A useful starting point for any analysis of the problem in Mindanao is the recognition that the Philippine government is not, and indeed has never been, in full control of Muslim Mindanao. The ubiquitous checkpoints that dot the region, manned by forces belonging to traditional warlords and rebel groups, concretely attest to this. To all intents and purposes, Philippine laws and institutions have never defined the framework of political rule in these parts. Periodic elections conducted by national agencies may indicate membership in the Filipino polity. And the presence of state-run schools may suggest integration into the national culture. But this is largely an illusion.
What we have here is not a sovereign state that disintegrated because it failed in its functions. This is rather an example of a state that, from its inception, could not hold sway over a swath of land it regards as part of its territory. It has used all the violent means at the disposal of the state to pacify the Moro people—to no avail. The veneer of order that exists today in the region has been won mainly by coopting the local power-wielders, rather than by forming active citizens. This method worked for as long as the traditional warlords remained self-centered and divided. Things changed when young leaders from these communities sought to unify their ethnically segmented people under one Bangsamoro banner.
Two distinct but related processes have followed from this. The first is the complex internal struggle for leadership among the different elements of Moro land. This struggle continues. The existing ethnic faultlines (e.g. Tausug, Maguindanao Maranao, and Lumad) are compounded by inter-generational conflicts and the assertion of rival ideological visions (Moro secular nationalism vs. Moro religious nationalism). The second is the transformation of the Bangsamoro people’s relationship to the Filipino nation-state as a result of the realignments within their community. As the idea of a self-governing Moro nation took shape, secession from the Philippine Republic loomed as a possibility. Unable to ignore this prospect, the Philippine government has offered regional autonomy as a compromise. Yet, despite this, many Filipino leaders still do not appreciate the validity of the Moro quest.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Nur Misuari became the first beneficiary of this accommodation. Misuari was installed as the first governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an entity created by the 1987 Constitution. The ARMM was supposed to be an experiment in limited self-government by the Moro people, but from the start, it offered little promise of succeeding. Moreover, the incompetence and corruption in its leadership hobbled the new regional government. The ARMM’s failure under Misuari was taken as confirmation of the inability of an imagined Moro nation to govern itself.
A new Moro leadership under Hashim Salamat reframed the vision of a Bangsamoro state, giving birth to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Unlike the Misuari-centered MNLF, the MILF was more collective in its leadership. The organization continued to flourish after Salamat’s death, and earned the right to be the dominant voice of the Moro people. Meanwhile, ARMM passed on and became a plaything of traditional warlords, like the ruthless Ampatuans, who had no problem embracing the equally corrupt games of Manila’s politicians.
The MILF program was secessionist at the beginning. It specifically drew its vision of a desirable community from the core ethics of Islam. Basing itself in Maguindanao, it sharply distinguished itself from the Tausug-dominated MNLF. But what is truly remarkable about it is that in addition to the support it received from the Islamic countries, it managed to get the active backing of the United States. This gave it the standing and clout in the international stage that Misuari, in his heyday, never enjoyed.
Though it fell short of the dream of an independent state, the Moro “substate” concept that the MILF introduced into the 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) promised a more substantial autonomy than the MNLF got from the Ramos administration. Negotiators from both sides had worked on it for five years, hoping the agreement would be sealed before the end of the Arroyo term. Alas, the unpopularity of the Arroyo regime gave the whole enterprise the unwarranted stigma of a midnight deal being rushed. After the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, there was no choice but to abort it.
One has to understand the sense of frustration and betrayal that this has created within the ranks of the MILF. In a sense they are back to zero. For trusting in a process that, in the end, yielded nothing, their leaders have suffered a great loss in credibility. Now, we expect them to rein in the hotheads among their commanders, and threaten them with all-out war if they don’t behave. It is as if it were so easy to end this conflict by sheer military means. Can we even imagine the scale of the humanitarian disaster that will result from a total war in Mindanao?
No, because the arrogant voices that call for total war are typically the ones who do not know that the Philippine state has never effectively established itself in Muslim Mindanao. They remain ignorant of the historic injustices that have been committed against the Moro people. They see only the death of Filipino soldiers, not the pain of people who have been stripped of their lands.