At no time in history had the issue of Mindanao independence been brought to a critical point as it is today. The issue had already been expressed as early as 1910 when the Zamboanga business sector presented a written petition to isolate the island for the development of "plantation interests". The same sentiment was aired in the written petition of Muslim datus, sultans, and leaders in 1930 when the question of Philippine independence from the United States elicited Muslim preference for exclusion from the projected free Philippines under Filipino rule. Then in the late 1970s the Independence aspiration of Mindanao was again revived by the Mindanao Independence Movement of Datu Udtog Matalam of Pagalungan Cotabato, Ruben Canoy of Cagayan de Oro, and Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front. Only the latter succeeded in achieving a compromise agreement known as the Tripoli Agreement on December 23, 1976 through the mediation of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Although the OIC explanation was for the Agreement to be a Comprehensive representation of the Filipino Muslim Community, this was not acceptable to Hashim Salamat and his MILF. This was where the critical point began from the Muslim perspective creating the problems, ambiguities, and dilemma in the government responses to the Mindanao conflict.
The government from Marcos to Estrada operated on the clear premises of the Tripoli Agreement that autonomy not independence was to be the framework of any resolution of issues and conflict and that the Philippine Constitution would be the point of reference for the definition of the meaningful extent of autonomy. But what the government has ignored and belittled were certain fundamental realities and facts that have remained active in Muslim consciousness:
"The present democratic system is not sufficient for real autonomy the Muslims may accept short of total independence. It must be something where the Christian majority has no more say or influence in Muslim affairs except ceremonial and nominal requirements of symbolic sovereignty."
1. That independence was still the underlying essence of autonomy for all Muslim social movements (MNLF, MILF, etc.) regardless of differences
2. That any modus vivendi or compromise agreement related to the implementation of the Tripoli Accord would be temporary and tactical in nature, and
3. That the ultimate hope of the Muslim Community in the Philippines for progress and prosperity lies not in the Christian dominated state but in the dynamic relation and linkage to the Islamic world.
In effect, the three foregoing facts are the underlying premises that constitute the general framework of the Muslim struggle however divided it seems are the various groups in their activities, leadership roles, rhetorics, and approaches. There are no perceivable indications that these premises are weakening. The contrary is what is obviously emerging. There are several corroborative factors that have contributed to the hardening of the independence imperative of the Muslim struggle, peaceful or otherwise:
First is the inability of the State through the government and its agencies to adequately or substantially meet the basic and ideal needs of the Muslim Community. While the government has not failed to initiate policies and draw up development plans along constitutional lines administration after administration since 1946 has somehow ended with the centuries old Moro Problem still unresolved. It is not easy and fair to altogether blame the government on the Bangsamoro armed groups and their supporters for the elusiveness and increasing difficulties of finding the permanent or, at least, a relatively long enduring peace vital to the kind of socioeconomic, political and cultural growth and progress the Philippines desires.
Second is the obvious trend on the part of the Muslim Community to seek ultimate satisfaction of their aspirations from within their own societies and the Muslim world given the decades of underdevelopment, the rising level of frustration, resentment, and anger over the extreme difficulty and costliness of recovering their lost historic rights to ancestral lands and equitable social and political benefits therefrom. These are confounded by the increasing socioeconomic problems of life that have haunted their communities for decades without immediate prospects of resolution from State initiatives or programs.
Third is the exploitation of the Mindanao conflict for a long time by external vested interests for reasons not necessarily for the good or benefit of the marginalized sectors or government. The suspected involvement of international agencies or groups such as Islamic radical movements including terrorist groups or central intelligence agencies of powers cannot be ignored.
Fourth is the failure of civil society particularly the dominant Christian sector to really remove the lingering anti-Muslim bias in historical consciousness. The hardening of irreconcilable premises in the rhetorics of government and Muslim positions is not helping enhance a truly meaningful peace process. Apparently, the subtle hands of ugly politics in local and national levels and fora including the inner sanctums of Congress are nurturing the culture of conflict along irreconcilable lines making use of the rhetorics of constitutionalism, legalism, morality, public order, humanism, and democracy to rally the processes of tri-media for their purposes. It is these political riders in the Mindanao conflict from the viewpoints of the armed protagonists that are prolonging the agonies of war and the ecstasies of vested interests not affected directly by the violence of conflict.
In reality, the Mindanao conflict is a microcosm of the national and international conflict between the marginalized and exploited social sectors and the State and / or dominant sector. The Bangsamoro and Lumad struggles are not in a sense different from those of the working classes and farmers in other areas of the country and the world represented by different factions of the NDF-NPA network coordinated either by leaders from abroad or within the country or by other similar radical groups. They are similar to the struggles of the Muslim minority in Patani, Thailand, The LTTE (Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam minority in Sri Lanka, the Muslim Majority against a Hindu minority leadership in Kashmir, the East Timorese majority against the Indonesian minority leadership, the Fijian majority against an Indian minority leadership, the Chechen majority against the Russian minority, etc. Their common aspiration regardless of racial, ethnic or socio-cultural differences is the enjoyment of freedom and its maximum benefits without outside interferences. Understandably, such aspiration is basic to human nature and is natural to all people having a common origin and sharing a common tradition.
Today the Mindanao conflict, while rooted in the same rationale or fundamental causes related to ancestral lands and historic rights versus modern and democratic numbers, has greatly changed in strategies, techniques and extent. This fact is quite apparent in the military confrontation between the government and Bangsamoro rebel forces. The battles in Lanao del Sur, del Norte, Maguindanao, and Basilan involved men on both sides equipped with modern and high destructive weapons of war radically different from the numerous armed encounters and battles in colonial times in which the use of weapons was largely limited to spears, bolos, knives, bows-and-arrows, krises, etc. on the part of the indigenous warriors and arms and artilleries with limited capacity on the part of the colonial powers. The contemporary military power of the government is certainly superior to that of the rebels (backed up as it is by air and naval contingents, which the rebels do not have). Consequently, there is no doubt that the government forces will ultimately neutralize the military capacity of the rebel to defeat government troops but it is also clear that the rebels' defeat in battles will not ensure permanent victory. It merely changes the rebels' strategy of armed struggle to a variety of choices with emphasis on the guerilla attacks or the Islamic concept of Fil-Sabilillah (Jihad and its unique individual version created by the Bangsamoro struggle in the late 19th century called Parang Sabil by the Sulu Muslims). It was the Muslim intense sense of hopelessness brought about by the loss of military capacity that led to what the Spaniard called juramentados or individuals who took the vows of killing as many of the enemies as their lives would allow. The Spanish introduction of the steamboat in various expeditions to Sulu from 1850 to 1890 led to the devastation of Jolo and other island communities including the stronghold of Maguindanao, Iranun, and Maranaw datuships and sultanates in mainland Mindanao... The state of jihad will emerge as the weapon of the Bangsamoro struggle... And there is no clear response to this possibility given its necessity in view of the gradual loss of fortified state camps of Muslim resistance and the increasing level of prejudice and hostility being seen in the attitude of both the government and the Christian populace as shown in tri-media.
The socio-economic conditions certainly continue to worsen as population increase naturally exerts more pressures on the capacity of traditional sources of revenues and livelihood such as the land, rivers, lakes, and seas within reach of the inadequate local technologies and crafts. The centuries-old barter trade which has provided a good alternative source of livelihood has dwindled into a few stalls of smuggled items, and has lost its very rationale for being. It had gradually died from exploitation of the system by capitalists and politicians and smugglers of luxury goods, guns and drugs. In short, Muslim and Lumad Mindanao has lost a lot of their traditional means of survival and has inevitably been drawn to the undergrowth of the economic system that offers lucrative but dangerous and illegal sources of revenues such as smuggling of guns, drug trafficking, piracies, kidnapping for ransom, and, for those who are idealistic, the radical movements of political Islam have become the logical source of help and self-fulfillment to displaced Muslim youths. To a significant extent, the MILF, MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf have derived their base support from the idealist youths and displaced elements of Muslim society called by Janjalani in the "Ummat Akhir Jaman" who have no credentials or opportunities to be absorbed into the Christian or non-Muslim dominated employment field especially in the agencies, institutions, and businesses of government.
It is to be expected that deteriorating socioeconomic conditions would seriously affect all aspects of life and society such as physical well-being due to health and sanitation problems compounded by lack or absence of medical facilities and ecological balance, access to education for development of skills and potentials for advancement and progress because of inability to pay for its prohibitive cost, and absence of cultural enjoyment and enhancement due to lack of international interactions with outside cultures (except cultures of violence) on account of persistent armed conflict and its consequences.
Lamentably, the social crisis in Muslim Mindanao arising from armed conflict is not eased by the democratic system and process which look religiously at democratic numbers that favor the dominant majority in all decision-making from national to local levels. Political representation contingent on national election will not insure election of Muslim or Lumad to the Senate and certainly not the highest executive positions unless a national political party, which vigorously supports a Muslim or Lumad candidate, carries him. Philippine democracy, unless radically reformed in essence and form, perpetuates the injustice against the national minorities.
The political economy of Mindanao demonstrates how the power elite, and the multinational and national entities have remarkably developed the mining and agro-industrial potentials of the region through the years and yet, have reserved to themselves the greater part of the resources and benefits of development leaving a very small portion to the indigenous people to divide among themselves. Altruism has not yet been a developed virtue or even a rhetorical reality in an ironically Christian society very often marked by lavish devotion to the rituals and icons of the Christian faith. The outside exploiters of Mindanao resources do not even pay their taxes in the region but secure them in their national coffers or abroad. They have also established themselves in the region as political and economic power blocks capable of putting the military resources of the State behind their interests and purposes in case of need. But until lately, their own security forces had been able to cow and eliminate permanently the rebellious and loquacious elements in the indigenous communities except in Muslim Mindanao where resistance has been intense. The colonial prejudice they have inherited from the Christian tradition has colored their treatment of the non-Christian minorities still considered by them as remnants of the savage and uncivilized world whose treatment as such had dominated the pages of colonial literature for centuries.
Consequently, the cultural portrait, if the dominant majority had the decisive choice, would have altogether excluded the indigenous animistic and Islamic cultures from the cultural transformation of Mindanao. But the way things are moving in the region this portrait may still emerge if the Bangsamoro struggle is effectively neutralized thus making the Muslim sector the only remaining force in the region that has continued to preserve the integrity of its indigenous tradition.
Only the indigenous arts and crafts have been acquired for propagation and promotion for their highly socioeconomic value to the dominant majority as the tourist and antique shops of Metro Manila and abroad indicate. They are not preserved to restore the lost historic rights of Lumad and Muslim Mindanao but to assimilate into mainstream society the desirable feature of indigenous culture. It is thus understandable that the Muslims perceive their Islamic heritage as being threatened by the subtle intrusion of Christian and non-Islamic elements into their lifeways.
In view of the foregoing realities obtaining in Mindanao, the Muslim community has more and more desired the option of independence. The adamant position of the Estrada government against independence, even as a point of discussion, confronts the Muslim community with a choice between continuous was and real autonomy which is offered by the government. Actually, this offer is not something new. It was the same thing offered to the MNLF and Misuari and led to the Tripoli Agreement, but what is different is the emphasis given by the Estrada negotiation that the offer is for real autonomy, which admits that autonomy from Marcos to Ramos had been less than real, largely rhetorical and palliative in nature.
But for real autonomy to be realized, certain things must be accepted and done:
1. The present democratic system is not sufficient for real autonomy the Muslims may accept short of total independence. It must be something where the Christian majority has no more say or influence in Muslim affairs except ceremonial and nominal requirements of symbolic sovereignty. Consequently, the government should seriously consider the earlier proposed Federal status for Muslim Mindanao. This was originally proposed by Mabini and Aguinaldo in 1899 and the reinforced by Judge James Blount following the American model in 1912 in his American Occupation in the Philippines (1912). As conceptualized by Aguinaldo, the Federal system involves the three federated governments or states of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao symbolized according to O.D. Corpuz, by the three stars in the Philippine Flag. Judge Blount preferred about a dozen states based on certain geographic formations like: Ilocos, Cagayan, Pangasinan, Pampanga, Manila, Cavite, etc. In effect, Federalism for Muslim Mindanao liberates the Philippine government and the Christian majority from the psychological and real burden of a people who no longer wants to be called Filipinos but Bangsamoro with a government, territory, and Islamic institutions of their own.
2. Political representation as a consequence of No. 1 includes at least two senators in the Senate to be elected by all registered Muslim voters throughout the country, an undersecretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and in the Department of National Defense, and a member in the Central Bank since the nominal ties of Muslim Mindanao to the State are: Foreign Affairs, National Defense, and Currency.
3. A national subsidy system for, at least, ten years gradually diminished until only a nominal token remains after the tenth year to allow the Federated state substantial support while developing its internal resources and support system including that from the Islamic world.
4. The status of Muslim communities outside of Muslim Mindanao has to be defined as extension of the Federated Muslim State, which should devise a proper plan of action for them. For instance, the Sama (Bajao) migrants in various parts of Visayas and Luzon must be resettled back to their home in Southern Philippines including the Spratly Islands which can be ideal resettlement sites because the islands are natural habitats of the Sama. The government can undertake this resettlement of the Sama in the Kalayaan Groups of Islands with modern facilities in addition to their traditional institutions to facilitate communication, transport, education, and trade. The Sama settlements can be perfect reinforcement of the Philippine security system in the area to preserve the Philippine sovereignty against external encroachment and threat.
Finally, it is necessary to conclude with the fact that in the ongoing military clashes between thousands of government troops and hundreds of Muslim rebels the government may eventually win the war because of sheer military superiority in land, air, sea, but it may lose permanently the enduring peace it seeks. As in the decades of American campaigns against the Moros from 1899 to 1936, military superiority may destroy the capacity of the Bangsamoro to win the war but it will not destroy their will to resist as it was during the entire era of colonial rule and conquest which lasted for more than four hundred years. Contributing to the undying will to resist is the arrogance of the military triumph expressed through the rhetorics of contempt and ridicule for the vanquished "Moros" as bandits, criminals, and savages without consideration and respect for the ideals and aspirations that have propelled their long and costly armed struggle. This is not the time to hide the facts and tell lies. This is the time to tell the truth to make us free indeed. It is not enough to know adequately the Mindanao conflict. It is necessary to understand it. I hope I have contributed to this objective.
*Presented at the Cotabato City Peace and Development Forum, July 20,2000