"Insurgency and Islam in the Southern Philippines"

Conflict in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao is as regular as the monsoon rains.  Stifling poverty, government neglect and Islamic militancy have fueled multiple insurgencies over the last 30 years.

One insurgent organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has been fighting for an independent state since the 1970’s.  It would like to establish a separate homeland for the Philippines’ six million Muslims and use Islamic (shar’ia) law as the primary tool of governance.  A more devoutly religious organization, the MILF split off from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) well before the signing of a 1996 peace agreement which gave Muslims a lackluster form of self-government on the island of Mindanao.  The Abu Sayyaf, a third Islamic insurgent group, continues to fight a more extreme, jihadist war against the Philippine state and has been responsible for dozens of bombings and kidnappings throughout the country.

In the 13th century, seafarers, merchants, and missionaries from the Arabian peninsula and Indian sub-continent journeyed along trade routes in Southeast Asia and introduced Islam to residents from the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagos.  Several hundred years of colonial conquests by Spain and later the United States marginalized Islamic communities throughout the Philippines.   Collectively known as the Bangsamoro, most Filipino Muslims now live in the impoverished region of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and have spent the last two generations trying to survive frequent cycles of war. 

The MILF agreed to engage in peace talk with the Philippine government in 2001. However, accusations of the MILF’s alleged ties with the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyyah and disagreement over how many villages would be included in a new Bangsamoro homeland have stalled negotiations.  Until recently, government peace panelists have refused to entertain any rebel demands outside the notion of enhanced autonomy.  Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s chief negotiator, insists that the idea of autonomy has failed the Bangsamoro people.  "A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all," says Iqbal.  "As far as the MILF is concerned, we will never sign a bad agreement precisely because we don’t want to go back to armed struggle. We must be sure that whatever agreement we sign will be the solution to the problem."

Iqbal feels that independence may still be an option, but that it is up to the Bangsamoro people to decide what they want.  Right now, the most viable choices for self-governance range from a federal state to a sort of commonwealth or sub-state entity.  If the MILF had its way, this choice will be made in a UN-sponsored referendum. Without an amendment to the Philippine constitution, however, nothing will move forward outside the framework of autonomy.

After three decades of waging war, many MILF members are tired.  Most just want to farm their lands and feel free to express their Islamic identity.  "Talking peace is better than waging war because we only utilize our saliva and mind unlike in war when we utilize arms and kill people," says Amor Pendaliday, an MILF information officer. "Why fight if this can be solved through peaceful means?"

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