Civil War: Philippines (1972-1996)

Rodelio Cruz Manacsa & Alexander Tan. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


States in plural societies have the arduous tasks of maintaining internal order and defending the integrity of its borders. To survive, they must find effective ways to reconcile interests, regulate domestic behavior, and eliminate external threats. However, interests and capabilities change over time. Ethnic communities may come to believe that their interests are best served by having their own state (Brown 1994; Stavenhagen 1996).

Individuals and organizations can articulate that ethnic yearning and give it shape. In the process, history is given a new frame. Symbols are created, and heroes celebrated. However, identities are not pliable entities. They must find some deep resonance within the community (Azar 1986). It is in this context that we study the struggle of the Bangsa Moro in the Philippines.

Country Background

The Philippines is an archipelago of approximately 7,107 islands situated in the Southeast Asian region. About 21.3 percent of the country is mountainous terrain. The topographical fragmentation of the Philippines makes national governance and security very problematic; the vast maritime border makes barring illegal entries difficult, and the forested mountains provide hiding places for rebels and lawbreakers. As of July 2006, the country had approximately 89 million inhabitants (CIA 2006). The majority are Christians (91.5 percent), and 4 percent of the population are Muslims, who live mostly on the island of Mindanao. The political and administrative center is Manila.

Upon receiving political independence in 1945, the Philippines had been a democratic polity, except for the years 1972-1986, when it was interrupted by Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorial rule (Lande 1996; Wurfel 1988). Marcos was deposed in 1986 by the People Power Revolution, led by Corazon Aquino and Jaime Cardinal Sin. The Philippines has since reconstituted its democratic institutions.

Conflict Background

The history of the Philippines is laden with violent challenges to the administration of the central government based in Manila. Right after World War II, deteriorating conditions in the countryside led to peasant uprisings, the most serious of which was headed by former guerrillas who fought the Japanese during the war, the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (Huks). It was largely a localized revolt brought about by the oppressive conditions in the countryside (Kerkvliet 1977). The uprising was effectively contained in Central Luzon, and it was decisively beaten in 1954. Casualties from the revolt were estimated at around 9,000 people (Fearon 2004). Out of its ashes came the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP), which eventually chose the aboveground, electoral way as its mode of struggle (Saulo 1990). Nevertheless, the deleterious condition of the peasantry was fertile ground for a new challenge to the state. In 1968, a professor from the University of the Philippines, Jose Maria Sison, and some other young activists “reestablished” the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). They contended that the “old guard” (the PKP) had strayed from the Communist way by choosing to participate in the “farce” called elections (Chapman 1987; Jones 1989). The objective of the CPP was the seizure of the state through armed struggle. They believed that the best way to attain their goal was to follow the Maoist strategy of a protracted people’s war: encircling the cities from bases in the countryside, and then seizing the cities and the administrative center when the time was ripe (Guerrero 1979; Weekley 2001). In 1969, Sison met Bernabe Buscayno, a Huk leader, and the party’s military arm, the New People’s Army (NPA), was formed.

The CPP-NPA was committed to an armed struggle intended to establish an alternative polity in the Philippines based on Maoist-Leninist ideology. Its greatest support was in the early 1980s, when it had an estimated 18,000-23,000 armed supporters (Dolan 2003). However, its leaders made the tactical mistake of boycotting the 1986 presidential elections, which marginalized the party, depriving it of any meaningful role in the postauthoritarian transition (Rocamora 1996). The removal of Marcos also deprived the party of a clear target to oppose. In the 1990s, support for the party declined in consonance with the gradual erosion of support for communism worldwide (Weekley 2001). Support for the insurgency was also weakened by the growing disenchantment with leaders who lived comfortably abroad while their cadres suffered on the field. There was also bitter infighting within the party over the continued viability of the Maoist strategy (Abinales 1996; Rocamora 1996). Casualties from both sides stand at around 40,000 (Fearon 2004). The insurgency is still ongoing, though conflict intensity lessened considerably in the 1990s.

Finally, the Philippine state has also confronted challenges to its internal sovereignty on the island of Mindanao. In 1968, Nur Misuari, Salamat Hashim, and other young Muslim intellectuals secretly established the Moro National Liberation Front-Bangsa Moro Army (MNLF-BMA) with the objective of establishing a separate state in Mindanao (Chalk 2002). This was in reaction to two events: the Jabidah massacre of 1968 and the declaration of martial law on September 21, 1972. It was primarily an ethnic uprising to assert Moro historical rights to their “homeland,” as well as to reverse Moro marginalization in political affairs and economic development.

The MNLF came into the open in 1972 with a series of offensives against the Philippine military. It had an estimated 6,000 armed supporters at that time (Political Instability Task Force 2006) confronting the national armed forces, which was 55,000 strong in 1972. The “struggle of the Bangsa Moro people” has been the Philippines’ most violent conflict, with casualty estimates ranginge from 75,000 (Fearon 2004) to 120,000 (Gutierrez 2000b). It is this particular internal conflict that is the subject of extensive analysis in this article.

The Insurgents

To get a full picture of the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) as rebel organizations, it is imperative to understand the different ethnic communities in Mindanao and how the Moro nation came to be imagined. In early Philippine history, the primary instruments of group identification were language and blood relations (Patanne 1996; Scott 1994). The introduction of the Islamic and Christian faiths to the islands provided another mechanism for distinguishing among the various communities in the south. Currently, there are four major Muslim ethnic groups in Mindanao: the Tausugs, the Sama, the Maguindanaos, and the Maranaos (Abbahil 1984).

Sources: Fearon 2004; Gutierrez 2000b; Polity IV Project (n.d.); Freedom House 2006; Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002; U.S. Committee for Refugees 2004.
War: Bangsa Moro vs. Government of the Republic of the Philippines
Dates: November 1972-September 1996
Casualties: 75,000-120,000
Regime type prior to war: -9 (Polity IV data; ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy]) 6 (Freedom House)
Regime type after war: 8 (Polity IV data; ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy]), 2 (Freedom House)
GDP per capita year war began: US $2,544.5 (PPP, constant 1996 prices)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $3,122.9 (PPP, constant 1996 prices
Insurgents: Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
Issue: Struggle for a separate state for Moros
Rebel Funding: Local support, funding from Arab states (e.g., Libya, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia) and groups such as al-Qaeda
Role of geography: Rebels build camps in deeply forested and mountainous terrain.
Role of resources: Mindanao is the last undeveloped region in the Philippines.
Immediate outcome: GRP and MNLF signed peace agreement on September 2, 1996.
Outcome after 5 years: MNLF resumed armed struggle against GRP in November 2001. Misuari was arrested in Malaysia and turned over to the Philippines in 2002. New leadership abided by agreement. MILF-GRP hostilities are ongoing.
Role of UN: Minimal
Role of regional organization: Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) facilitated talks and negotiations.
Refugees: 200,000
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in the Philippines

The Tausugs mostly reside in the Sulu archipelago, in the provinces of Sulu, Bastian, Tawi Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Palawan, Zamboanga del Norte, and Davao. The name Tausug can be roughly translated as “People of the Current.” A substantial number also reside in Sabah, where they answer to the name Orang Suluk.

The Sama reside in certain localities in the Zamboanga peninsula, although they consider the Sulu archipelago their home. Initially, students of Philippine cultural history referred to them as Samáis, a name that is now considered repugnant by the Sama. This is because the word Samal means “dirty” in Tausug and was derisively employed by the Tausugs to distinguish themselves from the Sama (Horvatich 1993; Stone 1974). The majority of those who pledge allegiance to the cause of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are Tausugs and Sama. Nur Misuari, the best-known leader of the MNLF, is a Tausug. The Maguindanaos live primarily in the Cotabato region. They can be found residing in substantial numbers in four provinces: Maguindanao, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat.

Finally, the Maranos populate the area of North Central Mindanao, near Lake Lanao (the name Maranao means “People of the Lake”). Most of the members of the MILF, which split off from the MNLF in 1984 under the leadership of Salamat Hashim, were Maguindanaos and Maranaos (Vitug and Gloria 2000). Hashim is a Maguindanao.

These four ethnic communities are fragmented by their different traditions. Any organization seeking to mobilize these communities for collective action must develop a powerful rationale that can overcome the inherent tensions extant among them. The founders of the MNLF found such a rationale in the common history of the Muslim communities: a long narrative of suffering and destitution under the colonial and postcolonial regimes based in Manila, involving the coercive expropriation of Moro lands and political marginalization in the formulation of state policy. These grievances were harnessed by the MNLF as the cognitive and emotive underpinnings of Muslim solidarity. The leader of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, framed the cause for a Bangsa Moro (Moro Nation) as a nationalist struggle against the “gobirno a sarwang tao” (foreign government) based in Manila (Kamlian 1995).

The MNLF ideology was founded on two key concepts: gaosbaugbug and kaadilan. The first term is a compound of two words: gaos, meaning “ability,” and baugbug, which can be translated as “commitment.” Thus, the MNLF rebel is someone who has the capacity to commit. Commit to what? To kaadilan, a utopic vision that is the complete opposite of what the Moro experience in their present state. In kaadilan, they shall recover their land, shall be politically influential, and shall be prosperous. That will be the state of affairs in the Moro’s bangsa, or “homeland” (Tan 1993, 38-40).

However, a basic ideological difference emerged between the MNLF and the MILF as to the nature of the rebellion. The content of the ethnonational discourse of the MNLF was primarily cultural-historical and not religious. Although there was an attempt to deploy Islamic concepts such as jihad and ummah, the separatist project of the MNLF sought to gain adherents by promising the recovery of the Moros’ ancient homelands (Macansantos 1996).

Although the MNLF considered the fight for the Bangsa Moro a nationalist project, the MILF, led by Hashim, came to consider the armed conflict as essentially a religious struggle (Kamlian 1995; Lingga 1995). “If the Moros fought for anything related to their perceived racial distinctness, it was peripheral; the main point always was religion” (Jubair 1999, 15). The various communities indeed shared a collective historical suffering, but the ground of the rebellion is Islam. The reason for seceding is to establish a state that will be guided by Islamic law, one in which Muslim values and beliefs can be practiced in their fullest sense (Gutierrez and Guialal 2000).

Logistically, the MNLF was funded by domestic and foreign sources. The MNLF prided itself as an internally funded secessionist movement, although it quickly came to realize the importance of foreign support. The Malaysians trained the earliest set of leaders and combatants in Sabah (Gutierrez 2000b). Throughout most its struggle against the government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), the MNLF has received support from Arab countries, notably Libya and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, there is also some evidence that the MILF was funded not only by Arab states but by organizations such as al-Qaeda. The MILF was linked to Osama Bin Laden when some of its forces trained and fought in Afghanistan as mujahideen. Bin Laden reciprocated by providing funding for the MILF cause (Abuza 2003; Ressa 2003).


The MNLF’s base of operations is located in Southern Mindanao, where it can take advantage of the mountainous terrain and the support of their fellow Muslims. Tawi-Tawi, for example, is a major base in the struggle because it is one of the few remaining province in the Philippines in which the population is predominantly Muslim. Currently, the MNLF and the MILF actively operate in Jolo, Basilan, Maguindanao, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and North Cotabato (Gutierrez 2000a; Kamlian 1995).


The MNLF and the MILF have adopted the rudiments of conventional warfare. They establish bases for supplies, training, and ammunition and engage the enemy in planned offensives. The goal is to increase the number of these bases and consolidate control province by province. These bases are built in areas where the rebel group has ethnic support. Thus, MNLF bases are established in Tausug areas, whereas MILF bases are built in Maranao or Maguindanao areas. For example, the MILF’s central base, Camp Abubakar As-Siddique, is located at the heart of Maguindanao province (Vitug and Gloria 2000).

This is very much unlike the protracted war strategy adopted by the CPP-NPA. The latter avoids frontal face-offs with government forces and relies instead on ambushes and quick retreats. They are usually on the move and do not have fixed bases (Weekley 2001). The intent of those who adopt the guerrilla strategy is to be “invisible from the enemy” and wear him down.

Most of the arms of the MNLF and MILF are stolen or purchased from the Philippine military (Gutierrez 2000b). This means that they still operate with antiquated M-16 rifles and AK-47s. Field commanders have complained about their lack of effective antitank weaponry. However, the MILF has been able to purchase such weaponry with funding provided by the group of Osama Bin Laden. But their gains were greatly dissipated by their crushing loss at the hands of the military in 2000, when they lost Camp Abubakar (Vitug and Gloria 2000).

Causes of the War

The literature on ethnic mobilization contends that common experiences of discrimination or possession of valid grievances do not necessarily translate to collective undertakings (Carment 1994; Olzak 1983). The onset of ethnic violence is usually preceded by a period of incubation in which such experiences or grievances are articulated, nurtured, and thereafter acted upon by social movements. Rodolfo Stavenhagen (1996) posits two types of factors that generate collective action among ethnic groups: Predisposing factors constitute the fundamental causes of the struggle, whereas triggering factors are the immediate causes of mobilization.

Muslim grievance against the Philippine state can be attributed to three factors: (1) the pejorative treatment Muslims have received from Christians; (2) the loss of the Muslims’ homeland through discriminatory colonial policy; and (3) the “integration” policy of the state, which threatened their identity and way of life.

The Muslims in the Philippines have considered their rebellion a struggle for independence that goes all the way back to their resistance against the Spanish invaders in 1521. When the Spaniards came, they initially used the name Moro to refer to Muslims in Manila and later to refer to the people who resided in the southern part of the archipelago (Jubair 1999). The name Moro could have been derived from the word Moor, used by the Spaniards to designate a Berber of North Africa (Abubakar 1973).

Majul (1973) claims that a negative connotation was later inculcated in the minds of Christian Filipinos by the Spanish clergy to incite them to fight their brothers in the South; the Christian Filipinos were told that the Muslims were the enemies of their new religion (Dery 1997; Marohomsalic 2001). In this view, Moro-hood was forged in the fight against the Spaniards and Christianization. The political scientist Michael Mastura contends that Moro identity originated as a “reaction against the imposition of a monolithic colonial administration, nurtured with … missionary activities” (1976, 8). The Moro historian Jamal Kamlian claims that it was the “high degree of unity and cooperation” among the Moros that was responsible for their long and successful resistance against Spain (1995, 51).

The debate is contentious over whether the notion that the Muslims were united by a sense of Morohood in their struggle against Spain has a historical basis or was simply a framing imposed by the MNLF to provide some rationale for their secessionist project. The political scientist Thomas McKenna contends that Muslim resistance against Spain could be best characterized as disjointed and differentiated (1998). “Throughout their history a lack of unity has characterized the Moros: an inability of Maranao, Maguindanao and Tausug to join together in a common cause” (Gowing 1979, 238). There is also a dearth of historical evidence linking the resistance in Sulu to the armed opposition in Lanao and Cotabato. Bangsa Moro, the project of the Islamic political movements, may be a fairly recent construct—a notion that makes sense only when located within the MNLF’s nationalist ideology (McKenna 1998).

Although the literature is divided over whether or not the struggle against Spanish rule developed a sense of unity among the different ethnic communities, there seems to be agreement that the American period brought a greater awareness among the Muslim groups of their common identity. The Americans categorized the people living in the islands as Christian Filipinos, pagans, or Moros. A 1903 statute (Act No. 1787) established a Moro province with provisions for its own governor and legislative council. These political bodies were empowered to formulate and enact policies autonomously, independent of the government in the Christian north.

The distinction between Christians and Moros eventually became sharp. The American use of the religion-based categories sensitized Muslims to their “separate identity” and led them to more aggressively pursue self-governance. Initially, the American colonizers undertook to placate the Moros so they could concentrate on subduing the Christian Filipinos, who continued to resist the colonizers in Luzon. It was critical to the consolidation of American rule that the Sultan of Sulu be prevented from entering into an alliance with Filipino nationalists, because that would mean fighting a war in the north and the south with the rather thin U.S. force (Gowing 1983, 37). However, when U.S. rule became consolidated in Luzon and the Visayas in 1901, they implemented a “pacification” campaign against the Moros to fully exploit the natural resources of Mindanao. “The Moros had to be tamed or pacified so that ‘Moroland’ would be safe for capitalism” (Muslim 1994, 57).

The United States instituted a system of land titling in Mindanao, with the “official” objective of enabling the administrators to identify lands without owners that could then be given to tenants and small agricultural workers. However, the system ran directly counter to the Filipino Muslims’ conception of land. In their worldview, the communities’ lands are pusaka, a collective inheritance. No one “owned” the land itself. Not even Muslim leaders, the datus, could “own” the land, although they could identify who may use it. “Only the produce of land can be truly possessed” (Fianza 1999, 29). The system displaced the ethnic communities from their ancestral lands, as most Muslims did not register their land. Christian-Muslim land disputes led to the rise of violent gangs such as the Barracudas (mostly Maranaos) and the Ilagas (predominantly Ilongos), ostensibly to defend Christian and Muslim properties (Gomez 2000, 156-73). Their plight became worse when the U.S. land reform code distributed their traditional lands to multinational companies. Many Muslims came to support the armed campaign of the MNLF because of the belief that their victory meant recovery of their ancestral lands.

In 1907, American policy with regard to the Moro changed with the establishment of the Philippine Assembly. This political body quickly became “the forum for nationalist views demanding that Mindanao be fully incorporated into the Philippines” (Abinales 2000, 30). Manila politicians were of the belief that Mindanao is Philippine territory and that any policy that entailed the dismemberment of the country was unacceptable. In line with President Woodrow Wilson’s directive to prepare the Filipinos for self-rule and under pressure from assembly members, Governor Frank Carpenter decided to integrate Mindanao into the same system of governance that existed in the rest of the country.

Two policies were enacted to bring the Muslims into the “mainstream.” First, Christians in Luzon and the Visayas were relocated to Mindanao. The policy was justified by the contention that the presence of the Christians would have a “civilizing influence on wild tribes” (Abinales 2000, 17-67; Rodil 1994). Second, the Muslims were made to attend the public schools run by the Americans. The official objective for the establishment of these schools was to develop a civic consciousness among the different peoples in the Philippines. However, Filipino Muslims eventually came to realize that the colonizers were employing the schools to impart the message that foreign and Christian cultures were “mainstream” and “superior” (Gowing 1983, 134).

The policy of integrating the Muslims into the mainstream was carried out by successive Filipino administrations after independence was granted to the colony in 1946. From Roxas to Marcos, the Philippine state simply continued the policy of integration. If the root of the problem was the incapability of the Muslims to adjust to modernity because of their rigid beliefs and practices, then the solution was to develop their consciousness and welfare through education and to provide them with housing, health facilities, and industries. The Filipino envisioned by the integration project was a Muslim who looked and thought like a Christian (Muslim 1994; Thomas 1971).

The policies were met with deep hostility and anger. The Muslims had lost their ancestral lands, they were minoritized in their own homeland (because of the resettlement policies), and now their identity was threatened by the school system. These were the grievances Muslims carried within themselves. These deep-seated resentments would explode into the open with Jabidah in 1968.

One event has been pointed out by almost all scholars of the Bangsa Moro rebellion as the triggering cause of the mobilization for the creation of a separate Islamic state: the 1968 Jabidah massacre (Majul 1985; Noble 1976;). It involved the murder of around twenty-eight Muslim recruits on Corregidor Island after they allegedly resisted their deployment to Sabah (Glang 1969). It was described as part of a Marcos plan to send soldiers to incite ferment that would strengthen the Philippines’ claim to the territory being held by Malaysia. However, upon learning the real objectives of the mission, the Muslim recruits mutinied and were executed (George 1980). Jabidah fomented widespread resentment among many Muslims who saw the event as the final straw in their long history of suffering.

Historically, leaders of traditional families provided the initial framing of the Filipino Muslims’ grievances. A member of congress, Omar Amilbagasa, filed a bill in the lower house calling for the creation of the independent state of Sulu in 1961. In 1968, Udtog Matalam led the formation of the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), the objective of which was to push for the separation of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan from the Philippines. In 1974, the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization (BMLO) was formed under the leadership of Rashid Lucman, who eventually crowned himself paramount sultan of Mindanao and Sulu in 1974. The solution to the sad state of Filipino Muslims may involve secession, but this objective was initially pursued through aboveboard, constitutional means (Chalk 2002).

Jabidah seemed to demonstrate to the Muslim students that the legal approach was futile, that the approach had not worked in the past and would almost certainly founder against a dictatorship. The core of the political movement that would eventually advocate armed separatism was composed of young intellectuals who had studied in Manila or abroad (e.g., Egypt, Libya, Qatar). They developed a strategy more aggressive that those initiated by their “untrustworthy, aristocratic, and egocentric” elders (Gutierrez 2000b, 311). For Nur Misuari, Salamat Hashim, and Mohagher Iqbal, the end goal was an independent state. And the means to be used was armed force.

Misuari and his group realized that if they were to win the support of Muslims to engage the state militarily, they would need an identity that would sharply distinguish them from Bangsa Filipino. They would need symbols powerful enough to unite the fragmented Muslim communities and sustain a protracted struggle against the machinery of the state. They found their symbol in the historical figure of the Moro. The designation was extremely useful to the purposes of the students. First, colonizers employed the term as a derogatory sense, but it would now be employed as a symbol of pride. The image of the Moro conjured up images of valor, defiance, and determination—qualities critical for recruiting members to their side. “Moro was equated with valor and resistance, and to be called one fueled yearnings for a unique, historically different nation all the more” (Gutierrez 2000b, 312). As Moros have always been the masters of their own destiny, it was only fitting that they should have their own state: the Bangsa Moro Republik (Kamlian 1995).

Second, the students emphasized that the Moros had never been conquered. The colonial regimes of Spain and the United States had been unable to bring the Moros to their knees. Moros have an indomitable spirit and have always found ways to avert defeat. Morohood was seen as a powerful symbol sustaining the spirit of the movement’s members after the commencement of armed confrontations with the state.

Finally, in the Moro they found a symbol that could potentially unite the fragmented Muslim ethnic communities. They contended that the Tausugs, Samas, Maguindanaos, and Maranaos all shared a single history of oppression (by alien colonizers and by the Manila government). Their message was that the sorry condition of the Filipino Muslim could only be reversed if they came together, just as their ancestors had done before them. It made the argument for unity quite compelling.

The MNLF came out into the open two months after the declaration of martial law, although it had actually started as the underground movement of the youth sector of the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) (Balacuit 1994). Its objective was clear and unequivocal: to found a separate state for Moros through armed struggle against the predominantly Christian Philippine state. Misuari did not mince any words, charging the Philippine government with “low intensity ethnic cleansing.” He contended that the state sought “to destroy the national consciousness and Islamic identity of the Bangsa Moro people,” and that justified a call for a jihad (“holy war”) against the state (Balacuit 1994, 8). With that pronouncement, the Muslim resentment that had been kindled by a massacre was successfully framed into a noble cause for war.


Conflict Status

The rebellion spearheaded by the MNLF held the GRP to a military stalemate in the 1970s, but support for the rebellion declined in the 1980s as the movement proved incapable of dealing with three critical problems: (1) how to deal with the traditional Muslim structures, (2) how the Bangsa Moro Republik should be governed, and (3) how to deal with the interethnic tensions within the Bangsa Moro movement.

The MNLF based their rebellion on collective memory of a past uncorrupted by colonialism and Christianization. However, such appeal to history had the unintended effect of legitimizing the traditional political structures that they denounced as feudal and exploitative. The MNLF once contended that the cause of the Moros’ economic destitution was not only the perverse governance by colonialists and Manila-based rulers but also the corruption of the traditional elite. Thus, the Bangsa Moro struggle was framed as not only anticolonial but also anti-elite (Majul 1985; Molloy 1988).

However, the MNLF realized that if they continued to denounce the traditional Moro elite, they risked losing the resources that the local lords and their private armies could provide. Thus, the leaders of the MNLF were faced with the choice of either to continue their ideological diatribe against the traditional elite or to enter into an uneasy alliance with them for tactical reasons. Eventually, facing considerable losses on the battlefield, the MNLF leadership found it more expedient to jettison their ideological beliefs to keep the money and manpower flowing in from the elite. According to Molloy (1988, 69), this decision “restricted the Front’s ideological platform to simple demands for secession and a vague notion of an Islamic state.”

In hindsight, the MNLF’s alliance of convenience with the elite was quite beneficial to the rebellion in the short term, but its long-term consequences for the uprising were severely damaging. The Moro elite supported the cause of the MNLF at the beginning but comfortably shifted their allegiance to the Marcos dictatorship when they realized that such move would bring greater rewards and rents. The elite’s shift of allegiance drained the MNLF of vital manpower when the clan leaders pulled their private armies from the field. Even more tellingly, the elite repudiated the MNLF’s belief in a tawhidi society. The MNLF held the notion that a Moro state should be devoid of any political, social or economic segmentation, that society must reflect the divine oneness, or tawhid (Owen 1992). However, the elite soon realized that such a concept threatened their inherited preeminence in their respective ethnic communities.

Another factor that led to the decline of support for the MNLF’s cause was its inability to present a clear and coherent redistributive agenda. The Bangsa Moro rebellion presented itself as an armed struggle for social justice, but the MNLF was unable to offer any ideas to promote social equity or to propose an alternative economic model. The MNLF position on the economy was framed in very vague terms. Its manifesto stated that the movement shall “never tolerate any form of exploitation and oppression of any human being by another or of one nation by another” (Gutierrez 2000b, 326). The absence of a clear-cut economic policy direction eroded the MNLF’s ideological hold on its adherents. It opened the movement to the criticism that a victory for the MNLF would result not in a tawhidi society unsegmented by class but in the domination of economic life by the Tausugs.

Finally, the decision of Salamat Hashim to split from the MNLF and establish the MILF shook Misuari’s nationalist project to its very base. The antipathies of the ethnic communities with each another proved too formidable to be overcome by a project based on the invocation of a common historical past. The quest for a Bangsa Moro nation was effectively scuttled by ethnic antagonism. The MNLF came to be seen as the Tausug branch of the Moro movement (headed by Misuari), whereas the MILF was linked with the Maguindanaos (under the leadership of Hashim). (The split produced a third group, the so-called MNLF-Reformist wing, which was composed mostly of Maranaos and was led by Abul Khayr Alonto. It is no longer active.) The MILF tried to disabuse the notion that it was a Maguindanao clique, but its most prominent leaders were Maguindanaos, as those at the top of MNLF were Tausugs (Vitug and Gloria 2000). Furthermore, as Gutierrez has pointed out, an authentic multiethnic leadership or a notable pan-Moro army have never emerged. “The Maguindanaoans would generally choose to fight alongside other Maguindanaoans [rather] than with Tausogs or Maranaos” (Gutierrez 2000b, 325).

The MNLF and the GRP negotiated a peace agreement on September 2, 1996, after a series of talks in Jakarta, Indonesia. In the agreement, an executive body was created, the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD). In the agreement, the head of the body would have the capacity to administer the economic development of the thirteen provinces stipulated in the Tripoli Agreement, with the addition of Sarangani. It also stipulated the integration of MNLF combatants into the police and military. Nur Misuari, the chairman of the MNLF, was appointed head of SPCPD in 1996.

However, it became apparent that Misuari lacked the necessary administrative and managerial skills to govern. Revolutionaries are often very inept administrators. His terms as SPCPD chairman and governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) were riddled with charges of corruption and failed programs. In 2000, the Philippine government sought to provide a graceful exit for Misuari by rescheduling the elections for ARMM governor to 2000, giving him the opportunity to step aside in favor of Parouk Hussin, the MNLF’s foreign minister (Vitug and Gloria 2000).

Misuari resisted the government’s schemes to marginalize him. In 2001, he and his followers mounted an attack on government facilities in Jolo as a demonstration of force and to reignite the MNLF’s struggle for true autonomy. However, the putsch was quickly contained and crushed, forcing Misuari to flee to Sabah, where he was captured by Malaysian authorities in November 2001. Misuari was turned over to the Philippine government in 2002, and he is being tried for sedition.

As for the MILF, they distanced themselves from the GRP-MNLF agreement as well as the SPCPD and entered into their own negotiations with the state. However, when talks broke down in 2000, President Joseph Estrada launched an all-out assault against the MILF on the pretext that the group was harboring members of the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group trained and funded by al-Qaeda. The MILF was defeated in the confrontation, losing their historical and spiritual center, Camp Abubakar As-Siddique. In 2003, Salamat Hashim, the MILF’s founder and spiritual leader, passed away; the leadership passed to Al-Haj Murad. Without Hashim, it is questionable how long the MILF will last as a rebel organization. They have since resumed negotiations with the GRP.

Duration Tactics

The Bangsa Moro struggle can be categorized as an example of a rebellion based on grievance (Collier and Hoeffer 2004). The predisposing factors of the rebellion are historically rooted and deep-seated. This sense of injustice was the emotive reason the MNLF was able to rapidly recruit combatants in the 1970s and can explain how they were able to sustain their resistance for two decades thereafter. A rebellion framed in an ethnic context provides a clear lens through which to identify enemies and to explain the causes of one’s destitution (Esman 1989; Fearon and Laitin 2003). Support for the Bangsa Moro cause is likely to continue, given the deterioration of the socioeconomic situation of the Muslims in Mindanao.

Another factor that enabled the rebels to sustain their rebellion in Mindanao was the topographic fragmentation of the Philippines. It proved difficult for the central government to mount campaigns in deeply forested, mountainous terrain. To this was added the fact that the rebels established their bases in the provinces where particular ethnic communities supported them. For example, the MNLF was active in Tawi-Tawi, a province dominated by Tausugs. Meanwhile, the MILF had most of its bases in Maguindanao, home of the Maguindanaos.

The rebel cause was also aided by the limited capacity of the state to fully engage the rebels. The central government could not throw the full weight of its military might against the MNLF or the MILF, because it had to allocate its limited resources to containment of other threats to national security. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had to deal with the attacks and incursions of the CPP-NPA in Luzon and in several parts of the Visayas. Currently, the AFP and the PNP also have to contend with the terrorist activities of the Abu Sayyaf.

Finally, the MNLF and the MILF also received financial support from the outside. Such countries as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran had channeled monetary and logistical support to the rebellion since the outbreak of violence in 1972. In the case of the MILF, training and financing were also received from groups such as al-Qaeda (Ressa 2003). This external support was vital to the insurgency, especially when support for its cause began to decline as Marcos’s authoritarian regime collapsed in 1986 and the country reverted to democracy. However, when the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)—especially the MNLF’s main supporters (Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia)—began to back the initiatives of President Ramos in 1992, the MNLF faced the possibility that its financial well was drying up. The MNLF finally signed a peace agreement with the GRP on September 2, 1996.

Conflict Management Efforts

The case of the MNLF was described as the only “success story of the OIC in its record of dispute settlement” (Vitug and Gloria 2000, 70). This success may be due to the fact that the MNLF was able to sustain its rebellion largely with the support of the OIC. Thus, when the OIC finally declared that it was time for the MNLF and the GRP to “further the peace process,” the MNLF took the bargaining table more seriously.

The MNLF initially obtained its financing from within but immediately saw the benefits of financing from without. Both Islamic tenets and international law were utilized to legitimize this procurement of external intervention. In the Islamic political imagination, all the believers of Islam constitute one undivided community; the term ummah refers both to the Muslim society contained within a state and to the broader “community of the faithful” (Decasa 1999; Roy 1994). Thus, the 1974 MNLF manifesto declared that the Bangsa Moro struggle is “part of the Islamic World as well as of the Third World and the oppressed colonized humanity everywhere in the world” (cited in Santos 2001, 57).

In 1974, the MNLF charged the Marcos administration with undertaking what it referred to as “low intensity ethnic cleansing” in Mindanao because of the administration’s support of armed Christian gangs (e.g., the Ilagas) and its policy of driving Muslims off their ancestral lands. Clearly, the tactic was crafted to demonstrate to the international community that the MNLF was a national liberation movement (NLM) fighting to preserve its identity against a racist state; see, for example, the United Nations’ Declaration of Friendly Relations Declaration (1970), as well as the Aalands case (1920) . The claim had the effect of allowing third states to come to the movement’s aid, which was very important for the resource-strapped MNLF. As a national liberation movement, the MNLF was also empowered to enter into treaties with other countries (Cassesse 2001, 76-77).

States such as Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Iran gave the MNLF much-needed financial, logistical, and diplomatic support. The interest of the OIC was also credited with restraining the Marcos administration from committing gross violations of human rights in the Mindanao region. In the jargon of international law, the Moro rebellion had become an “internationalized non-international armed conflict”: a dispute that has not yet reached the character of interstate conflict but in which external intervention is present (Gasser 1983).

The OIC provided much-needed support for the Moro cause in the international arena but also acted to restrain the MNLF from pursuing its secessionist intentions aggressively. Some members of the OIC, such as Libya and Malaysia, expressed public support for the objectives of the MNLF rebellion, whereas others, such as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, never took public positions but provided clandestine funding. However, some states within the OIC were also engaged in struggles against separatist movements, most notably Indonesia and Iraq; these states blocked full OIC recognition of the MNLF because they feared that it would embolden other separatist groups.

It can be reasonably averred that the OIC was very much responsible for the decision of the Moro groups to reduce their claims to autonomy. With regard to the Philippine case, it adopted the very conservative position that the conflict between the GRP and the MNLF must be resolved “within the framework of Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity,” effectively shredding the separation option from the table. Eventually, the Tripoli Agreement, which was signed by the GRP and the MNLF in December 1976, entailed the formation of an autonomonous regional system in Mindanao, not a separate state. Although the MNLF attempted to place the secession option back on the table at various points afterward, they were never able to really step out of the shadow of the Tripoli Agreement. That aagreement was the framework upon which the Peace Agreement of 1996 was negotiated, the document that brought the MNLF back into the fold of the law. The MNLF’s decision left the MILF the only Muslim group currently in armed engagement with the state.


Plural societies face the perpetual dilemma of maintaining internal order and preserving their borders. Historical grievances of ethnic communities can suddenly explode into the open, triggered by some event that crystallizes their perceived disadvantaged situation. This rage can be articulated and given form by an organization toward the goal of greater political participation, autonomy, or separation (Esman 1989). Enemies are identified, causes enumerated, and courses of action mapped.

Such was the case with the Philippine Muslims. Although recognized for their valiant resistance of the Spanish invaders, they have since been marginalized in Philippine socioeconomic and political life. Colonial administrations forcibly dispossessed them of landed properties, and Mindanao remained undeveloped because of the concentration of government decision making in Manila. The Muslims’ discontent exploded into the open after the Jabidah massacre in 1968 and was given political form by the MNLF.

It can be reasonably asserted that the 1996 agreement was tailored to bring the MNLF back into the fold of the law. However, negotiating with the MNLF alone could not achieve peace in the Southern Philippines. For most of the Muslims, the MNLF had come to be considered the Tausug component of the Bangsa Moro struggle. The claims of the Maguindanaos and the Maranaos have been lodged with the MILF, and it would take the state the same amount of political creativity that the government showed in the MNLF negotiations to convince the MILF to lay down their arms. However, the death of Salamat Hashim provided the GRP and the MILF with a more flexible window for negotiations. Hashim, like Misuari, was not fully convinced of the autonomy alternative to secession. With his towering presence absent from the table, the peace process may be advanced more fully.

The MNLF no longer has the political or military organization to restart an armed resistance against the state, and for this reason it can be expected that the 1996 peace agreement will hold. But given the continued marginalization of Muslims in their own region, and the continued underdevelopment of provinces with large segments of Muslim population, a trigger event is likely to galvanize Muslim resistance anew. The autonomy alternative having failed to provide a solution to the problems of the Muslims, a more viable path to peace would be the formation of a federal system in the Philippines. With much local government power devolved, the Muslims would finally get the chance to govern themselves or to learn to govern with the Christians and the Lumads. Such would be difficult, but in the end, the vigor of societies can only be preserved, said an eminent philosopher, “by the widespread sense that high aims are worthwhile” (Whitehead 1933, 371).