Autonomy and Insurgency in the Southern Philippines

Last Friday’s post on the Maguindanao Massacre in the southern Philippines linked the event to a combination of Philippine electoral politics and privatized military forces. Deeper roots are found in centuries-old imperial conflicts and religious rivalries. Islam was spreading northward through the Philippines when the Spaniards arrived in the late 1500s. Although the Spanish colonial regime successfully introduced Christianity to the northern and central islands, Islam remained entrenched in the southwest. Despite Spanish claims to the entire archipelago, the Muslim sultanates of Mindanao and the Sulu islands resisted colonial power. Spain maintained strongholds, such as Zamboanga on the southwestern tip of Mindanao, but never effectively ruled most of the region. As can be seen on the map above, Islam and animism dominated the southern Philippines in 1890, with Christianity largely limited to the northern and eastern coastal zones of Mindanao.

When the United States gained control over the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century, it too had great difficulties subduing the south. But by 1913, Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago were effectively under American rule. This set the stage for the southward migration of Christian Filipinos. With Philippine independence in 1946, the migration stream intensified. As the second map above shows, the dominant language across most of Mindanao is now Cebuano, originally from the island of Cebu in the central archipelago. As Christians moved into formerly Muslim or animist areas, ethnic tensions heightened. Entrenched poverty in the Muslim-majority areas contributed to anti-government sentiments. By the late 1960s, the southwestern Philippines was again in open rebellion, now under the leadership of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Peace initiatives between the Philippine government and the MNLF began in the late 1970s. For years, both sides offered limited concessions, but a settlement remained elusive. In 1981, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) split from the MNLF, objecting to its compromising approach. Peace between the government and the MNLF finally came in 1986, with the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM; see map above). The more intransigent MILF rejected the deal as offering too little territory and inadequate autonomy. As can be seen on the map, key areas in the historically Islamic southwestern Philippines are excluded from the region, including the city of Cotabato, ARMM’s ostensible capital. But effective local autonomy is still strong enough that the central government has to work with armed local allies, thereby empowering such clans as the Ampatuans (see last Friday’s post).

Relations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have showed some recent signs of improvement. Talks about having talks are now underway. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on February 19, 2010, the MILF is willing to negotiate as long as any agreements made with the current administration remain binding on future Philippine governments. It also demands more extensive powers for the autonomous regional government, calling for the creation of a “sub-state within the Philippine state.” If this were to happen, the Philippines would become a federal country, which in turn would probably require an amendment to its constitution.

Even if a comprehensive deal can to be reached with the MILF, the insurgency in the southern Philippines will probably not end. The most violent and radical Islamist group in the region is Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked organization that shows no indication of wanting to make a deal. Although recent reports emphasize the military losses that it has recently suffered, Abu Sayyaf retains the capacity for violence. On February 27, 2010, its militants attacked the village of Tubigan on the island of Basilan, killing 11 people. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, “The attack on Tubigan came barely nine hours after authorities rescued the two Chinese nationals that [the] group had abducted in November, along with a local. The local, Marquez Singson, had been beheaded.”

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