Some Bangsamoro folks in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. July 2015.

The Bangsamoro is the Moro Nation

Muslims in the Philippines are mostly located in the islands of Mindanao. There are thirteen Muslim tribes: the Iranun, Magindanaon, Maranao, Tao-Sug, Sama, Yakan, JamaMapun, Ka’agan, Kalibugan, Sangil, Molbog, Palawani and Badjao. Collectively, they are also known as the Bangsamoro people. The term Bangsamoro is a combination of two words. The Malay word bangsa has a political connotation that means “nation,” and the term Moro was given pejoratively by the Spanish colonizers to the Muslims of Mindanao, which was similar to what they called the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula. Bangsamoro therefore means “Moro nation.” While the term Moro was seen by the Muslims as derogatory from the 16th century, by the 1970s it became a badge of honor for them when the revolutionary organization Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) headed by Nur Misuari proudly used the term Moro in referring to themselves and the Muslims of Mindanao. Currently, the Moros are the majority in the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. They are a minority in North and South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Davao del Sur and Davao Oriental, CompostelaValley, Sarangani, and Palawan.

My Six-Month Immersion Among the Bangsamoro People

“Like many of the government soldiers, these Moro fighters are motivated by dreams of a life of freedom, justice, and peace.” With some men belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed wing of the MILF. Camp Darapanan. July 2015.

From December 2004 until May 2005, I lived with the Maguindanao people in the province of Sultan Kudarat. During this time, I felt the embrace of the Muslim people. While other Christian workers among the Muslims do not reveal openly their Christian identity, and for reasons I understand but do not agree, I on the other hand revealed at the outset that I am a Christian pastor living among them. Some of the personal convictions that guided me in my immersion, and which I demonstrated in varying ways, are the following:

  • I am there as a follower of Jesus Christ
  • I believe in following Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I do not believe that Christians should use violence for whatever reason. Hence, I condemn the Crusades where the name of Jesus Christ was misused.
  • I believe that Christians and Muslims can engage in transparent dialogue without resorting to violence.
  • I am convinced that a genuine Christian-Muslim dialogue entails being faithful with each other’s respective faiths while learning to live together in peace.
  • I believe that honesty is crucial in testifying to what we know is truth.

The Bangsamoro people are a beautiful people. Seen from a Christian theological point of view, they are human beings created in the image of God and equally loved by God. My interaction with the young men who belong to their armed forces brought me to a realization that, like many of the government soldiers, these Moro fighters are motivated by dreams of a life of freedom, justice, and peace.

Historical Overview of the Mindanao Conflict

The Mindanao conflict began from the time the Spanish colonizers laid claim to the archipelago that the explorer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named Las Islas Filipinas in honor of King Phillip II of Spain. From the 16th century onwards, first Spain, then followed by the United States and then succeeding Philippine governments, tried to colonize the Muslims of the Philippines or Moros. Both the Spanish and the American forces, due to their cultural ignorance and racist attitudes, considered Moros as savages, despite the Moro’s relatively advanced cultural, economic and political civilization. In fact, according to the Filipino historian, Renato Constantino, the Muslim South was never fully conquered “by virtue of its higher social and economic development and its better organized and more tenacious resistance.”

The Spanish period was marked by the so-called “Moro Wars,” which refer to all the violent military engagements between the Moros and the Spaniards from the 16th up to almost the end of the 19th century. Of its many aspects, there was one particular dimension of the Spanish colonization that drove a seemingly insurmountable wedge between the Moros and non-Moros of the Philippines–the Spanish utilization of native troops from the islands of Luzon and Visayas in their fight against the Moros. The war among the native Moros and non-Moros have continued to this very day; indeed, the bifurcation the Moro Wars created among the Filipinos may be Spain’s most debilitating legacy. This was exemplified in a crucial moment in the Philippine Revolution against Spain when the Moros did not send help to the Filipino forces despite the plea of its commanding officer, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo.

Family heads of a Moro sultanate clan

Moro resistance against colonization continued in the American period. Although in 1899 the Americans through Brigadier Gen. John C. Bates, and the Moros through Sultan Kiram of the Sulu Sultanate, signed the Kiram-Bates Treaty, it was only a temporary arrangement for the Americans while the Philippine Revolution was still ongoing. Indeed, when the Revolution ended in 1903, the Americans abrogated the treaty unilaterally the following year in order to focus on governing directly the Moros. One of the ways the Americans sought to achieve this was through resettlement policies, wherein Christians from other parts of the country were sponsored by the government to resettle in Muslim Mindanao. Eventually, although the Moros owned most of the land in Mindanao on the eve of the American colonization, by 1981 they owned less than 17 percent, and most of that land was located in remote and barren areas. Statistics show that at the end of the Spanish era, the population of Mindanao-Sulu was 500,000, which gradually increased to 2.2 million by the time of the 1939 census. By 1960, the population had grown to 5.3 million, by 1975 to 9.1 million, and by 1990 to 14 million. In 1913, Muslim Filipinos formed 98 percent of Mindanao’s population; by 1976 they accounted for 40 percent, and by 1990, only 19 percent. Indeed, as early as the 1960s, the Moro population had disappeared from many of their long-established areas. The migration of Filipino Christians to Mindanao has deepened the marginalization and pauperization of the Moros and perpetuated violence in the Moroland. What Christians have called the “Moro Problem” might be reframed as Christians being the problem of Moros. Understandably, for the Moros, “their rights to their ancestral lands became the core of the expression of their right to self-determination.”

On July 4, 1946, with the proclamation of independence, the Republic of the Philippines was born. On this date also began the status of the Moro people as a minority nationality in the Philippine state. Majul’s words are pertinent: “Once Christian Filipinos inherited the imperial mantle, they treated the Muslims in the Philippines in almost the same manner that the Spaniards and Americans had… This explains why Muslims have regarded the Manila government as no different from that of the Spanish or American colonial governments.” Thus, during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the situation in Mindanao and Sulu became so grave, numerous Moro armed groups or “liberation fronts” were formed with the primary goal of obtaining independence to preserve Moro identity and community. Most prominent and impactful among these groups is the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Under the leadership of Nur Misuari, the MNLF gained the support of the Moros and the international Muslim communities. By 1980, the Armed Forces of the Philippines had spent an average of 40% of its annual budget for the Mindanao war. Economic output spent by the Philippine government from 1970-2001 amounted to US $2 to $3 billion. By 1980 also, an estimated 90,000 Moros had been killed, 250,000 houses and thousands of mosques and schools burned as a result of the conflict.

Ustadz Salamat Hashim

However, in 1977 an MNLF faction headed by Ustadz Salamat Hashim perceived that the MNLF was leaning toward a Marxist ideology instead of Islamic principles. Hence, this faction separated from the MNLF and was formally established as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1984. Influenced by the deeply religious Chairman Hashim, the MILF became deeply entrenched in Islamic values that aimed initially to establish an independent Bangsamoro State in Mindanao.

In 1989 the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was inaugurated as a result of peace negotiations between the Ramos Government and the MNLF. However, it failed to address the real needs of the Bangsamoro people. It was thus reported in 2006 that “Muslims in southern Philippines… are still living under deteriorating political, economic, and social conditions…” This prompted many Muslims to support the MILF which they felt represented their true aspirations. Although negotiations between the Philippine Government (GPH) have been precarious, as demonstrated by the “all-out war” in 2000, the talks gained momentum when the Philippine President, Benigno S. Aquino III, personally reached out to the MILF Chairman, Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, in August 2011.

In October of 2012, the GPH and the MILF reached a crucial milestone when they signed the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” (FAB), which seeks to create a new Bangsamoro political entity that will replace the ARMM. But as the GPH and MILF continued peace negotiations in 2013, on September 9 disgruntled MNLF soldiers loyal to Misuari (MNLF-Misuari Group) suddenly laid siege to Zamboanga City in southern Philippines. The fighting lasted for three weeks, which led to more than 400 persons killed and wounded, and forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes. This event did not impede the peace talks seriously; the GPH and MILF took another important step on March 27, 2014 by signing the “Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro” (CAB), which will allow the Bangsamoro people “to chart their political future through a democratic process that will secure their identity and posterity and allow for meaningful self-governance.” On September 10, 2014, President Aquino gave his endorsement to the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

The BBL and Oppressive TraPo Interests

Currently the BBL awaits Congressional approval. If approved, a plebiscite will then be held in territories that will be included in the new Bangsamoro territory. However, the Legislative Branch — most of them representing the country’s oligarchy and many of them from the families of corrupt traditional politicians (trapo) — are preventing the passage of BBL based on CAB. President Benigno Aquino III, who initially showed enormous support for BBL, have effectively reneged on his promise to finish his term with an operational BBL in a genuine Bangsamoro autonomous region. His administration was supposed to conclude with the BBL being implemented as the legislated form of the politically-negotiated agreement between the GPH and the MILF. (As of this writing, it seems the BBL will not pass in Congress.)

With Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, Chairman, Central Committee, Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Camp Darapanan. July 2015.

In sum, the Mindanao conflict was brought about by the following main reasons. First, the majority Christian population of the Philippines has a strong anti-Muslim bias. The 2005 Philippine Human development Report says that in Metro Manila 57% residents will opt for residency in a place with higher rent so long as it is far from a Muslim community. Second, the minoritization of the Moros came as a result of the failure of the government to protect the Moro ancestral lands. Once the majority in Mindanao, the Moros now comprise only 22% of the population. And third, the government failed to deliver basic services and the needed development to Moro communities. The 2005 Human Development Report shows that Muslim areas like Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan continue to suffer the highest poverty incidence.

God’s Love is Justice in the Public Realm

The Mindanao conflict is really a story about injustice. During my immersion among the Moro people, I was able to form a deep bond with many of them, including some of their key leaders. As a witness of Jesus, I have since then sought, with the abilities God gave me, to help bring about peace in Mindanao.

One of the ways I and my organization, PeaceBuildersCommunity, Inc., contribute is by helping bring together Muslim religious leaders and key leaders of Christian churches and denominations to foster better understanding of each other through dialogue, and by conducting Peace and Reconciliation training seminars. As I have mentioned earlier, it is as a follower of Jesus that I engage Muslims, energized by the love of our common Creator. I’m here to obey God’s great and first commandment, tested by my love of neighbors, according to Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40). I love the Bangsamoro as I love my own well-being.

Dann Pantoja (President, PeaceBuilders Community, Inc.), Mohagher Iqbal (Chairman, MILF Peace Panel), Wendy Kroeker (Senior Consultant, PeaceBuilders Community, Inc.), and Joji Pantoja (Chief Operating Officer, Coffee For Peace, Inc.) pose for a picture during the PCEC-MILF meeting last May 2013 in Barangay Simuay, Municipality of Sultan Kudarat, Province of Maguindanao. Chairman Iqbal shows his book, Conflict Transformation, by John Paul Lederach. Bishop Efraim Tendero (National Director, Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches) is at the background, comparing notes with other MILF leaders.
Lakan Sumulong (President, PeaceBuilders Community, Inc.), Mohagher Iqbal (Chairman, MILF Peace Panel), Wendy Kroeker (Senior Consultant, PeaceBuilders Community, Inc.), and Joji Pantoja (Chief Operating Officer, Coffee For Peace, Inc.) pose for a picture during the PCEC-MILF meeting last May 2013 in Barangay Simuay, Municipality of Sultan Kudarat, Province of Maguindanao. Chairman Iqbal shows his book, Conflict Transformation, by John Paul Lederach. Bishop Efraim Tendero (National Director, Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches) is at the background, comparing notes with other MILF leaders.

Permanent link to this article: https://peacebuilderscommunity.org/2016/01/understanding-the-moro-struggle-in-mindanao/


    • anna on 03.February.2024 at 0512
    • Reply

    thank you so much for this, sir. it helped me appreciate and understand Moros more.

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