The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippines Government say they are on the path to signing a final peace deal this year. This put would an end to nearly three decades of fighting.
Both sides say they are close to reaching an agreement on what the Muslims call ‘ancestral domain’; land that historically belongs to them on the Island of Mindanao.
However, observers are warning that if an agreement can be reached, it will be very difficult to implement. There are many potential spoilers, the presence of pro-government civilian militias, long running clan wars and the large population of Christian settlers.
In the first of a four part series, Rebecca Henschke takes a look at the root causes of South-East Asia’s longest running civil war in Mindanao.
Wooden houses on stilts sit crowded together on the edge of the sea. There are no toilets here and limited running water. This is the Muslim area of what is now the majority Christian town of Zamboagna.
“The Bangsamoro Muslims are very poor; most of the Muslims are uneducated and are ignorant because of poverty.
Marueen sits on the floor of her Islamic school. She is just about to give birth to her first baby and teaches Arabic and religion here.
“I think this is important that Muslims are very strong to protect the Bangsamoro because some Americans want to conquer us.
The decade long conflict here does date back to American colonization of this fertile island. When the Republic of the Philippines was created in 1946, the majority Moro Muslims on the island of Mindanao demanded not to be included in the new State.
This request was ignored, explains Dr Abbas Candao, Chairman of the Bangsamoro Development agency.
“A lot of things have happened that have brought misery to our people. It started with the illegal annexation of the Moro homeland to what they call the Philippines without the consent of the people. The colonial policies have continually kept the Bangsamoro economically low, getting all these people from Luzon and Visayas to occupy our land.
Muslim Moros and the indigenous Lumads used to control the entire island but a government migration program, that peaked under the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, moved millions of Christians here.
The Government granted land rights to the newly arrived Christians. Today Muslims make up 18 percent of the population and 80 percent are landless.
“All Muslims leave the Philippines and go to Saudi Arabia. Father Lyson, a Catholic priest, reads the graffiti in a photo taken during the height of the conflict in 2000. “This is actually a misinterpretation of history. Whoever wrote this certainly doesn’t know the true history of Mindanao.
It’s something Father Lyson is trying to change in his Christian parish in Pikit, North Cotabato.
“Until now it’s not part of the text books. But we have done research and this is the way we teach people here. So when they see this they say we did not know that, now we know why they are fighting. The text books say the Moro’s are the problem, they are causing lots of problems, without explaining why they are fighting. “
It was the Moro National Liberation front that first began the armed struggle for land rights in 1972. Three decades of bloody violence followed that killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. It was not until 1992 that a comprehensive peace deal was signed based on autonomy for the Moro people.
It led to the creation of the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao or the ARMM. It was meant to bring about development and self-determination for the Muslim people. However, all parties agree it has failed dismally.
Moro leaders say they were tricked and Manila has broken its promises. In Baslian, Maya Ali, the head of the local technology and development office, argues that autonomy is a joke.
“Because we are still attached to the national government including our budget, our national resources. People in ARMM do not manage their own funds, we are still waiting for hand outs from the central government. I see no autonomy.
However, independent observers say the Moro leadership must shoulder much of the blame. The ARMM administration is plagued by poor governance and widespread corruption. Dissatisfaction with both parties, led to the creation of the more radical, Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The MILF is demanding a more dramatic autonomy. They want more than 1,000 villages on the main land of Mindanao to be included in a new Bangsamoro Judiciary Entity.
Eid Kabala is the spokesperson for the MILF.
“We will have the authority to exploit our national resources. That is very, very important. The military must also leave. They should confine themselves outside the new Bangsamoro state. We will not be asking for any integration with the police force or the military; we will be creating our own security forces.
Dr Abbas adds that they would also introduce a form of Sharia or Islamic law.
“As long as this rotten system is above us it is very difficult to make things work. The Christians have nothing to fear, as long as it’s Sharia, truly Islamic, law, then they have nothing to fear.
But alarm bells are already going off in some Christian communities and the Military says there is no way they would leave the area. Father Lyson fears that if not done properly, handing these kinds of rights to Muslim leaders could create more violence.
“In every solution there is always the seed of a new problem. To me especially with the historical divisions in the community, even if there is this peace agreement it is no guarantee that there will be peace. As long as there is this unseen war going on in the hearts of the people. There are strong biases, prejudices, lack of trust and discrimination. We have to fight all this in the market place, in schools, in the offices. This is an entirely different kind of struggle.
The reality today is that Mindanao is a multi-faith community, with a majority Christian population. In the next part of this special Mindanao series we will examine efforts by civil society groups to address what Father Lyson calls the hidden war that is taking place in the hearts of the community, the division between Christians and Muslims.