insincere promises, and imposing unrealistic demands on the Moro people.
Struggle Against Poverty and for Development
Mindanao, particularly the Moro areas, lags behind most of Luzon and the Visayas in terms of development. The National Anti-Poverty Commission cited Mindanao as having recorded the highest poverty incidence in the country, with 44.6 percent poverty incidence in 1995. It also posted the lowest rate in poverty reduction.
Moro areas rate particularly high in poverty incidence. The dubious honor of having the highest rate of poverty incidence among the regions goes to the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, with 57.3 percent in 1997. Central Mindanao, the seat of the MILF rebellion, has 55.8 percent poverty incidence. The Moro areas also post similar dismal scores in terms of health, education, economic growth, and other social development areas.
Of course, one can point to the state of “no-war, no-peace” as a major factor in the underdevelopment of Mindanao, particularly the Moro areas. One can also point to the massive graft and corruption of local officials in these areas.
However, these cannot satisfactorily explain the whole situation. The most pervasive element in the impoverishment of the Moro people is the large-scale land acquisition and landgrabbing by big non-Moro Visayan and Luzon settlers and multinational corporations. Through these land dealings, many Moro peasants (and also many Lumad tribes) lost control of their land and were reduced to farmworkers or marginal farmers or settlers.
Most observers would also cite either the appropriateness of many development projects to the needs of the local populace or the prioritization in terms of funding or investment. An example is the Agus VII dam project in Lanao which will deprive a considerable number of Maranaos of their livelihood in terms of fishing and farming.
There is an impression among the Moro people (and many Mindanaoans for that matter) that they were not consulted on many projects in Mindanao, leading to a lot of wastage of resources and efforts. Too often, these projects open the way for many Moro farmers to lose their lands and condemn them to a life of bitter poverty.
The pervasive poverty in Moroland forced the people to choose among several options:
One, to immigrate and find work outside the homeland. They learned to engage in barter trade, commerce in Manila and elsewhere, or work abroad. A conservative estimate of 170,000 Moro migrant workers are in Sabah alone. Many others are in the Muslim countries in the Middle East.
Second, to work in development projects largely controlled by local politicians and partake of the proceeds from the graft and corruption. The extent of graft and corruption can be gauged in the often-fierce bidding for Moro votes during elections (all puns intended).
Third, to join the various rebel groups who inevitably promise a better life later. In a way, this has been seen as an economic alternative because of the penchant of the Manila government to buyout Moro rebellions through political and financial bribery of their leaders. The extreme form of this misculture and threatening to become an industry in itself is the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings which netted their members and clans millions, mostly in the form of payment for “board and lodging.”
The victims, of course, are the ordinary Moro masses who continue to eke out a marginal existence amidst all the hullabaloo around them. Some of them even become easy prey to whoever promises them a heaven on earth.
The question of their right to development has become a paramount one, the non-fulfillment of which easily feeds the Moro rebellion. Development, in this sense, has to be seen as genuine development only if it is undertaken in a democratic and transparent manner, a development of, for and by the Moro people.
The promised Mindanao development by President Joseph Estrada, backstopped by a controversial request for emergency powers, falls far short and may even exacerbate the conflict in Moro areas. For one, the Moro people are not being consulted nor have they participated in the planning and implementation processes. Second, it has a counter-insurgency framework, which makes it suspect in the eyes of the Moro people, and does not address the root causes of poverty. Third, it is being undertaken in isolation and does not proceed from a comprehensive framework of settling all the major issues of the Mindanao situation, particularly of the conflict in Moroland.
The Role of the Philippine Government
Historically, Mindanao, especially the Moro areas, has lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of development. It has also lagged behind in terms of governance.
It had always been administered during the American colonial period as a special administrative area, with emphasis on pacification and martial rule. From 1946 up to first years of Marcos martial rule, it was considered as a frontier area, highlighted by President Ramon Magsaysay’s declaration of it as the ‘Land of Promise’. As such, the government policy tended towards attracting the spill-over population from Visayas and Luzon to settle in Mindanao.
The struggle of the MNLF in the ’70s led to the 1976 Tripoli agreement which, among other things, provided for Moro autonomy. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was the result. However, the late dictator Marcos established ARMM without MNLF cooperation and its formation failed to solve the Moro rebellion.
After the successful EDSA uprising, President Aquino resurrected talks with the MNLF. This policy continued with President Ramos who concluded the Jakarta agreement of 199G which provided for the expansion of the autonomous area to approximate the Tripoli agreement. Supposedly, after three years of a transition ARMM arrangement, a plebiscite should have been conducted in these areas, which includes Palawan.
However, this time, it was Misuari who hesitated to support the plebiscite and who insisted on delaying the ARMM elections. Recently, before the Kuala Lumpur OIC conference, Misuari hinted to the Philippine government to unilaterally establish the autonomous region.
In the end, it is the Philippine government which has the responsibility to initiate the establishment of a genuine autonomous government for the Moro people. It has also the responsibility to implement the genuine development of M1indanao, especially the Moro areas.
The Philippine government alone has the political will and the resources to implement any policy program for Mindanao. It has the command over the local governments in Moro areas and elsewhere in Mindanao, as well as the police, the courts and other government instrumentalities which have established themselves as regular organs of governance.
The Philippine government currently implements the Jakarta accords with the MNLF and is in peace talks with the MILF. It alone is in a position to determine whether war or peace will prevail in Mindanao.
It is in this light that one worries about the current policy initiative of the Estrada government regarding the Mindanao cont1ict. It took a tough negotiating position with the MNLF, launched a military offensive against MILF camps, and launched an emergency Mindanao development program—all without any consultation with or despite the vehement objections of many Mindanao leaders.
It has primarily taken the advice of the hawks in the Cabinet even as it is perceived to cater to the rightwing political and business leaders. The Estrada government may miss the boat in its hardline attitude and there is grave danger of further deterioration to a wider war.
Only a determined effort at peace negotiations – not a wild dash for a military victory – can achieve the solution to many of the issues raised by Moro rebel groups. President Estrada should resist siren songs for a quick victory and buckle down seriously to win the struggle for a just peace in Mindanao.
October 28, 2008
Here’s my comments on the MOA-AD, as published in the Focus on Global South web bulletin:
1. Re US role. I think that the US govt. is playing a low-key but definite role in the MOA-AD negotiations and that it is in favor of it. Having said this, I think it is also rethinking its position after the whole ruckus. I think this will be more definite after the US elections.
2. Regarding ARMM automation, it has been proven to be acceptable to voters, despite many technical glitches. It has never been proposed to be the solution to election cheating–in fact, cheating in ARMM went on as usual. However, it was evident that automation forced the cheaters to go back to the “retail cheating” mode–dagdag-bawas proved to be difficult to do since counting and canvassing is already done through the machines. So far, the machines proved resistant to cheating strategies, although, since there are higher stakes in the 2010 elections, hacking (or cheating) is still a possibility.
In ARMM, automation lead to less acrimony (and clan conflict) at the precinct and counting/canvassing stages, and the results are less prone to protests.
3. The MOA-AD and the negotiation process needs to be revisited. The major defects of the former are the imbalance in treating the various interests of major stakeholders (in favor of Moro/MILF, in disfavor of Moro/MNLF and other non-MILF groups, in disfavor of non-Moro Lumads, in disfavor of Christian Mindanaoans, in disfavor of the national state), the creation of a quasi-Moro state attainable only under a controversial federalism scheme, the weak basis in current political and economic reality, and the suspected unsavory riders and side-agreements attached to the MOA-AD (such as partnership with Arroyo family and cronies on resources exploitation, ranging from gold in Compostela Valley up to oil in Spratlys). The major defects of the latter are the unjustified secrecy of this particular negotiations, failure to solicit prior agreement of major stakeholders on the key points of the MOA-AD, the concept of an implementable agreement (it’s not true that it still needs the comprehensive compact or the passage of constitutional amendments or relevant laws to make it operative–the provision on non-derogation of prior agreements (including MOA-AD) maintains its active character even if there is a failure of constitutional amendments, meaning it is already a basis for seeking international recognition), and the excessive role (tantamount to meddling) of foreign governments with vested interests. It also is not in consonance with the actual low level of political strength of the MILF ( it is difficult to defeat, but it also cannot win)–the two parties went into the negotiations, on the basis of a mutual search for a formula for a just and lasting peace. The MOA-AD does not fulfill these requirements.
4. Third-party peace advocates should step back and be open to renegotiation. They cannot be above the two parties and dictate their own positions on the two parties. Taking a position for the MOA-AD, under the present situation of widespread opposition and withdrawal of one party from the agreement, basically leads to losing the third-party role and becoming a partisan for MILF (the only one insisting on the MOA-AD.