PEACETALK: Strength, but not without Shame

[A Reflection on Our Trustworthiness vis-à-vis Muslim Filipinos]

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/09 May) — In presenting the report of the Peace Council on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to both the Congressional Committee on the BBL led by Congressman Rufus Rodriguez and the Senatorial Committee on Local Government headed by Senator Bongbong Marcos, there was a palpable resentment among the legislators for the message that both committees had perceived from the OPAPP (Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process) and the representatives of the Peace Panel that the draft BBL as submitted should not undergo any changes in its legislation.

I am not sure how the committees got that impression. Certainly, the desire of those who had worked out this draft BBL through arduous negotiations that it not be mutilated is understandable. The draft is a negotiated attempt by both parties to translate the provisions of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) into law. The path towards the CAB was arduous and literally bloody, and even the process through which agreement was achieved on the draft BBL was troubled. So once that agreement was achieved, no one should be surprised that both the representatives of the MILF and the GPH (Government of the Philippines) are one in defending the provisions of the draft BBL before the public, and particularly the legislators. The draft BBL represents not the will of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) alone, nor the will of the GPH alone, but the worked-out shared will of both to overcome the armed conflict in Mindanao, including eventually the injustices which gave rise to the conflict, through an ongoing commitment to social justice and the common good in an autonomous Bangsamoro homeland. The draft BBL states how the parties in conflict have agreed they can move forward on the path to peace and prosperity.

At the same time, both the government and the MILF negotiators have submitted the draft BBL to the wisdom of the Congress, including the Senate and the House of Representatives. In fact, contrary to the perception of the legislators, they are not absolutely closed to change, since they have stated that they welcomed a thorough discussion on the draft and an improved BBL. What they do not want is that the BBL be watered down. Better no BBL than a bad BBL. By the latter, I presuppose they mean a BBL where the self-determination or the homeland for which they have struggled within the parameters of our Constitution is substantially compromised. Or, any change that would diminish, and not enhance, the autonomy that has already been achieved in the ARMM, which was a result of that struggle, even as it has been declared “a failed experiment.” The justness of this struggle is at the heart of the BBL and the negotiations which led to it.

Trustworthiness of the MILF?

When the Mamasapano debacle occurred, and some people only saw the caskets of the 44 PNP SAF personnel who had fallen in pursuit of two international terrorists they presumed the MILF had been coddling, the question of the trustworthiness of the MILF as a partner-in-peace was raised. It was an understandable question under the sad circumstances of Mamasapano. On the other hand, it is not as if countries such as ours have the luxury of choosing a partner-in-peace among many based on trustworthiness. One gains this status, partner-in-peace, because of an earlier state of belligerency, and a shared desire now to move away from the belligerency to peace. The shared movement away from war is necessarily based on trust. Absent the trust, the peace process makes no sense. Personally, understanding something of the injustice that Muslim Filipinos have suffered in Mindanao, I admire those who have been willing to risk comfort, property, and their own lives in an armed struggle to defend their religion, their way of life, their homeland, their rights, and to pursue the social justice they deserve. That this has pitted them against Armed Forces of the Philippines belongs to the pain of the state of belligerency and the imperative today to work out among Filipinos a just and lasting peace. As a Filipino in Mindanao, I am grateful that a peace process is ongoing. The peace negotiators on the side of the GPH negotiated for peace presumably also in my name, and with them I choose to trust them. I affirm the trust they repose in our partner-in-peace.

Our Own Trustworthiness?

While thinking of the trustworthiness of the MILF partner-in-peace, it might be a salutary exercise to consider our own trustworthiness as manifested by the representatives of the foreign colonizers or of the Philippine nation over the years, since I presume we might as Filipinos consider ourselves the heir of our colonial past.

In this exercise, one could recall the colonial government of Spain, which sought to conquer the Muslims and convert them to Christianity. They succeeded in neither. But the memory of the Moro-Spanish wars brought on the Muslims while the rest of the Filipinos were hispanized and Christianized is part of Moro consciousness today.

One could then recall the colonial government of the Unites States of America, which sought to conquer and “civilize” the Muslims. They succeeded in conquest through superior military hardware and ignominious military massacres (Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak), but their manner of “civilizing” the Muslims was based on the model of the Filipino Catholic from Luzon and Visayas, the worthy “little brown brother” of the American Protestant rulers. They “integrated” the Muslims into the Philippine society by installing Filipino Catholics to govern them, failing to work with their Muslim leaders, undermining their Muslim traditions and leadership structures and by bringing Filipino Catholic settlers from the north to take over their lands.

Under the commonwealth government of the Philippines, the American colonization policy was continued, bringing in more settlers from the north who took over the lands belonging to the Lumad and the Muslims through use of a land registration scheme that was foreign and confiscatory in Mindanao.

Prior to the Government of the Philippines, Muslims were already not “Filipinos” because they were not Christian, or they were not “civilized” because they were not Christian. They were not recognized as leaders in their own homeland because they were not “Christian Filipino.” They were deprived of their lands because of a land registration system which was foreign to them and alienated their lands to Christian Filipinos.

One must not be shocked when the Muslims of Mindanao are blocked in trusting the “Filipinos” from the north when they were treated in this manner.

Basis for Our Trustworthiness in History

From the viewpoint of the MILF leaders, however, and all the Muslims in the Philippines whom they presumably represent, what is the basis in history for putting trust in the Filipino People, including myself, who are presumably represented by such as the GPH or the President of the Philippines or the legislators of the Philippines? What is the record of the Philippine Government in dealing with the Muslims? Have their activities argued to the trustworthiness of the Philippine Government? Has the record of implementation of Philippine commitments to the Muslim community tended to build up or demolish trust?

Unfortunately it is not very good. The record does not argue for trust.

Beyond its long history of being discriminated against from the north, the contemporary conflict with the Filipino Muslims begins with the Jabidah Massacre in 1968. Unfortunately, many of our Filipinos are yet unaware of this. President Ferdinand Marcos was involved in extra-legal activities to advance the claim of the Sultanate of Sulu, and therefore of the Philippines, to Sabah. This included the clandestine Operation Merdeka (Freedom) to infiltrate and destabilize Sabah. When 48 Muslim operatives mutinied because they had not been paid their 50 pesos a month, or because they could not participate in attacking Muslim Sabah, all except one were executed in Corregidor. Jibin Arola survived by swimming back to Manila. Malacañang denied involvement in the affair. Instead, the Ilokano head of the operation, Capt. Martelino, gamely took the blame. But to date, there has been no formal investigation into this matter and no determination of blame. This already does not augur well for the trustworthiness of Manila in investigating actions which affect Muslims adversely and effecting justice for Muslims.

The Jabidah massacre eventually conditioned the development of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Nur Misuari, then eventually the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It continues to be a lingering source of mistrust among Muslims for the Philippine Government. For decent Filipinos it is a source of shame.

The Jabidah Massacre immediately preceded the call by Cotabato Governor for a Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), who had also been frustrated by the events in his family and his party which compromised his political standing. While the call did not result in an immediate secessionist uprising of the Muslim community against the Philippines, it sowed fear in the hearts of Christian settlers, who believed the Muslims would attack them and take over their lands. In fear, the Christian settlers organized strike groups called the Ilagas, the “rats,” some Teduray, mostly Ilonggos, headed by the unassuming Feliciano Lupes from Upi, Cotabato, who as “commander Toothpick” turned into a monster. The Christian Ilagas launched a series of vicious and brutal attacks on Muslim communities whose battle signatures were cut off ears, hacked off nipples, gouged out eyes, and cross markings on the slain bodies of Muslims. The Muslims eventually retaliated with the Iranun Blackshirts and the Maranao and Maguindanaon Barracudas; they showed the Ilagas held no monopoly on ferocity. In recalling these sad events which bloomed into the Muslim-Filipino war in Mindanao in the first half of the 70s, it is for our consideration to note that the national government under Marcos did not use the government’s police or armed forces to quell the aggressor violence of the Ilagas and maintain the peace in Muslim communities, who were then not supporting a rebellion. Instead, it allowed the local government units to use and deploy the Ilagas as an integral part of their anti-Muslim campaign. In fact, it even used the Ilagas as special shock troops. Udtog Matalam’s declaration of the MIM, but more so the violence fomented by the Ilagas tolerated, supported and exploited by Malacanang, became part of the pretext for Marcos’ imposition of martial law in 1972. Martial law was imposed to quell the violence it itself encouraged, but then could no longer control; the war became the solution to the war it had itself fomented. It was warrant for the Moro National Liberation Front under the youthful UP intellectual-turned rebel, Nur Misuari; he organized the Bangsa Moro Army to provide military support for the call for Muslim independence from the Philippines in assertion of Muslim self-determination.

The war against the Muslims was perceived as persecution of the Muslim ummah (community) in Mindanao. If this was not perceived by Manila and the rest of the country, it was because of the peddled narrative that the Muslims had called for cessation from the Philippines without warrant and the general ignorance of Mindanao affairs in Manila. But this was not the view of Muslim countries abroad. Misuari brought the Philippine case to the newly-founded Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC, now Organization of Islamic Cooperation) and won its support. While the Philippine government was not willing to listen to and negotiate with the Muslim rebels, the OIC was more than willing to listen. It extended it its support. In its perception, the persecutions of the Muslim ummah in the Philippines were real and constituted “Fitna,” a state under which the defense of the Islamic faith even through killing and war was an obligation imposed on Muslims by the Holy Qur’an. With the support of the OIC the war in Mindanao was internationalized. The Philippine Government was forced to deal with the MNLF on pain of losing vital oil resources from the Islamic world. On the other hand, because of the distaste for cessation of member countries of the OIC with their own ethnic problems and their respect for international law, the support of the OIC also entailed a revision of the call for self-determination through independence from the Philippines to a call for self-determination through autonomy within the Republic of the Philippines.

This led to the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 between the MNLF and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines. The agreement promised genuine autonomy to the Muslims in thirteen provinces and nine cities of Mindanao. Unfortunately, the Tripoli agreement would never be implemented. Ambiguous language was part of the problem. Soon after the agreement, Marcos held a referendum and declared that only ten provinces and their cities would be part of the autonomous region. Protests against the non-implementation of the Tripoli agreement under Marcos led to new military engagements. This non-implementation of what had been agreed was another mortal sin against demonstrating our trustworthiness to the Muslim community.

After Marcos was deposed, and Corazon Aquino took over the reigns of government, the atmosphere between the Muslims and the Philippine government improved. But Corazon Aquino, who presided over a re-birth of Philippine democracy, did not recognize the Tripoli agreement as binding on her. Instead, she presided over the Constitutional Commission which produced the Philippine Constitution of 1987. The new Constitution provided for an autonomous region for Muslim Mindanao. Today, 28 years later, that constitutionally mandated autonomous region has yet to be acceptably established. Meanwhile, the Muslims of Mindanao under Misuari and the MNLF still fought for implementation of the Tripoli Agreement. This was the internationally-mediated agreement for peace that had been established; there had been no agreement to abrogate it.

Maintaining this position vs. the provision of the Constitution for an autonomous region that might have fallen short of the Tripoli Agreement, the MNLF rejected participation in the ratification of the Organic Act for Muslim Mindanao (RA 6734). Apparently, this was the beginning of the “failed experiment” in establishing a meaningful autonomous region for Muslim Mindanao. The law of an autonomous region which was to establish the conditions of self-determination was determined in the north and imposed, rather than the project of negotiation and shared purpose. With RA 6734 peace had not been established.

Under President Fidel Ramos, new talks with the MNLF were entered into. The GPH-MNLF process was revived. Through the Jakarta Agreement of 1992, the GPH again committed itself to genuine autonomy for Muslim Mindanao based on the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. Now, despite the new Philippine Constitution, the provisions of the Tripoli Agreement accepted under Marcos were recognized and accepted. Peace was now to be worked out in two phases.

Phase One involved the creation of the Southern Philippines Council for Development and Peace (SPCPD) and the Special Zone of Peace for Autonomy and Development (SZOPAD). This would be the new autonomous region of Muslim autonomy and prosperity. There were development programs for the SZOPAD were planned; former Muslim warriors were now integrated into the Philippine National Police and in the Philippine Army.

Phase Two involved amendments to the Organic Act for Muslim Mindanao (RA 6734) by RA 9054, “An Act to Strengthen and Expand the Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao…” to implement the Djakarta agreement, which agreed in turn to implement the Tripoli agreement. Ramos’ “Final Peace Agreement” of 1996 implemented the Tripoli Agreement “to 99 percent.” In this context, Nur Misuari was appointed chair of the SPCPD and governor of the SZOPAD. No less than 49 billion pesos were allocated for projects in the SZOPAD. However, from 1996-2000, only 2 billion was disbursed. This became another major component of the “Failed Experiment” of the ARMM. The structure of a autonomous region was set up, but the means to make it succeed were denied.

Meanwhile, in 1997, Ramos began talks with the MILF. A new Tripoli Agreement on Peace was entered into between the GPH and the MILF on June 22, 2001 under the supervision of Malaysia. This led eventually to the draft MOA-AD of Aug 5, 2008 under Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose draft and signing were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was yet another failure in trustworthiness for the GPH.

When Joseph Estrada became President of the Philippines, hope for the Muslim Community was high because he had signed an agreement with the MILF to work with the Muslim Ummah of Lanao. He also announced he would establish a Malacañan in Mindanao. In an Aide Memoire of April 27, 2000 it was agreed, among others, that there was need to pursue the ongoing peace process, that the civilian PNP would take over ensuring peace on the Narciso Ramos Highway, that the GPH (AFP) troops would remain in their current positions, and that police and military actions shall continue in Mindanao with continuing coordination between the GPH and the MILF.

Within 24 hours, the agreement was violated. Government troops attacked MILF positions on the Narciso Ramos Highway, allegedly for reasons of national security. The MILF countered by attacking other government positions. Here, another sorry example of the “trustworthiness” of the GPH position. Despite calls for ceasefire, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado declared: “a military problem demands a military solution.” It was the GPH declaration of war. It led to the “all out war” under Estrada against the Muslims. It contravened the constitutional renunciation of war as a vehicle of national policy. It brought thousands of Filipinos to their death.

Under President Benigno Aquino, the effort has been to find peace through the peace process and the Bangsamoro Basic Law. The effort involved the full participation of the MILF. Then, Mamasapano.

We may wish to deal with the MILF from a position of national strength. The strength we wield, however, must not be devoid of appropriate shame.

Decision to trust

Undergoing this exercise, one can really ask, why do they continue to trust us?

I think it is because in the pursuit of peace they have decided to trust us. We must also decide to trust them. This time, we must implement what we have agreed to in trust. We must work out a BBL within the parameters of the Constitution, which establishes an autonomy meaningful for the Filipino Muslim community. It is they who now undertake to lead their community to peace and prosperity as part of the Philippine nation. We must listen to them. All things being equal, the good of one possibility weighed against another, we must give the option proposed by our partners-in-peace not the benefit of the doubt, but the benefit of trust.

I hope finally all sides can prove themselves worthy of the trust reposed in this peace process – often admirably overcoming painful historical obstacles. Without trust, there can be no peace.



Heidi Gloria. History from Below. Davao: Ateneo de Davao University Publications Office, 2014

Salah Jubair. Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyranny. 3rd edition. Kuala Lumpur: IQ Marin SDN BDH, 1999.

Readings in History 3: History of the Filipino Muslims and the Indigenous People of MINSUPALA. Published by: Department of History, College of Arts and Social Sciences, Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology, 2014

Draft Bangsamoro Basic Law: Reviews, Commentaries, Recommendations. Davao: Ateneo de Davao University Publications Office, 2014

(Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ is president of the Ateneo de Davao University. He is also Vice President of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) and chair of its Advocacy Committee, and President of the CEAP in Region 11. MindaNews was granted permission to reprint this piece, first published in Fr. Tabora’s blog, on May 7, 2014)