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Moro is the name by which Filipino Muslim ethno-linguistic groups are usually known. While the 2010 Census estimated that approximately 5.6 percent of the population were Muslim, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos estimated in 2012 the actual figure to be around 11 per cent of the population.  The majority of Muslims live in the southern island of Mindanao as well as Palawan and the Sulu archipelago.  Many self-identify as Bangsamoro or Moro Muslims, whose traditional territory is in Mindanao.

The main Moro ethno-linguistic groups are Maguindanao, Marano, Tausug, Samal, Bajau, Yakan, Ilanon, Sangir, Melabugnan and Jama Mapun. However, three of these groups – the Maguindanaos of North Cotabato, Kudarat and Maguindanos provinces, the Maranos of the two Lanao provinces, and the Tausug from Jolo – make up the great majority of Moros. These languages, just like Tagalog and most of the other languages spoken by Christian Filipinos, belong to the Malayo-Polynesian language branch of the Austronesian language family. Most are Sunni Muslims, though with some animist practices in the case of certain Moro minorities living in higher zones.

Despite these linguistic and religious differentiations from the Christian majority, Moros have not traditionally been united, and the various groups, which are divided by degrees of Islamic orthodoxy as well as by linguistic difference, are often hostile to each other. Yet Moros have shared a common hostility to the central authorities – Spaniards, Americans and then, after independence, Christianized Filipinos from Luzon.

In the Mindanao region, decades of fighting between the government and Moro-Muslim separatist groups have resulted in mass displacements affecting mostly Muslim communities.

Historical context

The Islamic religion came to the southern Philippine islands some 200 years before the European colonial period. Moros developed a centralized religious, social and political system based on the Qur’an. Several sultanates emerged, similar to historical sultanates that developed in what are now Indonesia and Malaysia, with the sultans being both religious and secular leaders. These sultanates were de facto states, exercising jurisdiction over Muslim and non-Muslim alike. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Muslim principalities had the most administratively complex communities in the Philippines. The sultanates established on Sulu and Mindanao were the furthermost extension into Asia of the Islamic religion, and it is possible to see the Moro conflict as a 400-year struggle between Islam and Christianity, with neither side being able entirely to subdue the other. The sultanates resisted and fought Spanish authority for 300 years. After the Americans replaced the Spaniards, Moros fought the United States from 1903 to 1935, losing an estimated 20,000 lives. Since independence, Moros have sporadically waged political and armed struggle against the Philippine government based in Manila.

A long-term historical trend has been the displacement and dispossession of Moros from traditionally Moro territory. In the nineteenth century, the Spanish gained a foothold on Mindanao through missionary efforts among the non-Muslim elements of the population and private military expeditions. Displacement and dispossession accelerated in the early 1900s as the American colonial authorities initiated policies to import homesteaders from the northern islands. The development of large-scale plantation agriculture for commercial export provided a further incentive for immigration. Policies of resettlement accelerated after the Second World War and independence, when, in response to the Huk rebellion in Luzon, tens of thousands were encouraged to migrate to farms and homesteads in Mindanao. Lowland, formerly northern Catholic Filipinos came to outnumber Moros, which led to land disputes, Christian vigilantism, and a cultural and religious reaction.

It is through these official government policies that the Moros not only came to lose most of their traditional land but were also to become minorities. From about 76 per cent in 1903, the Moros only constituted 19 per cent of the population of Mindanao by 1990. Not only did the government take away the land from the Moros to give to Catholic Filipinos, it also banned the use of their languages in education and gave most employment and political positions to non-Muslims.

In 1968, the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) was launched by radical Islamic leaders calling for independence from the Philippines and the creation of a Bangsa Moro, or Moro nation. This, and local ‘Christian’ countermeasures, led to full-scale revolt. The years 1969 to 1972, prior to martial law, were a period of indiscriminate violence between Muslims and Christians. In September 1972, then President Ferdinand Marcos cited the bloodshed and chaos in Mindanao, along with the communist New People’s Army insurgency in Luzon, as reasons for the imposition of martial law.

The result was a full-scale guerrilla war as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) supplanted the MIM, and proclaimed Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan as Bangsa Moro. Radical Arab states such as Libya began to provide financial aid and Sabah (in eastern Malaysia) became a sanctuary for MNLF fighters. Fighting continued throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, causing large-scale disruption and displacement. Through the intervention of the Organization of Islamic Conference, the MNLF and Manila held negotiations in the late 1970s and 1980s, although there was still fighting on the ground. A plebiscite following the passage of the 1987 Constitution paved the way for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1989 comprising four Muslim provinces in Mindanao (Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi).

In the early 1990s, the MNLF split. The old faction accepted that independence was politically unviable and that the autonomous region was the best available option. The group’s second-in-command, Salamat Hashim, went on to found the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – which translates as ‘Bearer of the Sword’ – was formed in 1990-91 by MNLF members angered by its leaders’ perceived moves towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Along with its desire to create an independent Islamic nation in the Philippines, the group also had broader visions of a pan-Islamic super-state in south-east Asia and was accused by the US and Philippines governments of having links with the radical regional militant network Jemaah Islamiah.

Under a peace deal signed in 1996 with the MNLF, the central government in Manila gave the Moros autonomy in the south, where the majority of them live. However, the ceasefire collapsed in 2001, when MNLF guerrillas loyal to the governor of the Autonomous Region attacked an army base in Jolo, Sulu, killing 100 people and wounding scores.

Peace negotiations between the MILF and the government got under way in 1997, and a ceasefire was agreed. However, the truce broke down in 2000 and subsequent attempts at reconciliation between the two sides repeatedly stalled. A significant breakthrough occurred in 2016, however, when the two sides agreed on a peace roadmap.

Current issues

Conflict between the government and security forces and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and other armed Muslim non-state groups have resulted in massive displacements for Mindanao Muslims.  Many have also fled due to clan feuds (‘rido’) between Moro clans, political rivalries and land disputes.  As of November 2018, there was an estimated 80,439 displaced persons due to conflict in areas of Mindanao. After being displaced into IDP camps, there are very few livelihood options. Besides being vulnerable to trafficking, Muslim women migrate to Cotabato City or General Santos City, often becoming underpaid domestic workers.

More than 100,000 people, many from the country’s Muslim minority, were uprooted following the siege of Zamboanga in 2013. Thousands were subjected to arbitrary relocation, with others reportedly receiving inadequate aid and food supplies. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), most of the people who remain displaced are urban poor who lack formal landownership or tenancy rights in their area of origin. The repatriation process has been further hindered by concerns about certain areas deemed unsuitable for returns due to risks of flooding or renewed violence. The IDMC has called on the government to prioritize housing rights for displaced communities as part of the resettlement process. Congress is currently reviewing new legislation on the rights of IDPs, seen as a crucial step towards protecting vulnerable minorities and indigenous people in the Philippines. The law is a revised version of a historic 2013 bill that was controversially vetoed by former President Benigno Aquino. A Bill of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons Act was presented to Congress in 2017 and is pending approval.

At the start of 2016, the finalisation of the peace negotiations with rebels was at a crucial junction: the Basic Bangsamoro Law (BBL) needed to be passed before Congress was adjourned 3 February 2016, ahead of the elections.  The BBL was the final implementing legislation, resulting from years of peace negotiations, that would create an autonomous region of Bangsamoro in Mindanao to replace the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.  Although Aquino failed to see the BBL passed, in July 2016 the new government announced its approval of a comprehensive peace roadmap as proposed by the presidential peace advisor Jesus Dureza.  It specifically mandated that a new BBL would be drafted. Further negotiations were held in mid-August 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, leading to the expansion of the Bangsamoro Transition Council (BTC), a body that would be tasked with redrafting the BBL, consisting of 21 members – 11 from MILF and 10 from the government.  The government expressed its hope that the expanded BTC could make the process of drafting the implementing legislation more inclusive by including representatives from the MNLF, another armed faction, as well as affected indigenous communities.

Some positive steps towards peace have been signalled by Duterte’s signing in July 2018 of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, paving the way for a plebiscite in January 2019 on whether what is currently the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) would be dissolved and in its place a larger Muslim autonomous region, Bangsamoro, would be established in its place.

The Bangsamoro plebiscite went ahead in two phases in January and February 2019. In the first phase, the results were overwhelmingly in favour of five of six southern Mindanao provinces and cities to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The results of the second phase were less clear, with barangays (administrative wards) in North Cotabato province voting in favour whilst inhabitants of six towns in Lanao del Norte province voted against joining the new region. Meanwhile, an 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) was named, with MILF appointing 41 members and the government naming 39 members. The BTA will act as an interim 3-year parliament, headed by MILF chairperson Ebrahim el Haj Murad, pending elections in BARMM.

It is hoped that these measures will help bring an end to the longstanding conflict in the south. The way forward is unclear, however, as MILF has three training camps in Lanao del Norte which in principle will fall outside the BARMM. Decommissioning and reintegration of MILF fighters is another important issue. Also, the region must now contend with the threat of ISIS-associated militant groups such as Maute and Abu Sayyaf, both of whom were involved in the bloody occupation of Marawi between May and October 2017 that saw more than 1,000 people killed and much of the city destroyed. Many of these extremist groups continue to operate outside the peace process.

None of the Filipino government’s policies or the powers attributed to the ARMM have had an effect on the loss of land of the Muslim Moros: a process which has been going on for decades. Members of this minority have already lost land, because of government legislation and policies such as the extinguishment of their traditional land rights and the government-sponsored resettlement of mainly Christian Filipinos on the land they previously owned. Land redistribution programmes, such as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which in theory might have returned Moro land to members of the Muslim minority, appear to have mainly benefited Christian settlers.

The rights of the Moro minority are still not being completely respected in a number of areas despite the benefits which they are beginning to receive from the autonomy arrangements of 1997. State schools do not use their main languages as medium of instruction to any significant extent (despite positive efforts such as the 2004 Basic Education Assistance for Mindanao to improve basic education in Southern and Central Mindanao and the introduction of teaching of Arabic), nor do most of the civil service and governmental positions require fluency in one of these languages, though they do demand fluency in Filipino. Given the very large numbers of non-native Filipino-speakers and their concentration in parts of Mindanao, this language policy continues to create a very real obstacle to the full participation of the Moro Muslims in the country’s public and political life, and they remain vastly under-represented in categories of educational attainment and in employment levels in almost all categories of civil service employment and political representation. This in turn perpetuates the perception of the Moros as a disadvantaged group unable to compete against Christian Filipinos.


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