Roots of Mindanao Conflict

September 10, 2011 by  
Filed under article, features

An Analysis  by   Manuel R. Tawagon,  Mindanao State University – Marawi

Photo credit: Dante L. Ambrosio

Photo credit: Dante L. Ambrosio

Let me start by sharing with you a story of three strangers (Japanese, American and Filipino) who accidentally met somewhere, introduction immediately followed and over a cup of scaldingly hot coffee, discussed both national and international issues. One of the seemingly insignificant issues was on bladed weapons. As expected, each took pride of their respective weapons as the sharpest. They then suggested that to settle the problem, they should put them to test.

To make the story short, the American volunteered first. Then, a mosquito flew by in front of him. With his saber, he struck at it twice and the mosquito fell. With a magnifying glass, there they saw the mosquito crawling without wings. Sharp! Not to be outsmarted, the Japanese volunteered next. As if by fate, another unfortunate mosquito flew by also. With his samurai, the Japanese struck at it a couple of times and the mosquito (due shock and pain) fell. Again, with the magnifying glass, they saw the mosquito rolling and sliding without legs. Sharper!

The last but not the least was the Filipino with his bolo. Another mosquito also flew by. That Filipino struck at it only once and the mosquito continued to fly. The American and the Japanese almost choked to death with laughter. The Filipino remarked: “Yes, gentlemen! You can laugh at me and at my bolo, but I can assure you gentlemen that that mosquito can never be a father again!”

The story is not, of course, folklore. It is fakelore but it has, however, some implied relevance to what is termed Mindanao Conflict. The three strangers stand for the governments and the mosquitoes for the people of Mindanao whose freedom (wings), movements (legs) and development (reproductive organ) are greatly affected.

Mindanao: The Land Where the Actions Are

Every time we talk about Mindanao, one of the issues that will automatically come out is Mindanao conflict. This receives some apathetic reactions which are boiled down to an expression: “So what?” In short, it is no longer as attractive as it used to be, at least, journalistically. As a topic, it loses its own essence or its own degrees of Fahrenheit or centigrade, so to speak – just like the Edsa Revolution fever. Although the problem is still there and it is still serious, the people (except those of Luzon and the Visayas who are not as concerned and as directly affected as we are here in Mindanao) are already fed up with the problem and accepted the reality with resignation. They also feel helpless despite the military role to serve and protect them on one hand and the indiscriminate acts of violence by the other party on the other.

Mindanao, indeed, is the land where the actions are and let us try to see these actions in the light of what we commonly call “Mindanao Problem” or “Mindanao Conflict.” To an uninformed mind, these two phrases look the same or, at least, refer to the same thing. To a certain extent, yes – because the latter is just a continuing chapter of the former. However, the basic difference between the two lies in time frame. The Mindanao Problem (Moro Problem) can be roughly dated from colonial period to the late 1960’s and Mindanao Conflict from the late 1960’s to the present.

Generally, the word “war” can be considered the main ingredient of both phrases. Specifically, “war” is used to describe the hostile / bloody relationship between the Moros and the Colonizers and “conflict” to describe the relationship between the Moros and the government (military / AFP). The beauty of these phrases despite their ugliness is that: they enriched some people, created heroes, promoted military officers, and produced graduate degree holders.

The Mindanao Problem

The phrase “Mindanao Problem” calls for two basic questions: What is this problem all about? And, why is it that the conflict still exists today? For the first question, there are many ways by which one views this problem. The following ideas or perspectives are culled from a lot of people from different walks of life:

1. Problem of education, ignorance and poverty.

2.Problem of imposition which may have started with the colonial policy of divide and rule. Later, it became the low intensity conflict (LIC) and then, to a more sophisticated conspiracy theory. Added to this is the role played by mass media.

3. Problem of ideologies. Communism has been contained. (The fear of the domino theory in Southeast Asia did not materialize.) Political disintegration of the USSR in the 1990s has ended the threat of socialism. What remains today as a threat to U.S. hegemony is Islam.

4. Problem of integration / assimilation in relation to antagonism and cultural differences / similarities.

5.Conflict of interests such as perpetuation of family dynasties; lands; power allocation; allocation of resources; unequal distribution of wealth; exploitation and development; connivance; etc.

All of these have actually some basis in history and including them all here would require a thick volume. This paper then would like to zero in briefly but significantly on the document of 1578, the American policy of integration and migration.

Let us start with the bloody encounters between the Spaniards and the Moros, between the Spanish colonial policies / objectives which were designed to religiously, economically and politically subjugate the latter and the Moro responses / reactions which were categorized into retaliation, collaborative and piratical.

These bloody encounters officially started with the document of 1578. This was actually the letter of Gov. Gen. Francisco de Sande to Capt. Esteban Rodriguez de Figueroa who was at that time in Borneo. This document spells out in great details the Spanish objectives in Moro occupied territories (Blair and Robertson: 1903 / 1909, Vol. IV. Guingona: 1943).

Economically, Figueroa was instructed among others to determine where the Moros were mining their gold and getting their cinnamon; to buy pearls from them; and to determine their harvest seasons. Politically, he was also instructed among others to neutralize them in the Spanish – Portuguese conflict as well as in the Spanish – Bornean conflict; for them to acknowledge Spanish soreignty in the Philippines; and for them to become subjects or vassals of the Spanish King. Religiously, he was further instructed, and again among others, to Christianize them and to allow Spanish priests to preach in Moro communities; and to tell the Moros “that the doctrine of Mahoma is false and evil and that of the Christian alone is true and good.”

Expectedly, the Moros reacted against these objectives and their reactions or responses were categorized into retaliatory, collaborative and piratical. According to Jose Rizal, in his annotation of the work of Antonio de Morga on the history of Mindanao and Sulu, the Moros simply retaliated the following year, in 1579. This was the beginning of retaliations and counter-retaliations, raids and counter-raids, attacks and counter-attacks between the two parties. These went on until the end of the Spanish period.

There were also cases of collaboration. When Sultan Alimuddin I of Sulu was captured by the Spaniards during the 18th century and brought him to Manila, the Spanish government installed another sultan. When the British captured Manila, they restored Sultan Alimuddin I to Sulu and removed the Spanish sponsored sultan (Majul: 1999). There were other instances in both Sulu and Maguindanao sultanates where some heirs apparent who cannot wait for their own turn courted and connived with the Spanish government to overthrow the incumbent sultans whose terms of office were for life.

Another form of collaboration is that while the Moro wars were going on, there were businessmen between the two parties who continued to conduct trade-caring less what was going on militarily. Their concern was economic survival or exploiting the war for their own benefit, for their business to thrive. (This aspect of collaboration is yet to be addressed by scholars.)

“What is piracy to one is a way of life to another.” Prior to the coming of the Spaniards, coastal communities were engaged in one way or another in piracy. When the Spaniards came, those communities they both controlled and influenced stopped piracy and those not under their control like the Moros continued piracy (Warren: 1975; Scott; 1993).

Not all the Moro ethnolinguistic groups that we know of today were engaged in piracy. Only three were known: 1) The Camocunes of Sulu Archipelago who were described as cruel, barbarians, brutal and sadistic. There are no Camocunes today. They became extinct. 2) The Balangingi (Bangingi) who were described by James Warren as “Fishers of Men.” They were also from Sulu Archipelago. Today, there is a group of small islands in the archipelago called Bangingi Islands inhabited by Sama Bangingi. And 3) the Iranuns (Ilanuns) along the coast of Illana Bay in Mindanao. They are one of the 13 Moro ethnolinguistic groups. As a pirate group, they were active for one century from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century. They were the most feared not only in the Philippines but also in Island Southeast Asia. Because of this, they earned the description “The Lords of the Eastern Seas.” Again, that description is from Warren. (Tawagon: 1990)

The age of organized piracy came to an end with the introduction of technology during the 19th century. That technology refers to steam gunboats and submachine guns.

Impact of East – West Encounters

Historians label the East-West encounters as Moro Wars. In Spanish records, they are “guerras piraticas.” The so-called “wars” were a product of Spanish attempt to achieve their objectives and Moro determination to resist them. These wars lasted for over three hundred years and their impact greatly affects us today as follows:

  1. Military, the wars historically conditioned us to be war-like (or even war-freaks);
  2. Geographically and politically, the wars polarized the archipelago into north and south. The north is always identified to be Christian, advanced, modern and oriented to the western world. The south is identified as Muslim, relatively backward, conservative, traditional and oriented to the Muslim world. Polarization alone spells out the basic difference between the two;
  3. Religiously, the wars divided us into two major religious communities: Muslim and Christian. Aside from being divisive in nature, religion also breeds fanaticism and antagonism. As a result, we lose tract of the overarching value of religion;
  4. Sociologically, the wars created the so-called minority-majority relations (Flipinas Foundation, Inc.: 1978). These relations are always viewed and defined along religious line but never along numerical line. Minority refers to the Moros and Lumads / indigenous peoples who are neither Muslim nor Christian while the majority refers to the Christians;
  5. Economically, the wars drained the sources of both the government and the sultanates. The net result: development was neglected; and
  6. Psychologically, the wars created the so-called Moro image as well as Christian image. Moro image is from the point of view of the Christians and that image is always negative (Tawagon: 1988-1989). Christian image is from the point of view of the Moros and that image is also negative.

Uncle Sam’s Mandate

When the news that Commodore George Dewey captured Manila from the Spaniards reached the United States, Pres. William McKinley convened the U.S. Congress. In his message, he said: “The Philippines are not ours to exploit, but to develop, to civilize, to educate, to train in the science of self-government.” This is actually the American mandate in the Philippines in general and the same mandate applied in Moroland in particular. That mandate is what they call “White Man’s Burden,” “American Benevolent Assimilation Policy,” or in French “mission civilisatrice”- “civilizing mission” (Gowing: 1983)

From this mandate, we can also draw the American objectives: to develop (economic objective); to civilize, to educate (religions / educational objective); and to train in the science of self-government (political objective). The details of these objectives are practically the same, if not, similar with those of the Spanish except the religious objective. The Spaniards came to save our souls as if everybody was going to hell. The Americans came not to save our souls but to capture our minds. And within two decades, they succeeded capturing our minds through education. In short, they emphasized education rather than religion. Civilizing the Moros was only done after the abrogation of the Bates Agreement in 1904. Prior to that year, the Bates Agreement stipulated indirect rule and after its abrogation, it was direct rule.

The Moros reacted against American objectives and occupation with open hostility and defiance. Their reactions or responses can also be categorized into retaliatory vis-à-vis American punitive expeditions and pacification campaigns, collaboration by some Moro friends (Amigos) and banditry like cattle rustling, stealing of firearms and telephone wires, harassment of garrisons, etc. The encounters between the two led to what we call “cotta battles” where thousands of the Moros killed (Gowing: 1983, Tan: 1975, Tawagon: 2001 and 2002). Their resistance did not last long the way it lasted during the Spanish period. The reasons for these are not difficult to postulate. Among others: American knowledge on Spanish experience in dealing with the Moros; policy of attraction; military superiority and technology; and integration policy.

Integration policy actually started with the Spanish attempt not only to politically, economically and religiously subjugate the Moros but also to incorporate them into the national body politic. This policy was crystallized only when the Americans occupied Moroland. To implement this, the government created political units or agencies (armed among other things with the policy of attraction) responsible for such a task. (The Japanese did similar thing with their East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.)

The agencies established to integrate the Moros are as follows: 1) Moro Province, 1903-1913; 2) Department of Mindanao and Sulu, 1913-1920; 3) Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes, 1920-1936; and 4) Office of the Commissioner for Mindanao and Sulu, 1936-1946. The problem of integration, however, continued. So, the Philippine government also created agencies and continues to do so: 1) Commission on National Integration, 1946-1975; 2) Office on Muslim Affairs, 1975 – present; 3) Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, 1988 – present; 4) Southern  Philippine Council for Peace and Development, 1996-2002; and 5) Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines – East Asia Growth Area, 1998 – present.

The issue on integration still besets us today. Among other reasons are the following: 1) Integration as understood by the Moros means assimilation or, at least, synonymously associated with assimilation; 2) the concept that “Moros are not Filipinos;” 3) historical experience and cultural heritage; and 4) the idea of imposition (Mastura: 1984).

In dealing with the Moros through the years (despite their policy of attraction and integration policy), the Americans cannot help but formed also their own perceptions (Aguilar: 1992). Colonial perceptions of the Moros (Spanish and American) can be summarized into one statement: “The only good Moro is a dead Moro.” This statement has been embedded for generations into the psyche of the Filipinos. This is an example of the theory of historical conditioning or “poisoning”. Recent happenings in Mindanao and Sulu keep on reminding us of that statement; thus, widening more our gaps instead of bridging them and thickening the invisible wall that divides us instead of tearing it down. The application of that theory is in part the “surrender of our consciousness.”

The Japanese interregnum was no better than the previous governments (Thomas: 1971 and 1977). Short as it was, it left another scar. That scar made the Moros more war-like, suspicious and not trusting.

Yet, they were being blamed, branded and accused of things not in their own making. Wars and governments were exported to them, imposed upon them. Historiographically, they were the losers, neglected, alienated and “defeated” but at least not “conquered.” Because of this, they said that the show must go on.

Gobirno a Sarwang a Tao and Jihad

Yes, the show must go on because their historical experiences under foreign rules and the circumstances surrounding them under the Philippine government led them to gradually develop a concept known as gobirno a sarwang a tao (Tawagon: 1990 and 1998). Gobirno means “government” and sarwang a tao, “non-Moro” or “non-Muslim.” Gobirno a sarwang a tao means “alien or foreign government” or “non-Moro / non-Muslim government” (which means the Philippine government). As a concept, it refers to a Moro expression of resistance.

Resistance can be classified into passive and active. As applied here, passive resistance refers to non-violent reactions, non-physical contacts, non-payment of taxes, practices of graft and corruption, work values vis-à-vis government employment, etc. On the other hand, active resistance is manifested by the MNLF, MILF, ASG, etc.

At the back of their mind is another concept popularly known as jihad. This is actually the driving or motivating factor behind their struggle to resist external force or any intrusion or aggression. Although not formally declared as a matter of policy, jihad is religiously inherent among the Moros. Jihad is originally construed to mean “struggle.” Today, it means “holy war” (Tawagon: 2004).

There are two kinds of jihad: Jihad al asghar (“lesser jihad”) and jihad al akbar (“greater jihad”). The first is what we know, observe and practice. This is the one being used to resist and fight aggression or intrusion. It is a physical response to an external force. The second is far more important than the first. It is also this kind of jihad which we do not know or refuse to know, to observe, to practice. It is a holy war against oneself. It implies patience, self-control or self-discipline for or against something or someone.

At any rate, active resistance in simple words is what we call “Mindanao Conflict.” This type of resistance was triggered by the Jabidah Massacre (or what the government calls Corregidor Incident) in 1968 which led among others to the founding of the MNLF with independence as its main objective. Later, the MNLF settled for autonomy. In the early 1980’s, the MILF emerged with the establishment of Islamic government and Islamic State as its main goal but recently, it is considering federalism as an option. Whatever political settlement agreed upon before between the government and the MNLF or to be agreed upon between the government and the MILF, the fact remains that the conflict still exists today. Why? That is the second question which we asked earlier.

Migration and Mindanao Conflict

Why, indeed, despite the solutions being suggested or offered? Well, we could not think of any better answer other than migration. It awakens the harsh historical realities concerning antagonism among us. It is also a major contributory or causative factor in triggering today’s seemingly interminable conflict. Migration can easily be explained by scholars using among other theories the so-called “push-pull” theory.

Migration of settlers from Luzon and the Visayas to Mindanao was encouraged as a matter of policy first by the colonial government and later by the Philippine government. The following are taken from a series of lectures done by Prof. Rudy B. Rodil who painstakingly compiled data from the National Statistics Office and other sources (I attended a couple of times his lectures for updates here in Mindanao as well as in Manila for the past three years, the last was last summer in Iligan City):

1. Their lands were open to settlers

  • Philippine Commission Law 1903: Declared as null and void all land grants made by traditional leaders like sultans, datus, tribal leaders if done without government consent.
  • Government implemented Public Land Law discriminatory to non-Christians (Moros and wild tribes) and favorable to homesteaders and corporations.
  • Whole of Mindanao opened to resettlement and corporate investments.

2. Resettlement: American Period

  • 1913: Act 2254 Agricultural Colonies Act creating agricultural colonies in Cotabato Valley (Pikit, Pagalungan, Glan).
  • 1914: PC Act 2280 creating agricultural colony in Momungan (Balo-i), Lanao.
  • 1919: PC Act 2206 authorizing provincial boards to manage colonies. Zamboanga opened Lamitan; Sulu opened Tawi-Tawi; Bukidnon opened Marilog; Cotabato opened Salunayan and Maganoy.
  • 1919-1930:  Resettlement done by Inter-island Migration Division of the Bureau of Labor. Opened Kapalong, Guiangga, Tagum, Lupon and Baganga in Davao; Labangan in Zamboanga and Lamitan in Basilan; Cabadbaran, Butuan and Buenavista in Agusan; Momungan and Kapatagan Valley in Lanao. Brought in more settlers to Pikit and Pagalungan.

3. Resettlement: Commonwealth Period

  • 1935: Act 4197 Quirino – Recto Colonization Act or Organic Charter of Organized Land Settlement.
  • 1939: Act 441 creating National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA). Opened Koronadal Valley (Lagao, Tupi, Marbel and Polomolok), Allah Valley (Banga, Norallah and Surallah) and Mallig plains in Isabela.

4. Resettlement: Republic of the Philippines

  • 1949: Rice and Corn Production Administration (RCPA) created to promote rice and corn production. Opened Buluan in Cotabato and Maramag-Wao in Bukidnon – Lanao border.
  • 1950: Land Resettlement Development Corporation (LASEDECO). Opened Tacurong, Isulan, Bagumbayan, part of Buluan, Sultan sa Barungis and Ampatuan.
  • 1951: Economic Development Corps (EDCOR) for captured and surrendered Huks, opened Arevaloin Sapad, Lanao del Norte; Genio in Alamada, Gallego and Barira in Buldon, all in Cotabato, and two others in Isabela and Quezon.
  • 1954: RA 1160 created National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration (NARRA).

5. Resettlement: Part of RP Land Reform

  • 1963: Land Authority inaugurated land reform, also managed resettlement.
  • 1971: RA 6389 created Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) did resettlement thru the Bureau of Resettlement. Administered 37 settlements all over the country, 18 of them in Mindanao in the 10 provinces of

a.   Tawi-Tawi (Balimbing-Bongao)

b.   Zamboanga del Norte (Liloy, Salug, Sindangan)

c.   Bukidnon (Maramag, Pangantukan, Kalilangan)

d.   Agusan del Sur (Prosperidad, Talacogon)

e.   Davao del Norte (Sto. Tomas, Panabo, Asuncion)

f.   Lanao del Norte (Sapad, Nunungan, Karomatan)

g.  Lanao del Sur (Wao, Lumba-a-Bayabao, Bubong, Butig, Lumbatan, Bayang,  Binidayan, Pagayawan, Tubaran)

h.   North Cotabato (Carmen, Alamada)

i.   Maguindanao (Buldon, Upi-Dinaig)

j.   Sultan Kudarat (Columbio, Tulunan, Isulan Bagumbayan, Surallah)

6. Public Land Law and Resettlement

Hectarage Allowed




(Moros and Wild Tribes)



16 has

(no provision)

1,024 has


24 has

10 has

1,024 has


16 has

4 has

1,024 has

No explanation was offered why the number of hectares for homesteader and non-Christian was reduced from 1919 to 1936.

7. Population Change in Mindanao, 1918-1970

Census Year

Total Population























This means that in 1970, the settlers and their descendants constituted 70.74% of the total population of Mindanao. (Other data indicate that in 1903, the Moros constituted 39.29% of the population in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan; in 1948, 29.70% and in 1975, 20.17%. Others show that in 1903, the Moros constituted 76%; in 1948, 32% and in 1980, 23%. In 1913, the Moros constituted 97% and in 1975, 13%. Question: Which one is accurate and which one is not? We do not know for sure, for they say that: “In statistics, figures do not lie but liars do figure.” So, whichever data one uses, the fact remains that all those data show one common thing: the minoritization of the Moros and Lumads [Rodil: 1994]).

Effects of Resettlement Acts

To the Moros and Lumads, migration (like migraine) has been considered a social headache. Because of it, Mindanao would still continue to be the land of “Never Ending Story” of conflict. Why? Most of the areas mentioned in settlement or resettlement programs are where the conflict takes place. Again, Why? There are three related reasons: 1) Population shift where the majority before (Moros and Lumads) now became a minority; 2) Power shift from Mindanaons controlling political power before but now in the hands of the settlers; and 3) Landholding shift from Mindanaons to migrants and corporations.

Because of these shifts which greatly affect them, the Moros and the Lumads now long for the past but going back in time is historically impossible. Retrieving what was lost has been costly and bloody. What remains then is to resolve the conflict for the benefits of all: Moros, Lumads and settlers alike – unless, of course, they will continue to allow themselves to be played upon by the following related dicta: 1) Everything is under control (a favorite expression of the government and the military); 2) Conflict regulation instead of conflict resolution; and 3) Search for long lasting negotiations instead of search for long lasting peace.

Concluding Remarks

1. The reduction of lands originally owned and controlled by the Moros and Lumads can be explained by using the ebb and flow analysis. Among others, this theory stipulates that territories expand or contract through: a) conquest, b) civil wars, c) sale/purchase, d) acts of congress/government, and e) referendum/plebiscite.

2. The main victims of conflict are truth and innocent civilians. Truth is difficult to explain, difficult to prove and difficult to quantify. Someone says that “a lie frequently told becomes truth.” Another state that our government is “a government of accusations and denials.”

To show that the conflict is bloody and costly, Prof. Rodil in one of his lectures gave us the following: In 1971, more than 1,000 persons were killed. From 1970 to 1996 in the fight between the MNLF and the AFP, 100,000-120,000 perished (50% MNLF, 30% AFP and 20% civilians) and 70 billion pesos spent. The fight between the MILF and the AFP in Central Mindanao, we have the following information: In 1997, 30,000 evacuees were affected; in 2000, 1,014,654 evacuees, in 2001, 24,000 evacuees; and in 2003, 75,419 evacuees.

3. In Philippine setting, we are told that there is no such thing as sincerity in politics. With perhaps few exceptions, our political history can bear this out from local to national. To satisfy doubts, all one has to do is to check this out and content analyze political speeches and public pronouncements of our leaders vis-à-vis Mindanao.

Related to this is another idea that any government (or any of its agencies/offices) or revolutionary movement or group motivated by personal ambition of its leadership is doomed. One more striking idea that whisperingly circulates is that: If you want some things like development programs and projects not to succeed, support, elect or appoint the wrong people especially those whose favorite song is “Mona Lisa” ( a line “… they just lie there, they die there…”).

4. The past is non-negotiable. One should rather talk about “what is” and not “what was.” A mere emotional attachment to the past will do us no good. And we have to bear in mind that there is no such thing as present knowledge in history. To put it in another way, there are no present answers to the present questions/problems. All answers to the present questions cannot be found in the present but rather in the past. However, solutions to the present problems cannot be found in the past but rather in the future. For this, let me share with you a statement from Oliver Wendell Holmes. He said: “What is important in this world is not so much where we stand but to which direction we are moving.”

5. Being victims of discrimination, what do the Moros and Lumads want? Prof. Rodil has simple, yet direct to the point, answer. For the Moros, they desire a life of peace and tranquility. They are Bangsamoro, not Filipino. They want to be asked in a referendum whether or not they wish: a) to remain in an autonomous region; or b) establish a state within a federal system; or c) be an independent nation.

For the Lumads who too became minorities in their own ancestral lands, they wanted to assert that their communities too have the right to self-determination and self-governance in accordance with customary laws within their respective ancestral domains (1986 Lumad Mindanaw). In 2001, Panagtagbo said the Lumads are first nations and want no less than their own autonomous region within the Republic of the Philippines. The Lumad situation, like the Moro problem, is the problem of all Filipinos.

Posing a challenge to all Filipinos, he asks this question: Are we willing to respond to the aspirations of our Lumad and Moro communities in the spirit of Kapatiran? Remember, he says, that we contributed to the creation of this problem and because of this, we also have a role in finding a solution.


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