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Issue Number 29/30, May 2008

Kapatiran Issue No. 29/30, May 2008

STRENGTHENING INTERFAITH MOVEMENT AMIDST THE PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT’S ALL-OUT WAR CAMPAIGNS: The Bangsamoro People’s Fight Against State Discrimination And Oppression In The Philippines
- Amirah Ali Lidasan, Secretary-General of the Moro-Christian People’s Alliance; Convenor, Initiatives for Peace in Mindanao (InPeace Mindanao)

Like most of you, we Muslims in the Philippines want peace and unity to prevail amidst diversity of religions in our country. However, there are some factors or circumstances created by our Government that makes the path to peace seem rather distant. I belong to the 13 ethnolinguistic groups of Islamised national minorities in the Philippines, collectively known as the Moro people. We live mostly in the southern part of the Philippines, dispersed in the second major island, Mindanao. We comprise about 8 to 10% of the 86 million Philippines’ population. Elsewhere in the country, we inhabit mostly rural and urban poor areas in the other islands of Luzon and Visayas.

Since my childhood, I have witnessed the sufferings of our people. Often I would hear stories from my grandparents about how bravely our ancestors fought Spanish and American colonialism. The Spaniards were the ones who coined the term MORO* to describe the Islamised tribes who were resistant to Christianisation and colonial rule. The term Moro, which was then a derogatory word to describe the Muslims, was used by the future generation of Moro people to signify defiance. *The Spanish called the Arabs “Moors” and later applied that name to all Muslims. Ed.

I was born at the time of the 1970s and 80s’ martial law, when the Philippines became a battleground for the fascist ruling of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, at the time when Mindanao became the battleground of his Administration’s counter-insurgency measures against Moro minorities and national liberation movements (namely the New People’s Army of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which has been waging an armed struggle in Mindanao, and throughout the Philippines, since the late 1960s. Ed.).

It was during martial law that the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the biggest Muslim libera-tion movement in the 70’s, was esta-blished as a response by the Moro people against the series of military campaigns of the Philippine government against our people who fought land grabbing schemes such as State land occupation and resettlement programs for landless pea-sants. Scores of Moro people died in the Jabidah Massacre, Pata Island Massacre and other similar genocidal campaigns of the Government.

Marcos wanted to use covert force to seize the disputed Borneo territory of Sabah which did, and does, belong to Malaysia. Young Muslim men from the southernmost islands were recruited for an elite unit within the Philippine military, training in Corregidor, Luzon. When they found out the true nature of their mission, codenamed Jabidah, namely to fight their Muslim brethren, they mutinied. In March 1968, all but one of them was massacred by the military. The estimate of the number murdered ranges from 28-64. In February 1981, MNLF forces killed around 120 soldiers on Pata Island, off Jolo, because of the military’s abusive behaviour. In retaliation, the military killed around 1,000 of the island’s 15,000 population. Ed.

In the hinterlands, the MNLF were the Moro armed fighters for the freedom of the Bangsamoro or the Moro nation. In Manila, the country’s capital, they were supported by hundreds of Moro youth who joined massive protest demonstrations against President Marcos and the declaration of martial law that affected millions of Filipino and Moro people. In the years that followed, the Moro people were thrown into a series of military campaigns designed to stop the Muslim secession movement in Mindanao and the need for the Philippine government to take control of Moro communities for economic development purposes.

The Moro People In The Autonomous Region

The Moro is composed of 13 ethnolinguistic tribes from Mindanao and Palawan: the Maguindanaons, Tausugs, Maranaos, Iranon, Yakan, Kalagan, Samal, Sangir, Kalibugan, Molboganun, Palawanis, Jama Mapun and Badjao. These tribes are united with Islamic belief and a shared history and culture that can be traced back to the pre-Spanish Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao. Most of them live within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a region recognised by the 1986 Philippine Constitution and created by an Orga-nic Act to designate provinces in Mindanao that are Moro/Muslim populated. ARMM was a product of the Government’s series of nego-tiations with the Moro revolutionaries in Mindanao.

The ARMM has a total land area of 13,435.26 sq km (4.5% of the country’s land area), and is composed of six provinces and one city, 98 municipalities which equals to 2,148 barangays. The six pro-vinces are: Maguindanao and Sha-riff Kabungsuan where the Maguindanaoans and Iranons predominantly live; Sulu where the Tau-sugs predominantly live; Lanao del Sur and Marawi City where the Maranaos are; Basilan is the home of Yakans; while Tawi-Tawi is where the Samal, Jama Mapuns and Badjaos live (for more on the latter, see Tim Howard’s “A New Zealander In Mindanao: Amongst Sea Nomads and Muslims”, in Kapatiran 27/28, April 2007, which can be read online at Ed.).

The other Moro tribes also reside outside of the ARMM area: the Kalagans live in the Davao provinces, Sangir in Saranggani province, Kalibugan in the Zamboanga Peninsula, Palawanis and Molboganons in Palawan. The Moro people are mostly farmers and fishermen, with Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur as one of the biggest producers of rice and corn, while Maguindanao and Sulu account for 1/3 of the country’s fish production. Moros also engage in coconut and cassava farming, while others are farm workers in a banana plantation owned by a Moro landlord inside the ARMM province.

While the ARMM provinces were identified as targets for mining areas, the region cannot account for the ownership of minerals found underneath and above ground. The national Government is the one that leads the explorations for mining and issues licences for mining and logging concessions. The Philippine National Oil Corporation, for example, started non-mining exploration of Liguasan Marsh in Maguindanao. The 451,700 hectares is said to have millions of barrels of oil and natural gas deposits. Other mining areas are Maguindanao for nickel deposits and the Sulu Sea Basin for another oil deposit. These same places are where the intense fighting occurs and where there is the biggest deployment of military in the ARMM areas. This is where most of the US soldiers were sighted conducting medical missions and other socio-cultural activities.

The Making Of Muslim Mindanao

Before Las Islas Filipinas and the Philippine Republic, our country was divided into the Sultanates of Maguindanao and Sulu. The heart of the two sultanates was a feudal system of leadership based on families, clans and tribes. The sultanate had a hierarchical system of leader-ship whose basis was signified by the amount of land owned by a certain leader of the family, the datu of the tribe and the sultan of all tribes. Other families belonged to the armies of the datu and the sultan, while the others were farmers and slaves of the sultanate.

The major tribe under the Sultanate of Sulu was the Tausug tribe of Sulu, while in the Sultanate of Maguindanao it was the Maguindanaons. The other tribes comprising the vassals of the two sultanates were the Yakans, Samal, Palawani, Molboganun, Jama Mapun, Kalibogan and Badjao who were under the Sulu Sultanate, while the Iranons, Sangir, Kalagan belonged to the Maguindanaon Sultanate. The Maranaos had the Pangampong system, a congregation of four major clans from the Lanao area.

When the Spanish and American colonisers saw the organised and fierce defence of both Sultanates, they were reminded of similar Muslim people whom they fought when they colonised Africa. Like the Moors of North Africa, the Moro people were able to fight the colonisers because at that time only the sultanate system was organised politically and militarily. Because the sultanate was the first feudal government in the Philippines, the people had a sense of homeland to protect and fight for.

During the American colonisation in the 1900s, the US military govern-ment launched one of the most destructive wars that left hundreds of people dead. The Tausugs of Sulu experienced most of the massacres when the Americans launched military expeditions in Bud Dajo in 1906 and Bud Bagsak in 1913 meant to make the Sultanate surrender. The integration system on the other hand was able to “abrogate” the Sultanates as part of the Philippine territory by establishing the Moro province under the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes. The Muslims of Mindanao were ruled by American government, the US-created Philippine Republic using the Constitution as the basis of its laws, disregarding the common laws of tribes and the Islamic religious laws.

The Constitution and series of land policies gave license for the Ameri-can and Philippine governments to get the ancestral lands of the Moro people through a series of land laws such as the Public Land Act which disregarded previous ownership system of land of the Moro people. It practically placed all the lands in the hands of the Philippine government, which in turn classified it as frontier lands and offered them to big landlords and transnational companies who set up fruit and rubber plantations and logging concessions.

American-owned companies such as Sime Darby and Firestone built rubber plantations in Basilan, while Dole and Del Monte set up fruit plantations in the former Maguindanao Sultanate. A tobacco plantation was also set up near the Liguasan Marshland in Maguindanao. Foreign corporations and big landlords from the Luzon and Visayas were able to own large tracts of land, bringing with them farmers and farm workers willing to work in their plantations for low wages as long as they could own a piece of land in Mindanao.

Through the numerous land decrees under the Philippine Republic, the lands of the Moros and Lumads* in Mindanao were offered to landless Filipino peasants from Luzon and Visayas to take the heat off the Government as these peasants organised peasant revolts against big landlords and the Philippine government for land reform. *Lumads - highland indigenous tribal peoples, neither Christian nor Muslim, and distinct from lowland Filipinos. Ed.

Resettlement programs brought thousands of Christian settlers in Mindanao, edging the Mindanao natives farther away from their farmlands. As a come on, Mindanao was called the “Land of the Promise,” with the Government offering large tracts of Mindanao land for landless peasants. To woo the Muslim population, the sons and daughters of the former Sultanate were educated in the US and in Manila under the American education system to enable them to administer the Moro populace. The new generation of leaders imbibed the politics of the Americans - the election sys-tem and even the corruption.

The Moro areas in Mindanao were further divided among big landlords and families, both Muslims and Christians, who vied for governor-ships and representation in the Philippine Congress. In their bid to win in every election, the Moro congressmen issued laws that changed the boundaries of provinces based on the concentration of Mus-lim tribes and Christian settlers. This scheme further concentrated ownership of land in the hands of few Moro and Christian landlords who then became the local leaders of Mindanao.

From Jabidah Massacre To “War On Terror”

The 1968 Jabidah* Massacre is an incident that is embedded into the collective memory of the Moro people. It served as a wake-up call for them, that despite their inte-gration into the State through politics, etc, their brethren in the countryside were still being oppressed. * Also spelt Jabbidah. See above for details. This was only one of Marcos’ innumerable human rights atrocities, and one committed years before he declared martial law. Ed. Moro students at home and abroad organised themselves and formed associations rallying Muslims in the call of creating a separate nation or Bangsa for the Moro people. Most of these youths and professionals went home to their provinces and joined the fight of their families against the Government’s land grabbing schemes through laws and military expeditions.

When martial law was declared, most of these youths went under-ground and were in military training in Sabah, Malaysia. They formed the Moro National Liberation Front. Some of them had already raided military detachments in Lanao area while others had been planning to take over major towns of their provinces. The Marcos dictatorship responded by sending battalions and arming allied landlords and politicians, bombarding Jolo, Sulu and burning all its commercial establishments and houses. In that genocidal war, more than 100,000 lives were lost. Hence, the Organisation of Islamic Countries put pressure on the Marcos government and a peace negotiation in Libya was offered to the MNLF called the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, which highlighted the Philippine government’s recognition of 13 provinces as Moro areas which would fall under an autonomous government.

Some MNLF leaders however did not like the outcome of the agreement and broke away with the MNLF and created the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The Marcos Administration did not recognise the Tripoli Agreement and instead implemented pseudo-autonomous provinces putting in allied politicians as heads. The MNLF and MILF con-tinued their warfare, splitting Moro provinces into their camps and influenced communities. The succeeding 1986-92 Administration of President Cory Aquino, on the other hand, continued to offer the Moro people an alternative to the Bangsamoro Nation by establishing a Government-controlled Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1989 and putting Government-allied Moro politicians as governors and lawmakers of the whole region.

The autonomous government however was rejected by both the MNLF and the MILF. Hence, the next President, Fidel Ramos (1992-98) offered another truce with the MNLF and called it the 1996 Final Agreement. The MNLF Chairman, Professor Nur Misuari, was offered the Governorship of ARMM and the chairmanship of a development agency for the Moro areas. The MILF, on the other hand, was offered a ceasefire agreement that included the recognition of MILF major and satellite camps.

Abu Sayyaf

However, another group believed to be created by the US government’s Central Intelligence Agency emerged in the Moro political scene that proved to be a stumbling block in the peace negotiations. Composed of former MNLF members, and some military intelligence, the Abu Sayyaf was known as a terror group whose signature is the kidnapping and beheading of Christian missionaries and foreigners that they found in the Moro areas of Western Mindanao. They are known to target Christian homes, communities and churches. Despite being different from both the MILF and the MNLF, in the bid to pressure both organisations to sign agreements, the Abu Sayyaf was often identified with Moro rebellion. Hence, when President Joseph Estrada (1998-2001) called for an all-out war against the MILF, the public was thinking that they were responsible for kidnapping foreigners in Basilan and Sulu.

This cycle of the MNLF and MILF being made responsible for the atrocities committed by the Abu Sayyaf was further used by the Arroyo Administration (2001- ) and became the rallying call for her anti-terror policies. In 2001, scores of Moro civilians were killed, arrested, tortured and detained in that name of fighting Abu Sayyaf. For every bombing of public places and commuters’ transportations, a Moro civilian was presented as Abu Sayyaf. An MILF or MNLF lair is raided on the pretext of pursuing Abu Sayyaf bandits. After the 9/11 tragedy and the consequent declaration of US President George Bush of the “war on terror”, Moro revolutionary groups in the Philippines were in danger of being tagged as foreign terrorist organisations just like what the US government did to the fellow revolutionary group in the Philippines, the National Democratic Front (the political wing of the armed struggle, the NDF includes a number of groups such as the Communist Party and the New People’s Army. Ed.).

Using the pretext of finding “terrorist cells” and following reports of local Moro revolutionary groups having connections with Al-Qaeda and Jeemayat Islamiya, the international networks of terrorists consisting of Islamic militants, the US and the Philippine government signed several bilateral agreements tightening military connections through a series of joint military exercises. The Arroyo Administration offered Basilan and other Muslim populated areas in Mindanao as venues for them.

The Philippine government used the “Moro terrorist” hysteria to justify the passage of anti-people policies and laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the National Identification system. The Moro people were portrayed as suicide bombers, kidnappers and their firm grip on their religion, culture and ancestral domain was portrayed as obstacles to the country’s progress. The madaris (Islamic schools) were suspected of training ground for terrorists, while the Azatiz (Islamic preachers) were abducted and arrested in suspicion of leading terrorist organisations and aiding known international terrorists. The US “War on Terror” reduced all struggles of the oppressed people into “terrorism” - all revolutionary forces and struggling people were tagged as terrorist groups. It also disregarded the lifelong struggle of the Moro people for self-determination, showing much disrespect to the Muslims’ religion, beliefs, culture and way of life.

Muslims, Lumads And Christians Must Unite To Fight Aggression & Plunder In Mindanao

In Mindanao, the longstanding differences in culture and religion be-tween Muslims, Lumads and Christians have been utilised by the Philippine government as the focal point in every military campaign it has launched. Differences in religion and culture have been magnified and used by some ambitious pre-sidents and military officials for their military campaigns that would give them “medals of valour” and appointments to higher office. The sad fact is that even Moro politicians, former rebels and warlords are in cahoots with these plans.

Because of their glorious past during the Sultanate era and because of the Government’s incessant drive to oppress the Moro people in Mindanao, it is marked in the consciousness of all Moro people that they can never live under the present Philippine Republic. Always with the desire of continuing the Sultanate form of feudal governance that the American colonialists tried to destroy, the Moro people would find ways to assert the Islamic way of life in their communities and to defend them from the Government’s and foreign corporations’ incessant drive to plunder their natural resources, despite being branded as terrorists.

Philippine history is replete with similar kinds of struggle even from dominant Christian farmers and workers who fought bravely against the plunder and oppression from Spanish and American colonialism and against the current regimes. Thousands were also displaced, killed and branded as terrorists as the majority Christian peoples defended their lands from plunder and fought military campaigns by the Government. The issue of landlessness and poverty is shared by both Muslims and Christians in the Philippines. In the bid for control of the resources in Mindanao, the past regimes sent military expe-ditions and helped the big Christian landlords in Mindanao to organise Christian peasants into vigilantes and encouraged them to fight the Moros, hyping religious and cultural superiority to breed hatred against Moros and derogatory attitude against the Lumads.

But the still landless peasants saw through the greedy plans of their fellow Christian landlords. As they fought against the Moros and the Lumads, the landlords also took away their lands, even killing progressive leaders and religious missionaries who advocated land for the peasants. Mindanao became a battleground on all fronts during the Martial Law period. I was born during martial law, I was born into a situation where hope of uniting Moros and Christians and Lumads was so difficult and, for some, unfathomable.

But as I grew up, there was a bloom of progressive ideas and attitudes among the Mindanaon peoples. The destruction of the war has opened the eyes of the youth in Mindanao who were exposed to progressive ideas abroad and in universities in Manila, that the people of different faiths and culture can live alongside one another, as long as they respect each others’ property, community, religion and culture, and most important of all, the right to live. Hence, when the current and most recent regimes whipped up religious wars against the Moros in Mindanao, they failed to get the sympathy of the majority Christian population. Instead, the Moro people found a new ally in fighting against the Government’s oppressive laws and campaigns.

The struggle of the Moro people’s right to land and life is embedded in the struggle of the Filipino people for democracy. The Moro people fight alongside the Filipino people against colonial and national oppression in the Philippines, and against the control of the foreign economic superpowers, particularly the United States of America and their local cohorts such as the Philippine government, local big businessmen and landlords.

Interfaith Movement In The Philippines

The mainstream interfaith organisations in the Philippines deal more in uniting Muslims and Christians in religious parameters. They are composed of religious institutions concentrated in working for religious unity and tolerance among religions. But these groups fall short when it comes to criticising anti-Moro and anti-people policies of the Philippine government, even anti-people policies in general. Because they belong to institutions, sometimes they provide religious justifications for the militarist actions of the Government against the Moro people and become apologists for every Administration’s all-out wars and anti-people policies.

The raging war in Mindanao became an issue of the struggle of the Moro people’s right to self-determination, correcting the wrong notion of a religious war between the Muslims and Christians in the Philippines. Catholic and Protestants joined hands with Muslims in protest rallies to stop the war in Mindanao, and the series of military campaigns of the Philippine government against the Moro people. It was during martial law that interfaith discussions bloomed in Mindanao due to the efforts of the progressive Muslim, Christian and Lumad youth. During martial law the Government’s fascist policies did not distinguish between religions and cultures; it categorised all people who criticised the militarist policy of the Government as anti-government, Communists and re-bels. Hence the Government bom-barded all communities where there were pockets of resistance against martial law.

The fall of martial law can be attributed to the combined efforts of all peoples in the Philippines to fight fascist policies. The experience of the people about martial law binds them to a collective promise to unite and deny a repeat of the mistakes of the past. Hence, when the Estrada and Arroyo Administrations tried to whip up a war in Mindanao, the people of Mindanao united and reached out to the people in Luzon and Visayas who fall short in understanding the situation in Mindanao. Before Estrada’s all-out war, there were efforts from the Christian and Muslim leaders in Manila to organise interfaith discussions and movements calling for a stop to the war in Mindanao.

The Moro-Christian People’s Alliance (MCPA), when it was established in 1999, gave a venue for Muslims and Christians in the Phi-lippines to focus their campaign in shedding religious differences to fight for Muslim people’s rights and welfare, even advancing towards giving full support in the Moro people’s struggle for their right to self-determination. MCPA also helped in convening Kalinaw Mindanao (Peace in Mindanao), an interfaith peace movement consisting of lawmakers, civil libertarians, church people and Muslim religious groups against the all-out war campaign.

MCPA was able to organise victims and their families and worked closely with human rights organisations to provide legal and paralegal services and progressive lawmakers to initiate their fight against the war polices in Mindanao. In 2003, the combined efforts of Muslims and Christian leaders in Mindanao organised the Initiatives for Peace in Min-danao, a broad and grassroots-based interfaith and multisectoral peace movement consisting of interfaith organisations and ecumenical institutions based in Mindanao. It gathered Christian religious, Moro leaders, Lumads, lawyers, academics, women leaders, health professionals, artists, youth, local government officials, small entrepreneurs and leaders of Mindanao civil society.

The movement was a reaction to the overwhelming call for peace to confront the Arroyo Administration’s policy of intensive militarisation and witch hunting as a consequence to the spate of bombings in key cities in Mindanao. INPEACE Mindanao “facilitates Mindanao-wide initiatives and supports sustained peace negotiations with the view of achieving meaningful reforms from the peace talks to benefit the peoples of Mindanao”.

Truth Commission

INPEACE Mindanao, through the mandate of the 2003 Mindanao Leaders Peace Conference, conducted an independent fact finding mission in 2003-2004 to investigate the series of “mystery bombings” in Mindanao. It formed the Mindanao Truth Commission in June 2003, a people-based initiative composed of bishops and the religious, Muslim leaders, lawyers, academics and professionals that conducted “public hearings” and executive sessions to hear testimonies of victims, their families and witnesses of the “mystery bombings”. It also provided a venue for the victims of the Government’s witch hunting and Moro men who were used as scapegoats for the bombings.

The Truth Commission has submitted its findings and helped in erasing the public hysteria against the MILF and the Moro people as the masterminds of the bombings. It also helped in uniting Mindanoans in their calls for peace by providing venues for discussions and interfaith activities. Forum and symposium, integration in Moro communities, exposure programmes and fact finding missions have been effective tools in breaking the barrier of differences and historically rooted animosities between two religions. Tolerance is a virtue that is a must for all those who respect human rights and interfaith endeavours. As we learn and fight for our basic rights as people, we also come to accept and understand each other’s differences in culture and in faith.

For those who have and had an opportunity to understand the plight of the Mo-ro people, they bring these stories back to their own provinces. Through this, they are able to educate others about the plight of their Moro brothers and sisters. Eventually, they too, together with the Muslims and Moro people in their communities, organise among themselves to form advocacy organisations supporting the struggle of the Moro national minorities for land and right to self-determination. Peace is not far behind for the Moro people if justice prevails in our country. The Moro and the Filipino people, the Chris-tians and the Muslims, must unite and fight side by side in forwarding our collective rights as people of our country and against colonialism and national oppression. In turn, aspi-rations of the national minorities for our right to self-determination must be recognised, respected and forwarded.

Amirah Ali Lidasan is a Filipino Mus-lim woman from Mindanao, Southern Philippines and hails from the Iranon tribe of the Moro people. She is currently the Secretary-General of the Moro-Christian People’s Alliance (MCPA), one of the convenors of Initiatives for Peace in Mindanao and ThreeAsOne Mindanao, and national President of the Suara Bangsamoro Partylist Organisation.

Amirah toured New Zealand in October/November 2007 as a guest of PSNA (see Murray Horton’s article on her tour, elsewhere in this issue). This paper was prepared for that.

Contact: c/o Kalinaw Center for Interfaith Resources, #113 Francisco St., Juna Subdivision, Matina, Davao City, Philippines 8000; ph/fax 0063-82-2994964; email: suarabm@yaho,

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