Archive for the ‘Mindanao Independence Movement’ Category


Philippine military armor in Mindanao alongside civilians on a horse

While required, signing a peace agreement does not automatically keep the peace among combatants.  In truth, two agreements—the 1976 Tripoli Agreement (under President Ferdinand Marcos) and the 1987 Jeddah Accord (under President Corazon Aquino)—led nowhere.  True, there were occasional skirmishes and dissatisfaction amongst some MNLF fighters.  In addition, a key provision of the 1996 FPA, that the MNLF’s right of representation in the national government and in all organs of state—was never implemented.  Nonetheless, the 1996 FPA could be deemed a success.  Among the key indicators of success are the absence of large-scale warfare between the MNLF and government troops, the co-optation of the MNLF leadership into a pre-existing autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu islands, the integration of many MNLF combatants into the government’s security services, and the release of local and foreign funds for the region’s development.

Nur Misuari

However, the Asian financial crisis adversely affected the Philippine government’s capacity to provide funds and led to discontent within MNLF ranks.  To be fair to the Philippine government, MNLF leader Nur Misuari was not blameless with his profligate and biased spending.  He was continuously travelling within the country and abroad with a huge entourage and concentrated resources for his fellow-Tausogs. Ultimately, the MNLF leadership may be successful rebels but were poor administrators.

The power asymmetry against the MNLF is the bottom-line reason for the success of the peace agreement. Militarily, the MNLF had reached its peak in the 1970s and lost its fierce fighting edge.  It remained a stubborn and enduring military force (Vitug and Gloria 2000).  The MNLF cannot credibly commit to renege on the 1996 Final Peace Agreement and return to full-scale warfare since it was weakened by splits, casualties, desertions, tribal differences, etc.  Its foreign supporters and backers are not keen to support a military effort (Iribani 2006; Vitug and Gloria 2000).  In that sense, it did not have trump cards.

Even the remaining MNLF fighters were not threats credible enough for the Philippine government to offer concessions.  These combatants tried a mini-rebellion in November 2001 after Misuari lost his positions in the autonomous regional body but it was nipped in the bud.  Misuari escaped to Malaysia but was handed back to Philippine authorities by Kuala Lumpur.  Upon his return to the Philippines, he was incarcerated. In 2008, he was allowed to post bail and talks to finalize implementation of the 1996 FPA were resumed by the Arroyo and Aquino governments.

Another imbalance characterizes the relationship between the MNLF and the Philippine government.  The MNLF’s constituency expects it to produce the deliverables promised in the 1996 FPA.  If it fails to do so, the MNLF loses its political luster and its followers may gravitate to its rivals, specially the MILF.  The Philippine government is not in the same predicament.  It has already delivered a clear good–cessation of hostilities—save for a few skirmishes here and there.  That appears to be what matters most to ordinary Filipinos.  As long as hostilities do not resume, ordinary Filipinos will not normally care if the Philippine government kept its side of the bargain in the 1996 FPA.  In effect, there is greater political pressure on the MNLF than on the Philippine government.

Since 1986, both sides observed a ceasefire agreement.  So both MNLF and Philippine government troops have not fought each other for a decade before a final agreement was reached.  Agreeing to a ceasefire before a comprehensive agreement can be interpreted by the other side as a sign of weakness.

Prior to the assumption of talks to finalize implementation of the 1996 FPA, the MNLF also lost traction vis-à-vis the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) largely due to Misuari’s plummeting fortunes and splits within the organization.  With two ascendant interlocutors, Misuari’s faction played the role of heckler and spoiler.  At times, it raised bids to unify with the MILF and repair splits within the MNLF.  Heckling and spoiling are tactics of a party that feels it was being neglected by another notwithstanding an outstanding agreement.  Unification bids are attempts to enlarge the pie that will eventually be shared by Bangsamoro people.  They also used to communicate to government that it is negotiating with a stronger force.  These tactics did not help the MNLF one bit and like a chastened schoolboy, Misuari returned to talks with government.

In hindsight, it can be said that there was diminished urgency on the part of the Philippine government to fully implement the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) after it was signed in September 1996.  A good part of the MNLF leadership and fighters were incorporated into the Muslim regional bodies and government security forces.  The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s compelled government to husband its resources carefully.  As long as Misuari and his commanders were comfortably ensconced in their offices, the MNLF will not rebel again.

President Joseph Estrada

Attention will soon be directed elsewhere–to the Moro Islamic Liberation (MILF), a split from the MNLF.  In 2000, President Joseph Estrada launched several attacks on MILF camps to shore up his sagging political fortunes in Manila.  While government troops succeeded in capturing some MILF camps, Estrada was unable to win a decisive military victory over the MILF.  Furthermore, he also enraged not a few Muslims for insensitively eating pork with government troops within the ruins of a mosque.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

The all-out war tack of Estrada was changed by the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  With Misuari was in prison and the MNLF weaken by further splits, Arroyo endeavored to have the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) controlled by warlords who could deliver votes in her favor (Lara 2010).  Arroyo concentrated in delivering a peace agreement with the MILF—the so-called MOA-AD.  When the MOA-AD was rejected by the Supreme Court, Arroyo’s government released Misuari from detention and started talks to for the final implementation of the 1996 final peace agreement (FPA).  These talks are being continued by the government of President Benigno Aquino III through the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), headed by Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles.


MNLF fighters on patrol

The war between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started in 1972 and officially ended in 1996 for a total of twenty four (24) years.  After the signing of the 1996 final peace agreement (FPA), some MNLF soldiers would on occasion clash with government troops with up to a hundred casualties.  What accounts for the duration of that war between the Philippine government and the MNLF?  According to Fearon (2004), five factors are shown to be strongly related to civil war duration. Civil wars emerging from coups or revolutions tend to be short. Civil wars in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Unionhavealso tended to be relatively brief, as have anti-colonial wars. By contrast, ‘sons of the soil’ wars that typically involve land conflict between a peripheral ethnic minority and state-supported migrants of a dominant ethnic group are on average quite long-lived. So are conflicts in which a rebel group derives major funding from contraband such as opium, diamonds, or coca.

The conflict between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine government is a ‘son of the soil’ war that seemed to be quite intractable.  In a ‘sons of the soil war’, the state is dominated and often named (i.e., Philippines) for a majority ethnic group, in this case, Christian Filipinos, whose members face population pressure in their traditional farming areas. As a result, many migrate into less populous and less developed peripheral regions of the country, often with  the support of state development projects. The peripheral regions are inhabited by ethnicminorities – the ‘sons of the soil’ (Weiner 1978) – who take up arms and support  insurgencies against the  migrants and the state backing them.

Peripheral insurgencies (i.e. rural guerrilla warfare) (and coups) are both violent strategies to take power. According to James Fearon of Stanford University, the leaders of would-be coups  and  popular insurrections hope that a rapid strike or public protest will initiate  a  tipping  process that  produces wholesale defections within the regime (especially the  military) or  mass demonstrations in the capital that have the same effect. This technology, a tipping process, is basically all or nothing.   Either the coup leaders succeed or they are crushed when the hoped-for change in the balance of forces fails to develop. This is why civil wars that originate in coups or popular revolutions tend to be quite brief.

James Fearon of Stanford University

Meanwhile, Fearon pointed out that the strategy of peripheral insurgencies is radically different.  Recognizing their relative military inferiority, rebel leaders rarely expect to win quickly by means of a tipping process that causes the government to collapse.  Instead, peripheral insurgencies are wars in the sense that the parties hope to prevail in one of two general ways: either by gaining a position of military dominance that allows the imposition of terms, or by using violence to inflict costs that will induce the other side to negotiate a favorable settlement.  The longer duration of insurgencies versus coups and revolutions is thus a function of rebel strategy.

Fearon (2004) concludes that when the state is controlled by a majority ethnic group whose members include large numbers of impoverished, land-poor farmers,  the government has an enduring interest in favoring migration to less populated peripheral areas. Even if the center has incentives to cut regional autonomy deals to reduce costly fighting with minority guerillas, both sides know that the center will soon face strong political pressures to renege on behalf of migrants. Likewise, if significant natural resource or contraband rents are available in the region, this increases the incentive to hold the peripheral areas, thus making a negotiated settlement more difficult to construct.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), formed in 1968, was (for a time) the standard bearer of the (armed) struggle of the putative Bangsa Moro people aimed at establishing a distinct nation-state independent of the Republic of the Philippines.  The MNLF was organized and led by a secularly-educated Tausug commoner, Nurallaji Misuari, to serve as an intrument for the liberation of the Bangsa Moro “from the terror, oppression and tyranny of Filipino colonialism” and “to secure a free and independent state for the Bangsa Moro people” (Misuari 1974).  The group bore the brunt of the armed resistance in Muslim Mindanao against the Philippine government when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the 1972 (Noble 1976; 1981).  Not only did it gain armed strength to deny victory to the Philippine government in the battlefields (Abat 1993).  It also attracted the sympathy and support of many Islamic states which in turn pressured the Philippine government to talk peace with the Muslim insurgents.

Misuari’s stock as MNLF supreme leader obviously rose as the organization’s visibility and recognition within the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) grew.  According to Gonzalez (2011)[1], the Tripoli Agreement in 1976 guaranteed the international status of the Bangsamoro movement and its formal links to the OIC countries. However, more rewards were coming. In 1977, the MNLF was accepted during the 8th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM) in Tripoli, Libya as an observer. During the 15th ICFM in Sana’a, Yemen in 1984, its status graduated from mere ‘legitimate representative” to “sole legitimate representative” of the Bangsamoro people (Iribani 2006, pp. 38-39). In the 9th ICFM in Dakar, Senegal, held in April 1978, the MNLF was recognized as the legitimate representative of Muslims in Southern Philippines (Iribani 2006).

Santos (2010a: 63) notes that “through armed struggle, Islamic diplomacy, and peace negotiations, the group was the main vehicle for placing the Moro cause on the national and international agendas.”  However, the MNLF will eventually lose its standard-bearer status to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter group which left the MNLF in 1977.   The civil war between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started in 1972 and was a protracted one.  The MNLF’s armed struggle against the government is a well-documented story (Abat 1993; Ahmad 1981; Che Man 1990; George 1980; Jubair 1999; Majul 1985; McKenna 1998; Noble 1976 and 1981; Vitug and Gloria 2000).  The history of peace negotiations is also documented but not as well as the armed conflict (Iribani 2006, Ramos 1996, and Rodil 2000).  Peace agreements were signed in 1976 (Tripoli Agreement) and in 1987 (Jeddah Accord) but peace did not hold.  The third peace agreement, called the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) appeared satisfactory to both sides.

A number of sympathetic analysts believed that at the core of the Moro question is the politics of identity and differentiation– the assertion that Moros as Muslims constitute a distinct group from the Christian-dominated Philippine nation. From this perspective, the Muslim way of life define who they are as a group, transcending tribal/ethnic loyalties and historically sustained through continued resistance against Western colonization and Christianization (Jubair 1999).   Tan (1993) traces the evolution of the political assertion of Muslim identity among elites in Mindanao. After World War II, segments of the Moro elite, notably professionals and students, continued to agitate for secession despite efforts by the national government to co-opt traditional leaders. In part, this was fueled by what was widely perceived as systemic efforts to marginalize Muslims, notably in the policies encouraging Christian migration and the opening up of Mindanao to foreign investments.

From traditional leaders like Datu Udtug Matalam, the articulation of Moro identity shifted to Nur Misuari who brought the demand for independence to a level of armed struggle. The conclusion of the Tripoli agreement in 1976 shifted the cause towards autonomy, but the movement also splintered along this axes between the Nur Misuari’s faction, Hashim Salamat’s  MILF (whose goal to create a governance structure founded on Islamic principles contrasts with Misuari’s more secular and inclusive version) and the MNLF Reformists of Dimas Pundato[1](Alcala-Hall 2009).

McKenna (1998) explores the articulation of this Muslim identity among the rank-and-file MNLF and the movement’s supporters in the Muslim community. McKenna‘s (1998) subset of current/former MNLF combatants from Cotabato displayed a divergent understanding of the rebellion from those espoused officially by their leaders. They were as likely to cite enmity towards martial law and personal insecurity (having no choice) having compelled them to join the armed movement as the need to defend their Muslim faith. From revolutionary songs made popular among the Muslim masses, he also noted more references to localized space (inged) as homeland rather than the nation (bangsa), and alternative motives in joining the movement (such as to advance social standing). He also noted their rather tolerant attitude towards turncoats or defectors. He argues that the ordinary MNLF rank-and-file and supporters define their Muslim identity in an unself-conscious manner, neither fully buying into the claims of loyalty to their traditional leaders nor to strict religious interpretation by their ulama. This suggested the different relational contexts or power relations within which Muslim identity is deftly articulated, negotiated and asserted (Alcala-Hall 2009).

Abinales (2010) however sees problems and raises questions about consistency, historical accuracy, consistency, and even hypocrisy of this popular narrative of a continuing Bangsamoro struggle since the Spanish colonial era.  He cites among others conflicts between different Muslim groups and the presence of non-Muslim indigenous groups (popularly known as lumads) and wanted to know how these factors impact on Bangsamoro-hood.

(Note: In the next parts of this blog post series, we will examine the peace agreements between the government and the MNLF and their results.)


[1] The MNLF Reformists (Pundato) is one of the factions in the MNLF.  The others include the Alvarez Isnaji wing and Islamic Command Council.  Of course, the MILF started as an MNLF faction in 1977 as a protest to the MNLF’s agreeing to drop the political objective of forming a Bangsamoro state.  It formulated itself as the MILF in 1984.


[1] Eduardo T. Gonzalez, a professor of Philippine studies at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines, gave the author permission to cite his draft paper.