Posts Tagged ‘Moro National Liberation Front’

Philippine Marines in Mindanao

The peace between the Philippine government and the MNLF (established by the 1996 FPA) is at best an imperfect peace.  While large-scale hostilities have stopped, frustrations and complaints have been repeatedly raised by the mujahideen.

At the local level, some MNLF mass-based communities became ‘peace and development communities’ benefiting from livelihood, cooperatives, and other projects with funds coming from international and foreign development organizations.  Yet according to Santos (2010a), the MNLF felt that the peace process, particularly Phase 1, was being concluded unilaterally, and that its important socio-economic development elements were not being satisfactorily implemented.  The introduction of Phase 2 was signalled by the 2001 New Organic Act for the ARMM (Republic Act No. 9054) which the MNLF saw as violating aspects of the 1996 peace agreement, notably control over strategic minerals.  It viewed the expanded ARMM (to include Basilan province and Marawi City) as too weak to address even basic health and education needs in some ARMM provinces (which are admittedly among the poorest in the country.

MNLF fighters

Frustrations with the perceived failure to implement the peace agreement and Misuari’s feeling that he was being eased out of his positions of authority in the ARMM and MNLF sparked an outbreak of hostilities between the government and Misuari’s forces in Sulu and Zamboanga in November 2001.  These developments led to Misuari’s arrest.  The MNLF leader started to view the peace agreement as a shackle from which the MNLF would be better off freed to pursue a new phase of struggle for independence.

MNLF leader Nur Misuari

To be sure, warlord clans such as the Ampatuans beholden to the central government in Manila took over control of the ARMM largely through the active support of Malakanyang during Arroyo’s tenure.  The MNLF had its own share of mistakes, including a failure to maintain or recreate itself either as a politico-military mass organization or as a political party.  Concessions, co-optation, divide-and-rule, demobilization, splits, and worse, political defeat or marginalization through its own mismanagement of the ARMM (and its funds) have degraded the organization to a moribund status.

The leaders of the Ampatuan clan

Thus it could be said that the MNLF lost both the war and the peace.  Since then, splits have further weakened the movement.  The MNLF (Misuari faction) showed signs of revitalization through armed hostilities with government in February and November 2005.  This residual hostility was the result of the failure to integrate a number of armed fighters (and their relatives) into the Republic’s security forces.[1]  To the extent that the MNLF has not returned to the battlefield and has not conducted conventional warfare as before, one can argue that the 1996 peace agreement was successful.  To the extent that legitimate grievances are not fully addressed, then the peace is imperfect.

Abu Sayyaf bandits

The weakness of a still armed MNLF has helped spawned more aggressive anti-state rivals (Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF] and the Abu Sayyaf) as well as allowed conservative and reactionary elements like the Ampatuans (is the incumbent ARMM governor Mujiv Hataman, who is reportedly involved in the murder of a congressman from Basilan province, any better?) to take control of regional autonomy structures.  To that extent, peace remained elusive in Muslim Mindanao.   As a result, the Philippine government is currently engaged in a multi-pronged effort to maintain peace and order combat the Abu Sayyaf and other criminals, and at the same time to forge peace with the MILF and perfect the peace with the MNLF.  On the agenda of the GPH-MNLF talks to implement the 1996 FPA are the key issues including amendments to the organic law of the Muslim autonomous region (RA 9054), the Bangsamoro development assistance fund (BDAF), and suitable formulas for revenue sharing.  These are among the challenges confronting the Noynoy Aquino government.


Abat, Fortunato. 1993. The Day We Nearly Lost Mindanao: The CENCOM Story. San Juan Manila: Fortunato U. Abat FCA, Inc.

Abinales, Patricio. 2010. Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim-Mindanao Narrative. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Ahmad, Aijaz. 1981. “The War Against the Muslims.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp. 21-37.

Alcala-Hall, Rosalie. 2009. “From Rebels to Soldiers: An Analysis of the Philippine and East Timorese Policy Integrating Former Moro National Liberation Front and Falintil Combatants into the Armed Forces.”  Paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Toronto, Canada.

Che Man, W. K. 1990. Muslim Separatism: The Moros of Southern Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Depayso, Yerson (Col.). 2004. “An Assessment of the MNLF Integration Program.” Master’s thesis in National Security Administration, National Defense College of the Philippines.

Fearon, James D. 2004. “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer than Others?” Journal of Peace Research 41(3): 275-301.

Ferrer, Miriam. 2000. “Integration of MNLF Forces into the PNP and AFP: Integration without Demobilization and Disarmament.” UP Project on Assessment of the Implementation of the GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement, Phase I. UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies.

George, T. J. S. 1980. Revolt in Mindanao: The Rise of Islam in Philippine Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

GRP-MNLF. 1987. Joint Statements of the Philippine Government and the MNLF Panels (Jeddah Accord). United States Institute of Peace <> 10 January 2012.

Gutierrez, Eric and Marites Vitug. 1999. “ARMM After the Peace Agreement: An Assessment of Local Government Capability in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp.181-221.

Gutierrez, Eric. 1999. “The Problems of Peace.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp. 223-261.

Human Development Network. 2005. Philippine Human Development Report. Manila: Human Development Network.

Iribani, Abraham. 2006. Give Peace a Chance: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Talks. Mandaluyong City: Magbassa Kita Foundation.

Jacildo, Nerlyne C. 2003. “Experiences of MNLF Integrees in Basilan and Zamboanga: Issues and

Problems”. Unpublished Masters Thesis. University of the Philippines- Diliman. Quezon City.

Jubair, Salah. 1999. Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyranny. Kuala Lumpur: IQ Marin Sdn Bhd.

Lara, Francisco Jr. 2010. “Collision and collusion in Muslim Mindanao.” Autonomy and Peace Review 6(1): 84-88.

Majul, Cesar Adib. 1985. The Contemporary Muslim Movement in the Philippines. Berkeley: Mizan Press.

Makinano, Merliza and Alfredo Lubang. 2000. “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration: The Mindanao Experience.” In South Asia at Gunpoint: Small Arms & Light Weapons Proliferation. Ed. Dipankar Banerjee. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

McKenna, Thomas. 1998. Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines.  Manila: Anvil Publishing , Inc.

Misuari, Nur. 1974. “The Manifesto of the Moro National Liberation Front: Establishment of the Bangsa Moro Republik”. 28 April.

Noble, Lela. 1976. “The Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines.” Pacific Affairs 49(3): 405-424.

Noble, Leal. 1981. “Muslim Separatism in the Philippines, 1972-1981: The Making of a Stalemate.” Asian Survey 21(11): 1097-1114.

Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). 2006. “Report of the Secretary General on the Question of Muslims in Southern Philippines.” OIC/33-ICFM/2005/MM/SG/REP.2). In Reports of the Secretary General on Muslim Minorities and Communities in Non-OIC Member States. Submitted to the 33rd Session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers, Baku, 19-21 June.

Ramos, Fidel V. 1996. Break Not the Peace: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Negotiations, 1992-1996. Manila: Friends of Steady Eddie.

Rocamora, Joel. 1999. “Dissidence and Development: Perspectives for a Tri-People Approach.” In Rebels, Warlords and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines. Ed. Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, pp. 163-179.

Rodil, B. R. 2000. Kalinaw Mindanaw: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process. Davao City: Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao.

Santos, Soliman Jr. (2010a). “War and Peace on the Moro Front: Three Standard Bearers, Three Forms of Struggle, Three Tracks (Overview).” In Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines. Ed. Diana Rodriguez. Geneva: Small Arms Survey/South-South Network for Non-State  Armed Group Engagement, pp. 58-90.

Santos, Soliman Jr. (2010b). “MNLF Integration into the AFP and the PNP: Successful Cooptation or Failed Transformation.” In Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines. Ed. Diana Rodriguez. Geneva: Small Arms Survey/South-South Network for Non-State  Armed Group Engagement, pp. 162-184.

Stedman, Stephen, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth Cousens. 2002. Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Lynne Reinner Publishers.

Vitug, Marites and Glenda Gloria. 2000. Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. Quezon City: Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs and Institute for Popular Democracy.

Weiner, Myron. 1978. Sons of the Soil: Migration and Ethnic Conflict in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] As vice president of the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) in the late 1990s, I participated in the vetting of these MNLF commanders and fighters.  The latter wanted to be commissioned as officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) or the Philippine National Police (PNP).  However, they could not all be accommodated since most of them were illiterate and nearing the mandatory retirement age.


MNLF fighter

Following the 1996 agreement, the MNLF had effectively demobilized from combat mode but had not fully disarmed—an arrangement that has been acceptable to both sides. The 1976 Tripoli Agreement provided for a ceasefire, amnesty, release of political prisoners, and MNLF integration with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).  However, no mention is made of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR).  This absence was carried over to the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA).  President Ramos explained they did not raise the issue of disarming the MNLF:  “Forcing the issue would have simply led to an unresolvable impasse.  The strategic objective of having a final peace agreement signed – with its attendant political, economic, social and cultural benefits – was more important than belaboring any issue that struck deeply into the honour and prestige of the other party” (Ramos 1996, pp. 102-103).

Perhaps, what President Ramos had in mind the commonplace belief that the Moro (especially the  Tausog) male loved his firearm more than his wife.  In his own account of the peace talks, Ramos showed sensitivity to Misuari’s concerns:

“Chairman Misuari himself expressed constant worry over the prospect of losing his men to other militant armed groups if Government could not help them during the transition period.  It was in this light that the MNLF was pinning its hopes on Government to accommodate its bid to have a large special Regional Security Force – both to allay their anxieties over security and to give more teeth to the Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD).

Another sensitive issue was the “demobilization” of MNLF forces not absorbed into the Armed Forces.  The issue touched the sense of dignity of MNLF fighters very deeply, and it had to be set aside in the meantime that we were planning for the Final Round of Talks.  The MNLF was not merely concerned over its loss of face in “demobilizing” its fighters; it also worried about the related and concrete problem of their livelihood and basic needs.  Other sensitive issues were the registration and licensing of firearms and the matter of ranks and qualifications for military service of MNLF members who would be taken into the Armed Forces” (Ramos 1996, pp. 86-87).

President Fidel Ramos

In the end, the 1996 FPA did not try to disarm or demobilize the entire MNLF fighting force.  It instead provided for “a special socio-economic, cultural and educational program to cater to MNLF forces not absorbed into the AFP, PNP and the SRSF[1]” (Final Peace Agreement 1996, para. 20a).  A number of international agencies including the United Nations (UN) Multi-Donor Program (MDP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through their ‘Peace and Development Communities’ (PDCs) and ‘Livelihood Enhancement for Peace’ (LEAP), respectively, claimed to have reintegrated more than 50,000 MNLF members between 1997 and 2004, though this figure is likely to refer to the MNLF mass base instead of fighters alone (Santos 2010b).

MILF leader Ebrahim Al Haj Murad

Many MNLF fighters turned to farming for various reasons including a belief only those with connections benefited from the FPA.  Others formed criminal groups while many joined the MILF.  Then MNLF vice chair for military affairs Al Haj Murad  Ebrahim estimated a surge in MILF strength from 8,000 in 1996 to 15,420 in mid-1999, and in firearms from 10,227 at year-end 1998 to 11,351 by June 1999 (Makinano and Lubang 2000).

But what of the MNLF integration program itself? Alcala Hall (2009) identified previous studies on the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) integration into the government’s uniformed services (including Ferrero (2000) and Jailor (2003)).  She said these studies assess the process largely on how it contributes to the prospects of long-term peace in Mindanao (Alcala-Hall 2009). Ferrero (2000) concluded that the actual integration (into the army and the police) did not significantly demobilize nor disarm the MNLF. The integration included but a small fraction of the estimated MNLF strength (estimates vary across the literature from 17,000 to 50,000) at the time the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) was signed. Moreover, because the integration process allowed substitution by kin of ex-combatants, the number of demobilized MNLF personnel is lower than the 7,500 total provided in the agreement (Alcala-Hall 2009). There were no other avenues for integration as the provision in RA 9054 for a separate Special Regional Security Force (SRSF) to include ex- MNLF fighters have not been carried out. Nor has the integration program made any substantial dent in the number of firearms under MNLF’s possession.

Although the program required the submission of a gun as a prerequisite to recruitment and selection, in reality the integrees procured the guns they submitted elsewhere (or it is their own, rather than the movement’s). The under valuation of guns within the government guns-for cash (BALIK-BARIL) program also meant many integrees logically would found it more lucrative to sell their more high-powered guns in the black market and procure a lesser caliber, less costly weapon to submit to the government. Others have even argued that the program has led to the further arms proliferation in Mindanao. In joining the army, many integrees are said to have taken loans (which they have now access to) and used the loan proceeds to buy more weapons. Personal/family security defined in terms of gun ownership is said to be characteristic of the Tausug male culture (Alcala-Hall 2009).

There are some positive accomplishments though.  Some MNLF 7, 500 fighters (or their proxies[2]) have been integrated with the army and police, representing at least half of its peak strength.  The integrees proved their loyalty to their new employers helped largely by improved incomes.[3] To some, this integration has been hailed as the most successful aspect of the implementation of the 1996 final peace agreement (FPA) (Santos 2010b).  One of the complaints raised by no less than the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was the government’s deployment of MNLF integrees in combat duties against MILF fighters (OIC 2006 in Santos 2010b).  However, this may be a way to test their ultimate loyalty to the government.  Even if he considers integration to be the most successful aspect of the FPA’s implementation, Santos (2010b) believes that the MNLF integration program was partially successful.  He argued that only complete disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) will peace reign in Mindanao.

[1] Special Regional Security Forces

[2] Ferrer (2000) reports that a significant number of MNLF integrees into the PNP—almost 90 percent of the first batch—were not MNLF fighters themselves but their proxies, i.e., sons and nephews.  This should not be surprising since many of the original MNLF fighters were already old.

[3] Citing comments of Prof. Octavio Dinampo on an earlier draft of his chapter, Santos (2010b) reports that “in February 2005 there were reports of integrees going AWOL and fighting on the MNLF side: according to one local source, 283 of the integrees who were truly former MNLF fighters are back with the MNLF, while ‘100 plus’ more went AWOL without returning to the MNLF.”

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.







The problems that plagued the earlier agrarian reform program (Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program or CARP) which started in 1988 also adversely affected IPRA’s implementation including identification of beneficiaries, inadequate budgets, agency capture, and the opposition of affected parties including settlers, corporate interests and armed anti-state groups.  If identification of agrarian reform beneficiaries in the lowlands proved to be difficult, the problems multiplied with respect to ancestral domains in the frontiers[1]


A clear understanding as to who the indigenous peoples are and where they can be found (and what lands constitute their ancestral domains) is both a technical and administrative matter.  Apart from being hobbled by meager funds, the NCIP also lacks adequate technical knowledge and skilled personnel. Padilla (2007) also relates how settlers and corporate interests together with conniving national and local officials subvert IPRA and operate business ventures within ancestral domains.  The usual device is for officials to certify that a certain area is not populated by IPs or is not part of a claimed ancestral domain.  Divide and rule tactics are also resorted to wherein scab IP leaders and communities show compliance with the ‘free and prior informed consent’ (FPIC) provision of the law. 


The FPIC provision of the IPRA presents good opportunities for strengthening the bargaining position of indigenous communities vis-à-vis external interests such as corporations who wish to utilize the resources within ancestral domains.  As provided for by the law, FPIC means the ‘consensus of all members of the ICCs/IPs to be determined in accordance with their respective customary laws and practices, free from any external manipulation, interference and coercion, and obtained after fully disclosing the intent and scope of the activity, in a language and process understandable to the community” (IPRA Sec. 3).  The consensus proviso is a strong measure since the consensus of everybody in the community is required to allow the entry of external interests into the ancestral domain for extractive activities.  It also enables the indigenous community to forge the best terms with external parties.  It may also be used against the misrepresentation of scab leaders and community factions.  For the full benefit of FPIC to be realized, however, the IP community must be united and organized and indeed informed of the pros and cons of a proposed project.  This is a necessity since the FPIC consensus proviso also has a downside: a single person within the community can veto a project even if it was deemed beneficial and equitable by the rest of the community.  The assent of the veto player may have to be obtained through side-payments.[2] 


The opposition of armed anti-state groups like the New People’s Army and the Bangsa Moro movement to the IPRA must be explained.  Padilla (2007) avers that for the NPA, IPRA puts its natural constituency, the poor or landless peasantry, at a disadvantage in the competition of land on the frontier.  Furthermore, the titling of ancestral domains threatens to remove large areas theoretically available from the NPA’s own revolutionary land reform program.  On the ground, NPA fighters had continuously cautioned IP communities against engaging in the ancestral domain titling process.  In Mindanao, NCIP surveyors and community volunteers are warned and harassed, and their mapping equipment was confiscated.  Affiliated legal organizations have also consistently rejected and opposed ancestral domain delineation and the IPRA. To them, the only legitimate issues to be raised with respect to the frontier lands were the Philippine military’s human rights violations during anti-insurgency operations.   Consequently, they demanded the scrapping of IPRA.


Another political force, the Bangsa Moro armed movement for self-determination fears that indigenous land claims in Mindanao might jeopardize its own aspirations for their own ‘ancestral territory’.  One must note that indigenous minorities in Mindanao are generally composed into two groups—the Islamized peoples who call themselves Bangsa Moro and the non-Islamized IPs known collectively as the lumads.  As things currently stand, only the lumads have expressed interest in pursuing ancestral domain titling.  The Bangsa Moro groups—the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—have resorted to peace negotiations with the government in pursuit of their aims.  The MNLF signed an agreement with the government in 1996 while the MILF’s negotiations with the government are currently at an impasse precisely on the question of ancestral territory. 


Cordillera Administrative Region



Other unintended developments stemmed from IPRA’s enactment.  It has engendered disunities among the indigenous peoples.  One source of dispute is how to view IPRA.  The Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance (CPA) for instance considers IPRA as a ‘master act’ of deception given the persistence of the Regalian doctrine.  On the other hand, IP organizations and supporting non-government organizations (NGOs) support IPRA while recognizing its imperfections. They see IPRA as a legal stepping stone towards further progress.  The negative effects of IPRA are felt most at the community level.  In the Cordillera, for example, there had been an increase in boundary disputes and conflicts over resources (e.g., water for irrigation). 


Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) logo



The IPRA also ‘inspired’ non-IP communities such as the Bantoanons in Romblon (migrants from Batangas) to claim imagined ethnic identities as a means to claim control over valuable land.  There is also the view that these conflicts come from the adoption of a generalizing concept of ancestral domain, that is, the notion that ancestral domain is a static or fixed concept of a communal territory, with persistence of indigenous socio-political institutions.  The concept ignores the diversity and dynamism within many indigenous communities.  It fails to recognize that many indigenous peoples have already adopted western property regimes and do not care much about domains.  Still, some experts fear the IPRA could possibly lead to the privatization of the commons.  These different views suggest that while progress had been achieved with the passage of IPRA, much needs to be done.  There is apparently a need to adopt an area- and culture-specific ancestral land and domain policy that takes local nuances, processes and tenurial systems into consideration (ADB 2002).


[1] The then NCIP executive director reported that the initial problem of beneficiary identification has since been resolved.  The greater problem, she intimates, is the lack of coordination between different government agencies issuing administrative titles to land.  For this reason, competing tenure and/or ownership instruments were issued over the same land area and have led to disputes between IPs and agrarian reform beneficiaries.

[2] This discussion on the implications of the FPIC provision of IPRA was suggested by Dr. Antonio de la Vina, dean of the Ateneo School of Government and member of the Empowerment of the Poor Project advisory panel.

Commander Ameril Umbra Kato (center) and fighters of the break-away Bangsa Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)

Recent news reports indicate that the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation (MILF) are on the verge of forging a peace agreement.  They were reported to have made substantial progress on two key issues–power sharing and revenue generation, and wealth sharing arrangements during talks in Kuala Lumpur.

Chairpersons of MILF and PH panels shake hands in Kuala Lumpur meeting

MILF fighters pray at the end of Ramadan

The BIFF, now named Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), opposed what it considers as the MILF’s defeatist peace-mongering and capitulation to the Philippine government.  Umbra Kato, the BIFM’s leader argued the only path was that of armed struggle to win an independent nation-state.

BIFM fighters

Today, the Associated Press reported that:

“Suspected militants from a breakaway Muslim rebel group set off bombs in the southern Philippines but failed to inflict injuries or disrupt army assaults against its fighters, who went on a rampage last week and sparked clashes that killed 28 people.

Government troops in pursuit of BIFM fighters

Hundreds of troops, backed by helicopters, tanks and artillery fire, forced armed fighters of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement out of two strongholds and were pursuing them mostly in remote areas of Maguindanao province.  

Government armor vs. BIFM

Authorities were preparing criminal complaints against Ameril Umbra Kato, the ailing leader of the breakaway rebels and his known commanders, who attacked army camps and outposts and burned and looted villages last week.

The attacks killed four soldiers and three civilians and sparked clashes that initially killed four rebels. Hundreds of troops later pursued the rebels, killing at least 16 more of the militants, who tried to slow down the advancing soldiers with sniper fire”.

It is clear that Kato and his group is a spoiler in the peace process between the government and the MILF.  However, can we dismiss the BIFM’s position outright?  Assuming that Kato is intransigent, is the military solution the only response?  Should criminal charges against him be pursued?  

What Kato’s group has done and is doing has been done by the MILF, the New People’s Army (NPA), and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).  The MNLF already signed a peace agreement with government in 1996 while the National Democratic Front (representing the NPA and the Communist Party of the Philippines) is currently engaged in peace talks.

Technically, insurgents are criminals since they violate a country’s penal code to pursue their political program.  However, they are distinguished from criminals because they do have political aims.  Furthermore, they must not be considered as criminals otherwise the government cannot justify negotiating with them.

In this sense, criminal charges and ‘extreme’ political programs did not prevent the Philippine government from adopting a flexible approach.  Why not with Kato and the BIFM? 

Or am I just a hopeless, bleeding-heart liberal?