Bangsamoro is the name which the thirteen Muslim tribes of the southern Philippines use to refer to themselves collectively. Bangsa is a Malay word meaning nation. Moro is the name which the Spanish colonizers used to denote the Islamized peoples of the Philippine islands, and is derived from the Spanish name for the Muslim Moors who dominated the Iberian Peninsula until late in the 15th Century. Thus, the term Bangsamoro literally means “Moro Nation.” The tribes which comprise the Bangsamoro are the Iranun, Maguindanaon, Maranao, Tao-Sug, Sama, Yakan, Jama Mapun, Ka’agan, Kalibugan, Sangil, Molbog, Palawani, and Badjao.
The unifying political struggle of the Bangsamoro people centers on their efforts to achieve autonomy as a separate and independent state, or at least to win a level of self-determination as a people distinct from the Filipino nation. Leaders and representatives of the Bangsamoro people have often contended that the incorporation of their traditional homelands into the Philippine state is illegitimate, and is solely the result of the policies of Spanish and American colonial administrators as well as the subsequent claims of the Manila-based government of the Republic of the Philippines. Throughout the history of the Philippine Islands as a colony and later as a republic, the Bangsamoro tribes have continually asserted their identity as a people separate from the non-Muslim Filipinos. When the American colonizers granted independence to the Philippine Islands in 1946, the Bangsamoro territories were incorporated into the Philippine Republic without the plebiscitary consent of the Bangsamoro people, and against their will (Rodil 2, 15; Jubair 115).
Today, the southern Philippine provinces where Bangsamoros comprise a majority of the population are Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. This distribution reflects a drastic diminishment of the traditional Bangsamoro territories, resulting from a centuries-long sequence of injustices at the hands of the Spanish and American colonial powers.
Of these policies, one of the most detrimental to the Bangsamoro people was the American colonial administration’s resettlement program, which was launched in the early 20th Century. Under this program, Christian Filipinos from Luzon and the Visayan Islands north of Mindanao were encouraged to immigrate to Mindanao. With the Public Land Act of 1903, Christian Filipino homesteaders were entitled to 16 hectares of land per claimant, and corporations were granted 1,024 hectares a piece. No provision was made for patents of land grant to Moros or to the other native inhabitants of Mindanao, the non-Muslim indigenous people who are now called Lumads, but which the American colonizers officially referred to as “Wild Tribes.” Even when subsequent laws enacted in 1919 and 1936 made provision for plots of land to be granted to Moros and “Wild Tribes,” the quantity of land which could be awarded to a member of either of these latter categories was less than half of that which the laws designated for a northern Christian settler.
Due largely to the Christian-favoring policies of the colonial government, the first half of the 20th Century saw an enormous influx of Christian Filipino migrants into Mindanao, so that by the middle of the century, Christians outnumbered Moros in the island. Increasingly, the Bangsamoro people began to feel that their culture was under siege. During the dictatorial regime of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, a number of events brought the Bangsamoros’ sense of persecution to a boil, and led to the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front and to the beginning of the modern narrative of violent conflict between armed Moro groups and the government of the Republic of the Philippines.
The first of these events was the incident now known as the Jabidah Massacre. In March of 1968, at least twenty-three and possibly as many as sixty-four Moro trainees of the Philippine armed forces were slaughtered under circumstances which, to this day, remain unexplained and mysterious. The rage and fear which this crime created in the Bangsamoro community contributed greatly to the emergence of the organized Bangsamoro independence movement and to the recruitment of Moros into the armed struggle for autonomy and for the survival of the Bangsamoro people (Vitug 2-23; Jubair 132-133; Rodil 2-3). Many Moros felt that the Philippine government (GRP and later GPH) had in mind the complete repression or even the extermination of the southern Philippine Muslims (Rodil 2). An outside threat which still further united and stimulated the Bangsamoro independence movement was the advent of the Ilaga vigilante organization, which was composed of Christian Mindanaoans of migrant stock. In the early 1970’s the Ilagas launched a series of attacks on Muslim villages, burning homes and massacring civilians. Marcos congratulated the brutal leader of the Ilagas and warmly received him at the presidential palace (Jubair 135-139).
In 1969 Moro activists founded the Moro National Liberation Front, and in 1973 this organization began publically to take credit for attacks on government troops and installations in the southern Philippines (Jubair 149-150). The armed conflict between the GRP and Moro armed groups has continued to simmer during the intervening decades, and time and again it has flared up into pitched battles, attacks, and counter attacks. The costs of the conflict have been devastating both for the Moro armed groups and for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Civilians in the contested territories have also suffered horrendously, in staggering numbers, and over the course of decades. Between 1970 and 1996, the Philippine government’s combat expenses amounted to 73 billion pesos. The fighting claimed between 100,000 and 120,000 lives (Rodil 4). In the year 2000, President Joseph Estrada’s “all-out war” against the separatists cost the Filipino taxpayer 6 billion pesos, and it is estimated that between 1970 and 2001 the reduction in economic output caused by the fighting and disruption came to something between 2 and 3 billion pesos, or about 5 to 7.5 million annually. The conflict has created 2 million internally displaced persons and destroyed 535 mosques and 200 schools. 35 cities and towns have been damaged (Lingao).
In 1984 a breakaway group of MNLF members formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which emphasizes Islamic ideology as its operational standard (Jubair 156). For many years, the GRP conducted negotiations primarily with the MNLF, while pursuing less official dialogue with the MILF (Jubair 194-199). The negotiations between the Philippine government and the MNLF culminated in the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and in the 1996 GRP-MNLF Final Peace Accord. Under the terms of the agreements which created the ARMM, that political entity is not invested with enough autonomy to make it a truly sustainable and satisfactory answer to the Bangsamoro people’s desire for real self-government in their ancestral territory.
Even as the GRP and the MNLF reached a settlement and sought to implement it, hostilities continued between the government and the MILF. On March 21, 2000, after a series of skirmishes between the MILF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, President Joseph Estrada announced an “all-out war” on the MILF. Large scale armed operations followed, in which many Philippine military personnel and MILF mujahideen lost their lives before the battle wound down following the capture of the MILF stronghold of Camp Abubakar.
Large-scale fighting erupted again in 2008 after the Supreme Court of the Philippines forbid the Philippine government from signing the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) which had been framed during negotiations between a government peace panel and the MILF. The MOA-AD would have expanded both the authority and the territory of the ARMM, and its rejection by the Supreme Court brought the MILF back to the battlefield.
In October of 2012, the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, after protracted negotiations with the MILF, signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which outlines a juridical entity to be called the Bangsamoro, which will offer a more robust and substantial autonomy in the Moro territories. In March, 2014 the Framework Agreement was expanded into the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which, along with the blueprint of the BJE, stipulates the dissolution of the armed wing of the MILF. Under the CAB, the MILF’s stockpile of weapons is to be handed over to a third party agreed upon by the MILF and the Philippine government.
The CAB has been hailed in many quarters as the best hope for a lasting peace between the Moros and the Philippine government. It still remains for the Philippine Congress to approve and pass the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in order to formalize this new political arrangement in the Bangsamoro territory. As the congressional vote approaches, the war-weary Mindanaoans are both hopeful and anxious to see whether or not the Philippine Congress will give a chance to this joint effort by the MILF and the Aquino administration, who both hope for a just and peaceful resolution to the long, costly, and bitter armed struggle in the southern Philippines.
Among the factors contributing to the Bangsamoro people’s desire for independence from the Manila-based government of the Philippines is the perception that the Philippine government has failed to deliver basic services and desperately needed development in the Bangsamoro region. When the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report of 2003 ranked the 82 provinces of the Philippines according to their score on the Human Development Index, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, and Sulu came in at numbers 68, 74, 75, 76, and 77 respectively.
Coupled with the Bangsamoro consciousness that they have been left behind in the economic development of the Philippines, there is the awareness that the Bangsamoro were once an independent people who, at the time of the Spanish annexation of the Philippines, had already achieved a level of social and political complexity well in advance of the other regions and peoples of the Philippine Archipelago. While Luzon and the Visayas were still in the barangay stage of political development, the Bangsamoro sultanates had developed well-organized administrative and political systems (Jubair 20-21). For 333 years, the Moros resisted the attempted Spanish conquest of their territories, so that they remained proudly unconquered in 1898 when the Treaty of Paris purported to transfer the administration of the entire Philippine Archipelago from Spain to the United States of America (Rodil 15-16).
The Treaty of Paris, which established the Philippines as an American colony and set the stage for the US eventually to turn over the nominal control of the entire archipelago to a Filipino government based in Manila, was a fundamentally illegitimate transaction. Unlike the Visayan Islands and the lowlands of Luzon, which were thoroughly subjugated and subsequently administered and exploited by the Spaniards, the Bangsamoro territories, like the Cordillera Region of northern Luzon, were never in Spain’s possession in any practical sense. They were therefore not hers to sell to the US in 1898 (Rodil 16-17). Even during the American occupation of the southern Philippines, outbursts of Moro resistance to the new foreign rulers continued long into the 20th Century (Jubair 71-94).
In light of the many compelling arguments for the legitimacy of the Bangsamoro claim that their true historical heritage and their rightful destiny is as a separate and independent people from the Filipinos, it appears that the Bangsamoro struggle may be best understood as a nation’s striving for the right to control its own destiny, rather than as a war of religion pitting Muslims against Christians. The widespread perception that the unrest in Mindanao stems primarily from a clash of religious ideologies, each wishing to subjugate or to eradicate the other, is a misconception which breeds fear and polarization in both the Bangsamoro and migrant communities, as well as in Manila. Too often Christians are led to believe that, by recognizing the legitimacy of the Bangsamoro assertion of nationhood, they are betraying their own religion.
On the contrary, from a dispassionate historical perspective, there is a large measure of rectitude and justice behind the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people for the right to govern themselves as a nation and in accordance with their own cultural identity and traditions. Justice is a foundational Christian value, and the Christian Scriptures assert time and again that God grieves at injustice when it is perpetrated by individuals or groups upon one another. Christians must not turn a blind eye to the countless injustices suffered by the Bangsamoro people.
In an effort to promote interfaith dialogue and to defuse hostility between the Filipino Christian and Muslim communities, an organization led by Filipino-Canadian Mennonites has been working tirelessly to bring influential Muslim and Christian leaders into dialogue together, so as to facilitate peace and reconciliation between the two communities. Daniel and Joji Pantoja, the founders and leaders of PeaceBuilders Community, Inc. (PBCI) began to study Mennonite theology in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. The western world’s retaliatory launching of the War on Terror, and the widespread support of the North American church for this course of action, made Daniel Pantoja, a Baptist minister whose whole family are influential leaders in the Filipino Evangelical community, reexamine role of the church in institutional violence. He felt called to search for a Christian community who condemned violence in all its forms. Eventually, he and Joji found fellowship at Peace Mennonite Church of Victoria, British Columbia. In 2005, when Daniel and Joji felt the Lord’s calling to bring the teachings and practices of Anabaptist Peace Theology to their native land, it was Peace Mennonite Church which commissioned and sent them as Mennonite missionaries, and Peace Mennonite Church continues to provide much of the support and international coordination for the operations of PBCI.
While there are not many Filipinos who self-identify as Mennonites, there is a vibrant and formidable Evangelical Christian community in the Philippines. PBCI has been using its connections and influence within this community to promote and demonstrate Mennonite Peace principles, which they have integrated into a program known as the Peace And Reconciliation (PAR) movement. The PAR movement has gained renown and wide popularity within the Filipino Evangelical community, and under the PAR framework, PBCI has brought together leaders of the MILF and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) to share their historical narratives with one another and to work towards understanding. MILF and PCEC leaders have learned to work in cooperation together in order to promote peace and understanding between the Muslim and Christian Communities, and in the process the leaders have learned that though their communities have traditionally been in conflict, they nonetheless share a common humanity and a desire for peace in their shared land.
As the day approaches when the Philippine Congress will most likely ratify the BBL and set in motion the creation of the juridical entity called the Bangsamoro, PBCI has been conducting PAR consultations and seminars for various NGO’s, church groups, and Christian organizations. Many legitimate fears grip the Christians and non-Muslim IPs residing in the areas which are to be incorporated into the Bangsamoro, but PBCI believes that the Bangsamoro Agreement offers real hope for an end to the decades of war in Mindanao, and they are doing their utmost to educate Chritians and to foster acceptance of the Agreement. In the course of conducting their PAR seminars, PBCI has collected a total of 1,026 written questions and concerns regarding the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB). Following are the most frequently expressed concerns, along with excerpts from the text of the FAB which relate to these concerns. PBCI presents these excerpts so that Christians and IPs will be aware of their protections under the law and can insist upon their rights, while simultaneously striving to live in harmony with their Muslim neighbors in the context of the coming Bangsamoro.
“Will we have religious freedom?”In section VI. “Basic Rights” of the CAB, the “Right to freedom and expression of religion and beliefs,” is specifically delineated.
- “Are other rights of non-Muslims protected?”
- Section VI. also guarantees the “Right to freely choose one’s place of residence and the inviolability of the home.”
- “What happens to our churches and schools?”
- Again, Section VI. promises the “Right to establish cultural and religious associations,” and the “Right to freedom from religious, ethnic and sectarian harassment.”
- Are Christians safe when the Bangsamoro strengthens and expands the Shari’ah?”
- Paragraph 3 asserts “The parties recognize the need to strengthen the Shari’ah courts and to expand their jurisdiction over cases. The Bangsamoro shall have competence over the Shari’ah justice system. The supremacy of Shari’ah and its application shall only be to Muslims.”
- “Is there guarantee for the protection of IP rights?”
- Paragraph 3 asserts “The customary rights and traditions of indigenous peoples shall be taken into consideration in the formation of the Bangsamoro justice system. This may include the recognition of indigenous processes as alternative modes of dispute resolution.”
Another major concern of the non-Muslims surveyed by PBCI is the FAB’s declaration that, along with “the present geographical area of the ARMM,” and several additional municipalities, the Bangsamoro will also encompass
all other contiguous areas where there is a resolution of the local government unit or a petition of at least ten per cent (10%) of the qualified voters in the area asking for their inclusion at least two months prior to the conduct of the ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the process of delimitation of the Bangsamoro as mentioned in the next paragraph.
It is easy to see why non-Muslims would be concerned by the language in this section. It appears to state that as little as ten per cent of the population could carry an area into the Bangsamoro against the wishes of the other ninety per cent. It would seem that this section of the law will need further clarification and negotiation at the ground level in each affected barangay.
On March 10, 2011, in Cotabato City, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) participated in an interfaith dialogue with the MILF. During his opening statements, MILF Peace Panel Chairman Mohagher Iqbal quoted Prophet Muhammad’s letter to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery at Mount Sinai in the year 628:
This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far: We are with them. Verily, I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah, I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything to the Muslims’ houses … Their churches are to be respected.
“Insha Allah (God willing),” said Iqbal, “the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will also honor this commitment in the same way the Muslims before us had honored this covenant once the Bangsamoro state will be emplaced in some parts of Mindanao.”
For his part, PCEC National Director Bishop Ephraim Tendero quoted Jesus’ words at the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” Mathew 5:9. Bishop Tendero also cited James 1:19-20: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Let us all remember these words as we embark on this new, uncertain, and yet hopeful chapter in the history of the peoples of Mindanao and of the relations between Muslims and Christians here in our beloved shared homeland.
- Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Kuala Lumpur; Manila, October 15, 2012
- Jubair, Salah. Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyranny. Kuala Lumpur: IQ Marin SDN BHD, 1999. Print.
- Lingao, Ed. “Mindanao: The hidden costs of war.” Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. July 6th, 2012. pcij.org/stories/mindanao-the-hidden-costs-of-war
- Rodil, Rudy Buhay. GRP-MILF Peace Process. Quezon City: Balay Rehabilitation Center. Print.
- Vitug, Marites Danguilan; Gloria, Glenda M. Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. Quezon City: Ateneo Center for Social Policy & Public Affairs, 2000. Print.