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Ethnic Conflicts and the Muslim Question in Philippine Politics

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Ethnic Conflicts and the Muslim Question in Philippine Politics:

Why Current Efforts at Conflict-Resolution Fail

Priscilla A. Tacujan

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Muslim insurgency group with a history of seeking to secede from the Philippines, launched an attack recently against Philippine troops in the city of Zamboanga, west of Mindanao, the Philippines’ largest southern island where Muslim insurgent groups have been waging wars against the Philippine government.  Armed insurgents seized villages and hostages, shut down schools and shops, and put to a halt business operations that are costing the city billions of pesos each day since the conflict started. The relatively peaceful state of affairs in Mindanao, brought about by ongoing peace talk negotiations between the Philippine government and another splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was shattered when the MNLF, feeling excluded from the bounty that the Philippine government is extending to the MILF, demanded that the Philippine government honor its previous 1996 peace agreement.  MNLF’s leader, Nur Misuari, recently proclaimed the entire of Mindanao as “Bangsamoro Republik,”[i] in effect, declaring the secessionist movement’s independence from the Philippines.

The eruption of violence in Mindanao in the midst of the Philippine government’s efforts at brokering peace is self-fulfilling, however.  When the Philippine government, or any government for that matter, resolves ethnic conflict by favoring one group over the other, any effort towards conflict-resolution is bound to fail.  When it extends group entitlements to ethnic groups based on group rights and group identity, it sharpens ethnic differences and fuels ethnic wars.  When it grants autonomy to secessionist groups based on the principles of self-determination and cultural separatism, it institutionalizes ethnic divisions.

Separatist Movements: MNLF and MILF

Nearly one-fourth of the population of the Philippines, about 20 million, live in the southern islands of Mindanao.  Of these, approximately 5 million, com­prising at least 13 ethno-linguistic groups, profess Islam.  Despite their differences, they have a common bond in their Islamic faith.  Introduced in the Philippines by Arab traders and Islamic missionaries in 1310, Islam rapidly spread throughout the archipelago.  However, the arrival of the Spaniards in 1565 checked and rolled back its further advance.  The Spanish colonizers never succeeded in sub­jugating the Muslim natives, although they succeeded in creating a notion of “otherness,” since majority of the Muslims refused to be converted to Christianity.

The Philippines has been battling Muslim secessionist movements[ii] in the southern part of the country for over forty years.  The Moro National Liberation Front, organized in 1972 by Professor Nur Misuari, became by far the most important separatist organization in the 1970s and -80s.  Its purpose was to promote a cultural-historical identity that would appeal to the concept of Philippine Muslim nationalism and would emphasize traditional Muslim political institutions, particularly the sultanates.

Attempts towards peace and reconciliation took place in late 1976, when talks were held between the Philippine government and the leaders of the MNLF.  Under the super­vision of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an agreement was reached and signed in Tripoli calling for a ceasefire and the granting of autonomy to Muslim areas, giving rise to the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao under the leadership of Nur Misuari. The ceasefire failed as fighting resumed the following year. The Muslim rebellion, however, weakened con­siderably because of internal disputes. 

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front Reformist Movement split from the MNLF in 1977.  Its leaders officially changed the title of their organiz­ation to the “Moro Islamic Liberation Front” to “underscore Islam as the rallying point of the Bangsamoro struggle.” In January 1987, the MILF adopted a more radical position when it refused the government’s offer of autonomy.  The MNLF, meanwhile, had agreed to relinquish its goal of full indepen­dence and settled for autonomy.

For years, the Philippine government made several attempts at pacifying the MILF through peace talks.  In 1987, the Philippine government and the MILF met in Malaysia and agreed to hold peace negotiations.  After a series of peace talks held in the past, such efforts have yet to yield results. 

At the crux of these peace talks is the demand of the MILF to grant Filipino Muslims the right to self-determination, to their own Bangsamoro identity and a homeland.  Indeed, according to Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, then chairman of the MILF, the Muslims’ right to self-determination “can be a breakthrough” in ending “one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.”[iii]

The group insists that the issue of “ancestral domain” be made the centerpiece principle of the peace talks, viewing it as key to settling Muslim grievances.  In their draft proposal, the MILF argued that all lands, including natural resources, occupied by Filipino Muslims since time immemorial by cultural bond, customary law, and historic rights be declared as belonging rightfully to the Bangsamoros.

Philippine Government’s Solution: Autonomy and Cultural Separatism

There seems to be a strong consensus among scholars of Philippine Muslim politics that the only practical and just solution to the ethnic problem in Mindanao is to grant the Muslim insurgents exclusive right to their lands based on the principles of self-determination and cultural separatism.  Muslim leaders argue that since their people are of a distinctive minority, differing from the majority in religion, ways of life, and language, they are entitled to autonomy if not independence.  Besides, for all the years of government neglect and social discrimination they claimed to have suffered in the hands of the majority, Filipino Muslims think that separatism is the right policy prescription for them.  In this, the Muslim question resembles ethnic conflicts occurring in many parts of the world, wherein leaders of rebellious ethnic groups demand self-determination on the basis of their historical and cultural uniqueness.

The Philippine government seems to agree (as governments of other countries facing ethnic wars seem to do).  Its Muslim policy is informed by the same principle, with its attendant perceptions that some groups are uniquely privileged and others burdened.  The 1987 Philippine Constitution itself lends legitimacy to claims of separateness by cultural groups.  Article II, Section 22 recognizes the importance of preserving cultural groups: “the state recognizes and promotes the rights of indigenous cultural communities within the frame­work of national unity and development.” The Constitution further includes a provision on the creation of autonomous regional governments for geographical areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage (Article X, Sections 15-21).

These provisions have been used as guide to inform and shape the Philippine government’s policy-making initiatives towards the Muslim problem.  In fact, they inform the current peace talk taking place between the Philippine Government and the MILF.  The proposed set of agreements embodied in the “Framework of Agreement on the Bangsamoro,” include provisions on revenue-generation and wealth-sharing of natural, mineral, and other resources, 75% of which goes to Bangsamoro and 25% to the Philippine government.  It is estimated that Mindanao has mineral deposits worth $312 billion.[iv] According to the Office of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the agreement also includes sections on taxation, other sources of revenue, fund transfers from the central government, grants and other forms of assistance, contracting of loans and overseas development assistance, natural resources, and additional fiscal powers.  Indeed, the Philippine government’s Chief Negotiator, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, argued that these provisions “would fulfill the aspirations for meaningful autonomy for Muslim Mindanao that was envisioned in the Constitution.[v]

Cultural Separatism and Group Rights Sharpen Ethnic Conflict

Perhaps therein lies the root cause of the problem in the Philippine government’s failure to solve the Muslim question: through its laws, the government legitimizes and institutionalizes ethnic divisions.  It seems to believe, as most proponents of culturalism do, that ethnic groups, by virtue of their cultural identity, may justly claim particular and often exclusive entitlements, and, that govern­ments owe them such entitlements. 

On the surface, cultural separatism looks like a reasonable and just policy.  However, in many countries torn by ethnic conflict, cultural separatism seems only to exacerbate the problem.   And the proposed peace talks in Mindanao, premised on the same principle, will not achieve much either.  

For one, culturalism is inherently parochial, hence, divisive.  Culture -- which is good in itself as all human beings belong to a culture and are shaped by it -- tends to promote the ethnic and the particular at the expense of the universal.  It cannot see beyond itself and is only self-interested.  According to Charles Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, it is unlikely to look outside for solutions to its problems “much less discern them through the filters of other cultures in light of disinterested reason.”  Culture “cannot be designed or planned because it cannot be thought through to the things that reason shows it has in common with other cultures and its members have in common with mankind simply.”[vi]    Culturalism is myopic and short-sighted, and any outside attempt at influence or interference is viewed with suspicion; in other areas, it fuels ethnic wars. 

Two, culturalism confers rights upon people as groups and not as individuals.  Promoting group rights cannot serve the interest of the individual as he is not free to exercise his rights apart from his group.  It inculcates and perpetuates a “victimhood mentality,” preventing individuals to break free and map the directions of their own lives.  Also, group rights can only create divided allegiances between the state and their communities.  Consequently, group rights promote group entitlements, but often at the expense of the common good.  Moreover, only the Muslim leadership elites in Mindanao benefit from these entitlements, amassing wealth at the expense of their constituents, as the region continues to remain one of the poorest in the Philippines.

Group rights can lead to never-ending problems of factionalism. Given that there are 13 ethno-linguistic groups within the Muslim group in southern Philippines, what would stop the other groups from making similar demands for entitlements?  This is exactly what is happening in Mindanao right now, with the MNLF feeling excluded from the government’s entitlement provisions. In short, there is little reason to expect that solutions grounded on group entitlements will solve much.  

Three, culturalism impedes the exercise of civil and religious liberties.  Culturalism makes the pursuit of religion even more contentious as it usually advocates the religion of the dominant culture at the expense of the religion of the minority.  It prevents the free exercise of worship, creating enmity instead of friendships among members of a political community.  In other areas, it breeds radicalism and religious fanaticism.


Rather, what is needed in order to resolve ethnic conflicts is to promote the common good of all while upholding the rights of every individual, regardless of his ethnicity, culture, and religion.  For the attainment of genuine peace and resolution of the Muslim problem in Mindanao, the Philippine government, the Muslim leadership, the insurgent groups, and other stakeholders must act on the following:

  • Disarmament.  In order to lay down the proper framework for genuine peace in Mindanao, insurgent groups must disarm.  Disarmament is a precondition for effective and resolute peace negotiations.
  • Strong local governments.  Ideally, federalism, which enables regional governments to acquire significant control of local affairs from the central government, can provide a better arrangement than regional autonomy that is being negotiated between the Philippine government and Muslim insurgent groups. Federalism is akin to regional autonomy, but as an autonomy generalized to all provinces and which makes people equal citizens of the nation and of the province.  Unlike federalism, regional autonomy has an unintended consequence of marginalizing autonomous groups. Inasmuch as the Philippine government is not a federal form of government, it must strengthen instead its regional and local governments in a way that they become direct ties of representation and power between the citizens and the central government.[vii]
  • Diversified market-economy.  A diversified market-economy is a source of prosperity, an opportunity for people to define their own lives, and an opportunity to advance the community’s economic well-being.  Insurgent activities continue to pose a threat to  Mindanao’s security and provide disincentives to potential investments and trade activities in the region.  What Mindanao needs is an infusion of private investments and more job opportunities for the people.  The region should be exempted from the present area limits to commercial farming that have severely curtailed the establishment of productive plantations.  This should enable the region to attract multinational corporations from neighboring countries to do business there.  
  • Civic education and community relations. In order to address issues of discrimination and other forms of social grievance, local governments and community associations must come up with programs that may help improve community relations such as interfaith dialogues, volunteering programs, and a better appreciation of local traditions and heritage through civic education and public discourse.

If current conflict-resolution efforts are to succeed in Mindanao, peace negotiators on both sides must focus on what it takes to achieve a secure, prosperous region and what makes for an active citizenry of equally free individuals, assertive of their rights, and confident in their ability to map out the future of their lives, beyond the clutch of group dependency and cultural affinity.

End Notes

[i] Bangsamoro comes from the Malay word bangsa, meaning nation or people, and the Spanish word moro, from the Spanish word for Moor used for Muslims.

[ii]Aside from the MNLF and the MILF, the Abu Sayyaf (literally, ‘father of the sword”), is another Muslim insurgency group in Mindanao.  Founded in the mid-1980s by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, it is the most radical group and is described as fundamentalist in ideology.  Its ma The Abbu Sayyaf (literally, “father of the sword”) is the most radical among the Muslim insurgency groups in Mindanao.  Founded in the mid-1980s by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, it is described as fundamentalist in ideology.  Its main objective is to establish a separate Islamic state for the Filipino Muslims through jihad. The organization resorts to bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and extortion.  Believed to have been getting support from Islamic extremist groups like al-Qaeda in the Middle East and South Asia, it has little popular support.  The group has claimed responsibility for ongoing violent activities including hostage-takings and killings against the Philippine military.

[iii] “Philippines Offers Muslim Rebels Self-Determination,” Voice of America, March 13, 2007,

[iv] Cecilia Yap, “Philippine Death Toll Rises to 62 in Siege as Locals Flee,” Bloomberg, September 17, 2013,

[v] Ryan Rosauro, “Details of wealth sharing annex to Bangsamoro framework agreement bared,” Inquirer,  July 15, 2013,

[vi] Charles Kesler, “Culture, Politics, and the American Founding,” Claremont Institute, Claremont, CA, May 15, 1998,

[vii] Priscilla Tacujan and Bruce Pencek, “Majority Rule v. Minority Rights: The Muslim Question and Political Principles in the Philippines,” presented at the Philippine Studies Conference, Manila, Philippines, July 2000.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Priscilla  A. Tacujan is a Ph.D. graduate of Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California. She is affiliated with Corr Analytics Inc., a New York based political risk consultancy.


A few issues here...

It's not quite accurate to say that "the MNLF" attacked Zamboanga recently. The attack was conducted by one faction of the MNLF, a highly factionalized group in which the assorted factions are not necessarily coordinated or even on speaking terms with each other. It's not clear that the Zamboanga attack was initiated in response to local issues: it is widely (and not unreasonably) believed that the attack was connected more closely to Manila's politics than Mindanao's, and was intended to serve as a warning shot to a government that seems intent on prosecuting officials long thought untouchable. That shouldn't be seen as excessive heroism on the part of the government, which has its own political motives and is focusing its corruption prosecutions firmly and solely on the opposition, but it's still a quite unprecedented and risky move.

Discussion of the MNLF/MILF split should mention not only the ideological differences, but the more pressing ethnolinguistic differences that drove the split. The Maguindanao/Maranao aristocracy that dominated the MILF was never all that happy about following the leadership of Misuari, a Tausug commoner, and the split was at least as much a consequence of that division than of the ideological gap.

The actual drivers of conflict here are more complex, and the probability of resolution more remote, than this article seems to acknowledge. It's difficult to see how a geographical division forming a "Muslim" autonomous entity will function. Muslim-dominated areas are not geographically contiguous and are dominated by different ethnic groups with different leaders and different agendas. The MILF heartland in Central Mindanao is a particular problem, as decades of settlement have left Muslims in the minority in much of the region, making it almost impossible to define a geographically "Muslim" area. The core of conflict in this area is not "Muslim-Christian" but "indigenous-settler": it's about land and control, not religion. The current agreement is less about "giving autonomy to the MILF" than coopting the MILF leadership by allowing them to move into lucrative and influential positions in a new nominally autonomous entity, much the same as what was done to the MNLF. It is worth recalling, though, that while this strategy effectively neutralized the MNLF as an organization, disgruntled MNLF members (and their children) who felt left out of the spoils moved on to involvement in groups like the ASG. If the MILF agreement follows the same pattern, the same outcome is likely.

The article's greatest failing, to me, is failure to acknowledge the twin (and intimately connected) scourges of big man politics and impunity that have dominated Mindanao politics ever since Mindanao has had politics. Leadership on both government and rebel sides is dominated by individual clan leaders, who are above the law and rely on violence and corruption to maintain their positions. The primary source of income is not economic production, but criminality: extortion, corruption, racketeering of all descriptions. At the followership level, these groups, whether pro-government or anti-government, do not involve people who follow because they believe in a cause or a leader. They are dominated by "minimal alliance networks", featuring small cluster of armed men who declare loyalty according to immediate personal advantage and shift loyalty at the drop of a peso. These are men whose allegiance is ruled by expedience: the same cluster may be MNLF this week, ASG next week, and part of a politician's personal militia the week after, as dictated by their own perceived interests.

These realities have a significant impact on proposed solutions. Realistically, none of these groups have the control over their followers needed to generate effective disarmament. The networks they rely on live by their guns; if their leaders order them to disarm they will simply shift loyalty to a more accommodating leader. Federalism or other prescriptions for increasing local government control will have little effect beyond reinforcing the already feudal control exercised by the "big men" and dominant clans who control local politics. These leaders will not tolerate a diversified market economy, because their personal control of political life and their control of economic life are intimately connected.

The peace agreement will not produce peace, but the government has to pursue it: to do otherwise would be cast as betrayal. To the extent possible, it may be necessary to incorporate the interest groups that perceive themselves to be left out: the settler communities (also dominated by "big man" politics), the various MNLF factions. How far to extend this is open to debate: there are fringes like the Kiram clan (the self-styled "Sultan of Sulu" who staged an invasion of Malaysia some months back), the BIFF, the ASG etc scarcely seem credible interlocutors in negotiation.

Ultimately the road to peace in Mindanao is simple, though unattainable. The "big man" system has to be broken, and leadership has to be brought within the law. As long as leaders are above the law and able to apply coercive force for their own private ends, no political solution will prosper. Breaking down the "big man" structure is not a solution, but it's a necessary prerequisite to any solution. Discussing potential solutions without addressing that obstacle is like a family whose car has no engine debating the best route for a road trip.

The Government in Manila has the capacity to do this, but it won't do it, because those who govern in Manila have a stake in the "big man" system and in sustaining the culture of impunity. That's why the insurgency has gone on so long, and that's why it's going to go on a whole lot longer.


PS: Apologies to those who have heard it all before.


Wed, 09/25/2013 - 2:37pm

I am not sure I see any connection between the problem set and the proposed solution. It appears that what you are saying is that the Bangsamoro don’t really understand what they need, that “we” know better, and that what they need is to be forcibly assimilated into the larger Pilipino culture. I see your solution as being more parochial than culturalism.

It also contains internal contradictions. You tout strong local government but also includes economic opportunities for the diverse population. What if the new Muslim local government wants to establish its own brand of Sharia law and forbid women from working or owning property?

I understand your concern that once the genie of ethnic differentiation is out of the bottle the result is likely to be inter-ethnic conflict. So you either have to let go or you have to clamp down. It appears that the Philippine solution will be to let go. It might be better to do it over time, with stages of autonomy granted as the Bangsamoro display the ability to manage things, but this may just be delaying the inevitable.
In the end the people of the region are going to have to come up with the solution.