Small Wars Journal

Making Peace in Deeply Divided Societies: the Case of Mindanao in the southern Philippines

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 8:30pm

 Making Peace in Deeply Divided Societies: the Case of Mindanao in the southern Philippines


Jose Mikhail Perez[i]


Last 21 January 2019, the provinces that make up the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) voted in favor of creating a new autonomous region known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) with a huge turnout of 87.8% (1.738 million voters).  Almost 89% (89.57%) from the total number of voters voted yes in the creation of a new autonomous region to be carved out in the southernmost island of Mindanao in the Philippines (Rivelli, 2020). Despite threats from Islamic extremists to stall the plebiscite, the overwhelming result finally secured the end of the civil war between the Christian-dominated Filipino government in Manila and the Moro Muslims in Mindanao who once sought independence from the Philippines. This conflict has plagued the southern Philippines for almost three decades, resulting in the deaths of 120,000 lives and the displacement of almost two million people (Lara and Champain, 2009).


In this article, our goal is to explain the factors why making peace in ethnically-divided societies, such as Mindanao, are often hard to secure. The primary argument that this article proposes is that the settlement of peace processes in ethnically divided societies are more likely to experience more cycles of violence during peace transitions. This argument is based from the various studies on ethnic conflicts after the Cold War where peaceful transitions in heterogeneous societies are more prone to interethnic violence while undergoing democratization (Snyder, 2000; Gurr, 2002; Coakley, 2009).


This article is structured as follows. First, the origins and history of the Mindanao conflict will be briefly discussed. Second, the various efforts of the Philippine government to end the conflict will be scrutinized. Third, the challenges of violent extremism by Islamic jihadists are explained in order to provide a bigger picture of the conflict’s intractability. Fourth, the exclusionary politics between the three dominant ethnic groups in Mindanao: Christian settlers, Moro Muslims, and the indigenous people (Lumads), will be analyzed in the context of the ‘tri-people’ ethos that resulted in the creation of the BARMM. Lastly, the challenges brought by the creation of a self-ruling government in the southern Philippines will be analyzed in order to provide policy solutions in the future of resolving ethnic conflicts in Southeast Asia. A conclusion will then highlight the salient points discussed in the article.


A Brief History of the Mindanao Insurgency

Geographically speaking, Mindanao is the second largest island group in the Philippines. With an area of almost 97,530 square kilometers, 70% of its inhabitants identify themselves as Christian while 24% identify themselves as Muslim (Philippine Census 2000, as cited in Philippine Statistics Authority, 2005).


The indigenous Muslim of population, or the Moros, are historically at a disadvantage in Philippine politics since they have experienced higher levels of poverty from the rest of the Philippines despite the fact that their region produces a significant amount of natural resources (Walter, 2009). The Moros are the overwhelming majority in the BARMM provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Cotabato City. Despite their common Islamic heritage, they are divided into 13 various ethnolinguistic groups with the Maranaos, Maguindanaos, and Tausugs as the predominant groups who altogether make up 66% of the Moro population (Coronel-Ferrer, 2012). Both the Maranao and Maguindanao people hail from the Lanao and Maguindanao provinces in central Mindanao while the Tausug people currently inhabit the Sulu archipelago. At present, the Moros only comprise roughly 5-6% of the entire Philippine population (Philippine Census, 2000).


Within Mindanao, the presence of various non-Muslim indigenous people have coexisted with the Moros prior to the arrival of Western colonizers and Christian settlers (Paredes, 2015). Collectively known as the Lumads, they have continued to practice their pre-Islamic and pre-Christianity beliefs and traditions in order to distinguish themselves from the Moros and eventually the Christian settlers who have settled in Mindanao. According to Coronel-Ferrer (2012), the Lumads are scattered in the various provinces of Muslim Mindanao with Maguindanao having the highest numbers, where most of them belong to the Teduray ethnolinguistic group. At present, the newly enacted Bangsamoro Organic Law (R.A. 11054) also recognizes the existence of other Lumad ethnolinguistic groups in the Bangsamoro such as the Lambiangan, Dulangan Manobo, Blaan, and Higaonon ethnolinguistic groups.


The history of the Mindanao conflict is rooted in historical and political causes. Initially, the Moro identity was born out of the colonial consciousness against Spanish rule who wanted to convert the natives to Christianity. According to Frake (1997), the Spaniards used the term Moro as a terrorist label to the Filipino Muslims by giving them the exact name of their Muslim enemies in Spain. For this reason, Buendia (2006) suggests that the exclusionary politics of the Spanish and American colonizers, and now the post-colonial ‘Filipino-run state’ to ‘divide and conquer’ the natives led to the belief among the Moros that they have never been a part of the Philippines and that their struggle is a continuation of their ancestors’ war for independence.


Under American colonial rule, the Americans have implemented a benevolent assimilation policy in subjugating the Moros. However, they were still unsuccessful in assimilating them and other indigenous people under the Philippine colonial government (Rodil, 1994; Paredes, 2015). This transfer of power from the Spaniards to the Americans resulted in the Moro rebellion from 1899-1913 with a humiliating defeat on the part of the Moros.


Moro nationalism was again revived during the Marcos dictatorship when about 28 Muslim military trainees in Corregidor were summarily executed (Buendia, 2006). This massacre eventually became known as the Jabidah Massacre that inflamed ethnic hatreds between Christians and Muslims in the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, the imposition of martial law by the Marcos administration in order to quell the Moro rebellion further mobilized the various Moro groups in demanding secession from the Philippines through violent means.


In 1971, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was established under Nur Misuari and Hashim Salamat, who both left the Bangsamoro Liberation Organization (BMLO) since both of them  believed that the MNLF should be a nationalist and secular revolutionary organization, not Islamic (Buendia, 2006). Hence, MNLF leaders sought to renounce their Filipino-Muslim identity and reclaim their Moro identity as descendants of ‘unsubjugated’ or ‘uncolonized’ peoples. Misuari (1986) as cited in Frake (1997) said:


‘From this very moment there shall be no stressing the fact that one is a Tausug, a Samal, a Yakan, a Subanon, a Kalagan, a Magindanao, a Maranao, or a Badjao. He is only a Moro’.


On 23 December 1976, the Philippine government and the MNLF signed the Tripoli Agreement that sought for the creation of an autonomous region in Mindanao that included thirteen provinces and nine cities (Walter, 2009). However, the implementation of the said agreement proved to be unsuccessful. Under the treaty, the agreement would only be implemented if a majority of the citizens living in the thirteen provinces voted in favor of the terms. Unfortunately, only five out of the thirteen provinces voted in favor that resulted in the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1989.


Nonetheless, the fulfilment of the Tripoli Agreement was only realized under the Ramos administration in 1996 when the GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement (FPA) was signed. Under the agreement, Nur Misuari became governor of the ARMM and chairman of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD). However, the establishment of the ARMM was fraught with several problems such as bureaucratic inefficiency, dominance of ethnic groups in regional governance, and weak institutions in tax collection and state-building (Abinales & Amoroso, 2005). Thus, this has only created more problems than solutions under the leadership of the MNLF.


On the other hand, ideological and political differences between Nur Misuari and Hashim Salamat forced the latter to form a rival revolutionary organization that wanted secession of the Bangsamoro from the Philippine state. In 1984, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was established as a response to the acceptance of the MNLF to the government’s offer of semi-autonomy, in which the MILF is strongly opposed against it.  Despite several decades of armed insurgency, the MILF finally withdrew their claim for independence in 2011 upon the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) under the Benigno Aquino III administration that sought to establish a sub-state in the southern Philippines, thus, elevating the status of the ARMM into the BARMM today.


Government Measures in Securing the Peace

The various peace agreements signed between the Philippine government and the various Moro armed groups are what Walter (2009) describes as a case of ‘reputation-building’ where states evaluate their decisions to negotiate with separatist groups in order to prevent more conflicts in the future. Self-determination disputes represent a set of cases for governments to pursue war as a rational strategy because it provides credible information about future intent (Walter, 2009). Applying this to the Philippine context, interethnic violence between government and Moro rebel groups do not often end upon the signing of peace agreements since their implementation is not often credible. Rather, most Philippine presidents offer self-governing autonomy to the armed Moro groups, not independence, in order not to compromise the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines. Their decisions are often influenced by the approval of the Christian majority in order to secure political capital for the next elections. As Jarstad (2009) has observed, most peace agreements are analyzed in terms of the power sharing agreements, without analyzing if the said provisions in the agreements are actually implemented. In her study, only seven from the twelve cases of peace agreements that she studied have actually implemented their power-sharing arrangements. Thus, this raises the concern that peace agreements may only be good on paper but bad in actual practice.


As mentioned earlier, the Philippine government has only offered two options for the Moros: (1) autonomy/self-governance; and (2) a sub-state solution. Both options are far from the initial goals of both MNLF and MILF on securing independence to all Filipino Muslims. However, Coronel-Ferrer (2012) suggests the institutionalization of both power-sharing and power-dividing measures in order to address the problem of lower political participation among ethnic groups in war-torn societies. This concern will be discussed further in the succeeding chapters.


The Threat of Radical Islamism

After the US declared the War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks, the Philippines also launched its own counterinsurgency programs against the rise of violent extremist groups in Mindanao. One of the most prominent extremist groups in the region is the Abu Sayyaf Group (literally means sword of the father in Arabic) with various strongholds in the provinces of Basilan and Sulu (Frake, 1997). The group was established by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in expressing opposition to the MNLF and MILF peace processes in the 1990s. Over time, the goals of the Abu Sayyaf appear to have vacillated between criminal objectives and ideological intent due to their methods of gaining attention to the government and media (US State Department, 2012). At present, the group has gained a notorious reputation for carrying out suicide bombings, kidnappings, and extortion (Banlaoi, 2005; Hart, 2019).


Another extremist group in the Mindanao conflict is the Maute group with a stronghold in the province of Lanao del Sur (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, 2020).  This group is responsible for the Marawi siege, also known as the longest urban battle in Philippine history that caused the deaths of more than 1,000 people and 400,000 people displaced from their homes (Agence France-Presse, 2017). According to official government reports, after the Maute group’s defeat in the Marawi crisis, the Philippine government will need $1.1 billion to rebuild the city (Lorenzana, 2017 as cited in Agence France-Presse, 2017).


Contemporary global trends presently shape the future of violent extremism in Mindanao. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has attracted foreign fighters to join the cause in promoting an Islamic ‘caliphate’ in the southern Philippines. Both the ASG and Maute group have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) where they have conducted terrorist activities like suicide bombings and kidnapping for ransom in the name of ISIL (Hart, 2019).


Exclusionary Politics in the Bangsamoro

As mentioned earlier, the current Bangsamoro regional government operates on both power-sharing and power-dividing approaches. Power-sharing mechanisms provide the consociationalism backdrop for autonomous regions in order to provide substantial representation and guarantees for ethnic minorities through measures like territorial decentralization, proportional representation of government positions, and decision rights to minority ethnic groups (Coronel-Ferrer, 2012).


On the other hand, power-dividing mechanisms such as multiple majorities and check and balance mechanisms among the various decision-making bodies are created in order to create multiethnic political parties who are accountable to their constituents (Coronel-Ferrer, 2012). Both mechanisms are provided in the creation of autonomous governments to raise the prospects of national unity among previously ethnically diverse groups.


However, Paredes (2015) laments the current setup of the Bangsamoro regional government as ‘Moro-dominated’. Citing Mohagher Iqbal, the former MILF chief negotiator in the GRP-MILF peace process, the relationship between Moros and the other indigenous groups are often based on the notion of the political superiority of the Moros in the peace process. Using a pseudonym (Jubair), Iqbal (2007) as cited in Paredes (2015) argues:


‘The MILF does not deny Lumads the right to their own ancestral domain, but argues that their fate is inseparable because of history. It is their destiny to be the ‘small or younger brother’ of the Moros, who will protect them.’


Nevertheless, in spite of the unique ‘tri-people’ approach in the Bangsamoro where Christians, Moros, and Lumads coexist; the conditions of latter remain unchanged due to bureaucratic neglect, political superiority of the Moros, state favoritism to Christian settlers, and constant marginalization of the Lumads in their ancestral domain (Paredes, 2015). Moreover, this fragile peace is further complicated by the Lumad’s marginalization of the peace process that make them vulnerable to recruitment by state and non-state armed groups (Coronel-Ferrer, 2013).


According to Alamon (2017), the recruitment of Lumad fighters in the New People’s Army (NPA) are caused by the framing of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) in the Lumad struggle in Mindanao as a class struggle that makes it conducive for the Lumads to join their rebellion against the Philippine nation-state. This is supported by Duterte’s (2017) recent claim that 75% of the NPA’s foot soldiers are mostly Lumads:


75 percent of the rebels now, Lumads. Sila ang pinupusta ng NPA. Hindi ‘yung mga Bisaya, hindi ‘yung mga Ilonggo, hindi ‘yung mga Ilocano. Sila ang ginagawang sundalo. Pagka kaunti-kaunti nila, sila ang maubos. ‘Yung tribo nila will be left with — wala ‘yung mga lalaki, nasa — pumayag na gawing sundalo (75% of the rebels now [are mostly] Lumads, they are the ones [being recruited] by the NPA...Not the Visayans, not the Ilonggos, not the Ilocanos. They [Lumads] are made into soldiers [for the NPA]. When they are small in numbers, they are eventually eliminated. Their tribe will be left without the men - agreeing to be soldiers, (Duterte, 2017 as cited in Capistrano, 2017).’'


This ‘tri-people’ approach is espoused by various groups such as Mindanao-based NGOs, minority groups, and human rights organizations in order to promote peaceful coexistence between the three notable ethnic groups in the Bangsamoro as a “contested territory'' (Coronel-Ferrer, 2013; Paredes, 2015). In the Mindanao case, the tri-people approach is presented by civil society to the state, represented by the Christian Filipino majority, in order to correct the injustices committed to the Moros (Paredes, 2015). However, Lumad interests are often sidelined in favor of the two dominant ethnic groups since they are often regarded as ‘second class minorities’ (Barter, 2015). If this existing relative peace only remains in favor of certain ethnic groups, then genuine peace will always be elusive in the long run.


 Securing Peace under Greater Autonomy

Upon the enactment of the new Bangsamoro law (RA 11054),  the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) as the interim regional government is created in order to assist in the transformation of former rebels into politicians that will eventually create multiethnic parties (Taniguchi, 2020). Indeed, this transformation is crucial in the success of the Bangsamoro government as an ideal model for peaceful transitions to previously war-torn societies.


In order to finally acknowledge the historical injustices committed on both sides, there are proposals to the Bangsamoro regional government to finally create a truth commission for Mindanao (La Viña, 2012; Castillo, 2014). According to Castillo (2014), the creation of a transitional justice system in the Bangsamoro is important because:


 ‘It is also crucial for a localized transitional justice process to be responsive to the diversity of and contestations over understandings of the past and the present, the advantages and pitfalls of truth-telling; and the weight of emotions, betrayal, mistrust and memory.’


Another important aspect in finally addressing the security issues in ethnically diverse societies is the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) of former rebel fighters. According to a report from the International Crisis Group (2019), the Bangsamoro government must also address in the disarmament of thousands of former militants, reign in other Islamist groups, and provide assistance in the integration of former guerillas to government service. Considering that gun culture is deeply embedded in Moro society, it will be hard for former rebels to give up their weapons to the government since they have used them for decades as a form of personal security and/or communal defense. As of this writing, the MILF is expected to turn over at least 2,100 weapons this year as agreed in the CAB last 2011 (Sarmiento, 2019).


Thus, conflicts in ethnically divided societies are often faced with complicated challenges ranging from territorial arrangements, disarmament of former rebels, and human rights atrocities during and after the bloodshed. Consequently, a multi-level approach from the national, regional, and local levels is needed to address the grievances committed by all parties once and for all.



The implementation of a peace agreement in a region ravaged by decades of civil war is a daunting task. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to finally settle all these grievances in the longue durée. However, identifying the factors why making peace in ethnically-divided societies, such as in Mindanao, is still an important endeavor in view of the theoretical and practical relevance of understanding intrastate wars.


Drawing from arguments mentioned above, the primary factors why peace remains elusive in Mindanao is due to a variety of issues. One is the lack of government effort to genuinely share power to the newly-created Bangsamoro autonomous government in terms of political trust. Second, the complexity of violent extremism promoted by Islamic jihadists still pose a threat to the fragile peace in the region. Third, the exclusionary politics promoted by dominant Moro groups against ethnic minorities remain unaddressed. And finally, the lack of transitional justice and genuine DDR mechanisms to rectify the atrocities committed by various key conflict actors impedes all parties to move on from the spoils of war.


To sum up, if the Philippine government turns a blind eye in considering the factors mentioned earlier, then peace in Mindanao will still be elusive for the next generations to come.   




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About the Author(s)

Jose Mikhail Perez is a lecturer and researcher based in the Philippines. He has an undergraduate degree in political science and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in international studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He writes on armed conflict, civil wars, interethnic violence, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:16am

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