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Personal Reflections on the Bangsamoro Struggle

Edilwasif Baddiri
April, 2007

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

While a citizen of the Philippines, I also ascribe to the Bangsamoro identity. I belong to a traditionally underrepresented group; a religious and ethnic minority in a predominantly Christian country. Our homeland, located in certain parts of Mindanao and Sulu, is ninety-nine percent Muslim in a country that is ninety percent Christian. Growing up in the midst of the armed conflict between the Bangsamoro fighters and the Philippine government, I have witnessed the economic and psychological devastation that have been wrought on my country and my people. Nearly ninety percent of the people of Sulu live below the poverty line earning less than one dollar a day. Seventy percent do not have access to running water and electricity. Thus, I vowed to work for peacebuilding and bring a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Before I could work on building peace, I had to understand the conflict and to know my identity. It was a process of self-discovery, of placing myself in the world of the Bangsamoro and the Filipino. The discovery began when relatives would take refuge in our home, bringing news of fighting and of deaths and abuses committed on civilians, often relatives, by Filipino soldiers. These recent events brought the conflict to my close proximity.[1] My parents and grandparents would tell stories that are what John Paul Lederach calls "lived history."[2] They would speak about their miraculous survival from the 1974 massive bombing of Sulu by the Philippine military, whose soldiers, they emphasized, were Christians. My grandparents would even go further, describing how American soldiers arrived in 1898 and, by the 1920s, brought with them Christian Filipinos from the North to serve as local administrators and to assist in the American occupation. They would vividly recall the March 7, 1906 Bud Dajo massacre [3] and June 13, 1913 Bud Bagsak massacre, wherein Moros who defied the payment of a head tax and the disarmament policy of the American occupiers were mercilessly killed.[4]

I would learn later on about the March 18, 1968 Jabidah Massacre[5], the execution of twenty-eight Moro youth from Sulu by Filipino soldiers. Moreover, there was the continued land grabbing of Moro lands that were given to Christian Filipino settlers from the North. This falls under Lederach's framework of "remembered history."[6] Lastly, there was the Bangsamoro narrative [7] of foreign colonizers wanting to enslave them and always failing, but has left a terribly weakened and dysfunctional Moro society. The narrative calls for a restoration of past glories when the Moros were paramount over their own destiny and lived under their own rules.

Today, I have a better understanding of my people and my identity. The Bangsamoro story is retold every time fighting erupts in Moro land. The narrative, remembered history, and lived history blend with every recent event of fighting and killing.

The Moros and the Christian Filipinos are people of the same Malay race. Before Islam came to the Philippines, all its inhabitants had a common origin. Though the inhabitants were divided into different ethno-linguistic or geographical groups, there was no question in their minds that they were of the same race.[8]

The arrival of Islam in the 11th century introduced a new way of life. It brought new laws, new ethical standards and a new outlook on the meaning and direction of life. The Muslims began to develop the consciousness of belonging to a wider Islamic community - called "the Ummah." One of the most important contributions of Islam, however, was the centralized political structure in the form of the Sultanate. Islam was a social and political force, and by the time of Spain's arrival, the Muslims were already in Luzon and the Visayas and were trading with the British, the Dutch and the Chinese. Most historians would agree that if it had not been for the arrival of Spain, the Philippines would be a Muslim country. By the time of Spain's arrival, Islam and the rule of the Sultans were firmly in place in Mindanao and Sulu.

Spain came to the Philippines on 16 March 1521 with the express objective of colonization and Christianization. The Spaniards, however, were surprised to find people adhering to Islam - the religion of the Moors, their rulers and adversary for more than 800 years. In some sort of thought transference, they began to call these people Moros. After their success in colonizing and converting the natives to Christianity in Luzon and Visayas, they trained their guns on the Moros of Mindanao and Sulu.

For more than three hundred years[9], the Moros passionately defended their community, their freedom and their faith against Spain. The Moros, therefore, developed a distinct identity intensified by Islam and self-preservation, which was far different from the Christianized natives - the Indios. The Indios, on the other hand, adopted the Christian religion with greater zeal than the Spaniards. They were so devoted to it that they willingly accepted Spain's hegemony and became her slaves. They adopted Spain's laws, her systems, and the Spaniards' seething hatred of the Moros.

The gap, however, did not stop with the differences in history and culture. It was made worse by the fact that Spain used the Indios in their war against Moros. Spain also made sure that the Indios feared, disliked and hated the Moros with their frequent staging of Moro-Moro plays.[10] The Moros retaliated with raids on the coastal communities of the Indios. There was, thus, a Moro Problem for the Indios and a Christian Problem for the Moros. In the end, Spain left a 'heritage of suspicion, if not hatred'[11], between the Moros and the Christian Filipinos.

It was in this condition that America found the inhabitants of the Philippines on the first of May 1898. America, however, easily crushed the rebellion of the Christian Filipinos who willingly accepted their rule. They were defeated in battle and the leader of the Filipino resistance, Emilio Aguinaldo, surrendered to the Americans. The Americans easily assimilated the Christian Filipinos into their own system of government including their principle of separation of church and state. The principle of separation of church and state was not entirely foreign to the Christian Filipinos. It was the same principle they adopted in the Malolos Constitution.[12] It was not long before the Americans began to transfer the reins of government to the Christian Filipinos.

It was, however, a different matter for the Moros. America's policy toward the Moros started with appeasement. They forged a treaty [13] wherein America committed to respect the religion and political affairs of the Moros. Later, the treaty lost its significance and America officially abrogated it. It was clear that America had no intention of honoring the treaty and was resolute on colonizing the Moros.[14] The Moros, again, saw the need for defending their freedom and their way of life. When organized resistance under the Sultanate failed, individual Moros began to take up arms.

After establishing effective rule in the Moro areas, the Americans began to impose their laws. America began to implement major programs in the Muslim South which were entirely secular from the point of view of their ideology. For the Moros, these programs were far from secular; they were fundamental assaults on their Islamic faith. Thus, while the Christian Filipinos began to adapt and perfect American principles, the Moros were reinforcing Islamic principles.

The Muslim Filipinos have an intensely deep sense of Islamic identity. It is an identity characterized by an Islamic way of life. It is an identity that began in the ninth century and was profoundly nurtured by Spain and America's campaign of its extirpation. It is an identity that is ten centuries old that undertook a fundamental revival when the Moros again felt the threat of physical and religious extinction in the light of the Philippine governments' policies in the 1960's and 1970's.[15] Corollary to this revival of Islamic identity was the Islamic revivalism movement in the Muslim world. There has been a reawakening of the worldwide Islamic community or the Ummah that manifested itself in the Philippines in the form of the Organization of Islamic Conference's mediation of the armed conflict in Muslim Mindanao.

The threat of physical extinction, the assault on their Islamic identity, and the revival of renewed enthusiasm for an Islamic way of life has brought the Moro people to once again struggle for their self-preservation. In the past, the Sultanates led the organized resistance. Today, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are carrying the torch of the armed struggle. They may have ideological and ethnic differences, but in the end, they are all believers of Islam and united in its Ummah.

In fairness to the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), it must be acknowledged that it has tried to remedy the situation. As a vestige of colonialism, it saw the problem as a "Muslim problem" and its first remedy was the American formula of integration. It adopted the 1935 Constitution, without special provisions, concerning the Moros in the name of national unity and integrity. It continued the enactment of national laws without due regard to the Islamic beliefs of the Moros.[16] Worse, the land of the Moros was being given away to Christian settlers from Luzon and Visayas.

In the 1971 Constitutional Convention, the Moros voice was finally heard. The Muslim delegates' proposals ranged from a federal form of government to complete political autonomy. The Moro voice was, however, lost to the cacophony of the majority. The same objectionable provisions of the Constitution were again incorporated as part of the fundamental law of the land. In the year after, the Philippines experienced an armed rebellion never before equaled in magnitude.

The GRP was forced to the negotiating table by the progress of the Moro rebellion and the pressure from the Islamic countries, and had to work under the mediation of the Organization of Islamic Conference. This led to the Tripoli Agreement. The hope for peace was quickly dashed by the violations of the agreement by the Marcos administration. The Moros were again back on the warpath.

Working to fulfill the commitment of the martyred opposition leader Benigno Aquino to respect Moro self-determination, the administration of his wife, President Corazon Aquino, pursued a policy of peace with the Moro people, which the latter committed to the Moro leaders. The promising beginning was betrayed by government machinations to undercut the bilateral talks.[17] In the end, the government unilaterally imposed its solution by mandating the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in the 1987 Philippine Constitution. The constitution stated that this was in recognition of the "common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics" of the Muslims.[18] It mandated Congress to enact an Organic Act that "shall provide for special courts with personal, family, and property law jurisdiction and granted the autonomous region limited legislative power, both subject to the provisions of the Constitution and national laws."[19] Accordingly, the creation of such an autonomous region must be within the framework of the Constitution and the national sovereignty of the Philippines.

The preamble of the Organic Act provides that the people of ARMM "establish an Autonomous Regional Government that is truly reflective of their ideals and aspirations within the framework of the Constitution and national sovereignty."[20] The ARMM provisions are, in effect, the recognition of the Moros' right to self-determination.

In practice, however, the concept of autonomy appeared to be strict supervision and control by the Office of the President and the Philippine Congress. The budget of the ARMM is determined by the Philippine Congress and the elected Regional Governor is chosen by the President and subject to her supervision and control. The Philippine Supreme Court, composed mostly of Christian Filipino jurists with little or no knowledge of Islamic law, can set aside the decisions of the Sharia Courts. Thus, the ARMM has failed miserably in answering the Moros' aspiration for their political space in the Philippine nation.

With President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's strong advocacy for a charter change in the system of government, there is now a continuous and vigorous clamor for a change to a federal system of governance. The ultimate outcome will possibly be one where the federal states will have sufficient power and authority to determine their destiny, while still being part of the country. This will also allow the possibility for the Moros to be able to elect Muslim senators and to have sufficient influence to increase Moro participation in the national government.

The challenge of acceptance by the majority Christian Filipinos, however, remains. While these changes might allow the Moros to see themselves as part of the Philippine nation, it is crucial that the Christian Filipinos accept them as a Filipino. In a survey conducted last August 2004, 41 percent of Christian Filipinos have an unfavorable view of the Muslims.[21] More importantly, it is necessary to involve the Christian Filipinos who have settled in and found a home in traditional Muslim Mindanao. It is largely probable that they will not accept a federal state where they are under the dominance of the Moros after being in a position of independence from Moro interference while establishing their roots in Moro land. They moved to Moro lands upon the encouragement of the government who sold the area as the "Promised Land." While many of the settlers view the area as their own homeland, many Moros still see them as land-grabbers. By asking for their land back, the Bangsamoro People just want justice. For many Christian settlers, the land that they have taken is already theirs and they believe that it is an injustice for them to give back those lands to the Moros.

Therein lies the challenge for the future of the ARMM, the Bangsamoro People and the Republic of the Philippines. The ARMM has not provided the Moros with their own space in the Philippine nation and the move for charter change will provide an opportunity for finding a place for the Bangsamoro people in the Philippine nation. Otherwise, the remaining alternative for the Bangsamoro people is independence. When that time comes, it is likely that majority will opt for an independent state.

Indeed, it is unfortunate that the Philippine nation that began in 1934 recklessly denied the separate nationhood of the Bangsamoro people: they disregarded their culture, degraded their traditions, and consigned away their proud and distinctive history. Somehow, the Philippine government saw the Moros as a people that must be subdued and conquered, forgetting what a nation is supposed to be. As defined by a respected jurist, "a nation is built when the communities that comprise it make commitments to it, when they forego choices and opportunities on behalf of that nation?when the communities that comprise it make compromises, when they offer each other guarantees?[and] when they receive from others the benefits of national solidarity."[22]

The Philippine nation's political and cultural legitimacy must be rooted on the informed and manifest consent of the governed. If it is to survive, the Philippines must accept the Bangsamoro people as one of their own. While they are Moros, they can also be Filipinos at the same time.

Journey for Peace

I am now wiser and more aware of the difficult tasks involved in peacebuilding. In working for peacebuilding, it was important for me to become a lawyer, so that I had the capacity to navigate the legal and political structures, and have the respected credentials to be worthy of attention. Certainly, it helped in my election as a Provincial legislator in the Province of Sulu.

Visiting various communities in the province, I saw how the people were tired of the fighting and only looking forward to havinge better lives. Mostly, they want a government committed to the people: delivering basic services, better governance and stopping military abuses. As I navigated my way with the Philippine government, working with high-ranking military and civilian officials, the issues were not as clear-cut as they would appear. For every possible resolution, there were many complications.

While resolutions were not adopted, relationships were made. Many of the military officers I have worked with were decent and righteous individuals, loyal to defending the country and the Philippine constitution. Some have become close friends and confidants. While keeping their fidelity to their oaths, they have learned to listen. It helped that they saw me as an equal who can speak their language. I can fairly say that the relationships have resulted in incremental changes in their world-view of the Moros, the conflict and their role. They many not be able to effect a turn around of Philippine government policy, but they can make it more responsive and humane. Truly, "the key for peacebuilding is to remember that change, if it is to be sparked and then sustained, must link and bring into relationship sets of people, processes, and activities that are not like-situated nor of similar persuasion."[23]

On a larger platform, I helped Moro friends and colleagues come together and build the Young Moro Professionals Network (YMPN). As such, we give an alternative national voice to the conflict and emphasize peaceful resolutions rather than violence. Most fellow members have suffered in the conflict. Our Chair, with pain and trepidation, recounted how the Ilagas[24], a Christian vigilante group, at the height of the war in early 1970s butchered her mother. Instead of being bitter, she has resolved to be a peacebuilder and work with the government. While not forgetting her loss and the injustices to the Moro people, she has moved forward to work for peace.

People like her and other friends working for the government and the Philippine military have provided constant inspiration to work for a better and peaceful future. As I continue to work for peace, I see that I am part of larger whole and success can only happen in the sets of relationships that I must continuously build in order to have the collective healing[25] necessary for the Bangsamoro People and the Filipino People to restore their common narrative and live in one united and free community.

[1]"This circle of recent events lift out the most visible expressions of the political, military, social or economic conflicts. It is rarely a timeframe that goes beyond months or a year or two." See John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.142.

[2]"The idea of lived history tries to capture a more expansive view of time, which will vary from younger to older people. This is a history that I have seen, touched, and tasted. A local or national community has within it multiple ranges of lived history. It can run from one to about eight, maybe nine, decades." See Ibid.

[3]The famous American writer Mark Twain wrote about the massacre: "A tribe of Moros, dark skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater not many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostile, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them? General Wood's order had been to 'kill or capture those savages'?The enemy numbered six hundred - including women and children - and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for his dead mother." See Mark Twain, A Pen Warmed-up in Hell: Mark Twain in Protest ed. Frederick Anderson (New York: Perennial Library, 1930), p.97.

[4]For the Bud Dajo Massacre see Andrew Bacevich, "What Happened in Bud Dajo," The Boston Globe. March 12, 2006. For the Bud Bagsak Massacre see Charles Byler, "Pacifying the Moros: American Military Government, 1899-1913," Military Review. May-June 2005.

[5]In March 1968, newspaper headlines screamed of a massacre by Philippine army men of between 28 to 64 Moro youths who were part of 180 alleged trainees of the Jabidah Forces. The trainees were supposedly part of a secret Marcos scheme to split Islamic ranks, provoke a war between Sulu and Sabah, and then invade and reclaim Sabah. The lone survivor of the killing explained that the trainees were shot because, after they refused to attack Sabah, the army feared a leakage of the plan.

[6] "This is history kept alive by what is remembered from a group's topographic map of time. Applied to a protracted conflict, there exists a kind of landscape of social memory that is kept alive. In the group's view of its history, certain events stand out, that is, they rise to a level of heightened recognition. These events shape and form the collective identity. These points in history are often the moments when the story of who people are, their self-understanding, was transformed in unexpected ways, disrupted, or even destroyed." See John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.142.

[7]"The deepest history, all the way to time immemorial, is the "narrative." Narrative creates the formative story of who we are as a people and a place. These are the understandings of how people come to see their place on this earth, in a figurative sense and their place is tied to a specific geography, in an literal sense." See John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.142-143.

[8]Peter G. Gowing, "The Crescent in the East," in The Muslim Filipino Minority, ed. Rafael Israeli, (London:Cuizon Press, 1982).

[9]Historians of Moro history are divided on when to reckon the start of the Moro-Spanish War. Some cite April 27, 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan and his Spanish forces fought with Lapu-Lapu in Mactan Island. Lapu-Lapu was a soldier of the Sultan of Sulu sent to the area to support some of their allies.

[10]"The Church also saw to it that the ordinary faithful share (the) low, despicable view of the Moro-Moro plays which became an integral part of all folk and religious festivals, the Filipino Christians were taught how vile the Moros were. The plays centered on one theme: the fight between good (the Christians) and evil (the Muslims), leading always to the same shattering climax-the victory of the Christians against the Moros and their faith. There was nothing so wicked or treacherous that was not tried by the Moros; nothing so good and noble that was not done by the Christians." See Fr. Pedro Salgado O.P., "The Rise of Mindanao - Sulu," 1 Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipino Research Series 12 (Third Quarter, 1981).

[11]A talk prepared by Cesar Adib Majul for the Cultural Center, Spanish Embassy on August 16, 1975.

[12]In January 1899, the Filipino nationalists promulgated the Malolos Constitution of the Philippine Republic under General Emilio Aguinaldo and adopted the principle of separation of church and state. It was the subject of an intense and spirited debate, and it was decided by one vote after a tie results twice. The original section made the Roman Catholic religion the official religion of the State, allowing non-Catholics, however, the freedom to practice their own religion. See Cesar Adib Majul, The Political and Constitutional Ideas of the Philippine Revolution (Manila: University of the Philippines,1996), p.159.

[13]See Peter G. Gowing, Mandate in Moroland: The American Government of Muslim Filipinos, 1899-1920 (Manila: Cellar Book Shop, 1977), pp. 31 - 35. This agreement, known as the Bates Treaty, was duly signed and approved by President William McKinley on 27 October 1899.

[14] See Peter G. Gowing, Mandate in Moroland: The American Government of Muslim Filipinos, 1899-1920 (Manila: Cellar Book Shop, 1977), pp. 77 - 78. No sooner did the agreement take effect than it began to lose its relevance. Before the year 1899 was out, sporadic clashes broke out between Americans and local chiefs. By the middle of 1900 the treaty was all but dead. In 2 March 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt officially abrogated it.

[15]Violence between the Christian settlers and the Moros started to occur. Christian vigilante groups, particularly the Ilaga, with the support of the Philippine military, started to commit massacres of Muslims and the burnings of their homes and mosques.

[16]As an example, before the enactment of Presidential Decree 1083, the Muslim Code of Personal Laws, in February 4, 1977, the marriages of Moros officiated by the Imam were not considered valid under Philippine law making the status of their children illegitimate.

[17]According to Atty. Soliman Santos, the Aquino administration adopted a policy to de-internationalize the MNLF, avoid reference to the Tripoli Agreement and OIC mediation, and discourage negotiations in order to bide time for processes related to the 1987 Constitution, particularly the enactment of the Organic Act for ARMM. With the collapse of the negotiations, the administration shifted to a new peace strategy called the 'multilateral consensus-building approach.'

[18]1987 Philippine Constitution, Article 10, Section 5.

[19]1987 Philippine Constitution, Article 10, Section 20.

[20]Republic Act 6734, Organic Act for the ARMM, Preamble (1989).

[21]The Manila Times. In a separate survey, the Philippine Human Development Report 2005 (58), stated: "It thus appears that a considerable percentage of Filipinos (33% to 39% based on Indices 4 and 5) are biased against Muslims notwithstanding the fact that only about 14% of them have had direct dealings with Muslims." See Philippine Human Development Report 2005. 2nd ed. Philippines: Human Development Network (HDN), 2005.

[22]The Attorney General of Saskatchewan, addressing the Canadian Supreme Court while it considered the question of Quebec's secession, 1996.

[23]John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 86.

[24]"The Ilaga, the most notorious among the Christian vigilante groups, was reported to have been organized by seven local Christian politicians ("Magnificient Seven") and supported by influential Christian capitalists and logging magnates? Ilaga atrocities included the massacre of 70 Muslims and the wounding of 17 others inside a mosque and a nearby barrio of Manili in Carmen, North Cotabato, on June 19, 1971. There were several more incidents like the Manili massacre but the government's failure to stop these led many Muslims (including some government officials) to believe that the military was involved." See Philippine Human Development Report 2005. 2nd ed. Philippines: Human Development Network (HDN), 2005, p.69.

[25]"These practices (accessibility, reconnecting people in actual relationships, and local responsibility) assume that the capacity of people to heal and "restory" their identities and relationships requires more than the rule of law expressed as a remote bureaucratic concern. Healing requires proximity that touches the web of community life, which includes both the recent events and the lived histories of a community. The locus of the initiative is therefore placed in the context of actual relationships and community." See John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.145.

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