Mindanao, the second largest island in the southern Philippines, has been the scene of a decades-long struggle for self-determination of the Muslim population. Muslims are a minority in the Philippines, with only 6% of the population according to an official governmental census in 2015. However, in Mindanao, where more than 90% of the entire country’s Muslim population reside, Muslims make up nearly 24%


Almost two years ago, in January 2019, a referendum led to the creation of a Muslim dominated self-administered region called Bangsamoro (Malay for “nation of the Moro”) on the island of Mindanao. Unfortunately, the post-conflict transition in the south of the Philippines is proving to be slow. In the first half of this year alone, 66,000 people have been newly displaced in Mindanao due to conflict. And even in December 2020, fighting against various armed groups is still taking place


Conflict Overview 

The resistance of the Muslim population in Mindanao dates back hundreds of years when Spanish colonizers arrived on the island in the 16th century. While the rest of the country adopted the Spanish language and Christian religion (today 90% of the population is Christian), the Moros (the various Muslim-Filipino ethnic groups) fought the invaders and maintained their language and culture. At the same time, the assimilated inhabitants benefitted from the Spanish technical advancements. The economic gap resulting from this separation between the modernized North and the independent South is still visible, even in the 21st century. 


Following the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the Philippines came under the control of the US which subsequently managed to conquer the Muslim South in 1914. The new colonial power then introduced registration of land ownership, which ultimately dispossessed the Muslim and indigenous locals in the South from their lands, while allowing Christian settlers from the North to register land ownership. This started a long process of settler expansion in Mindanao, which resulted in the Moros becoming a minority within their own territory: The non-Moro and non-indigenous population increased from 37% in the beginning of the century to 76% in 1970


After the independence of the Philippines in 1946, the Christian-Filipino government-assisted landless people through resettlement programs to move from the North to the South. This continuous land-grabbing naturally led to resentment and increased dissatisfaction with the central government. In 2005, the US Institute of Peace estimated that Moros owned less than 17% of the property on Mindanao, and 80% were landless. 


Soon enough, the Muslim population, having had enough of being subjected to dispossession and political marginalisation, demanded (back) control over the land, which they had inhabited for centuries. With the establishment of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1968 and its first offensive against the government four years later, the conflict entered a new stage. The government of the Philippines, viewing these secessionist movements as an illegal rebellion, answered with military force. In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law against the armed groups and the insurgencies transformed into an armed conflict. 


The fight for independence was joined by other rebel groups, for example the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) founded in 1984, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in 1991, or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in 2011. Throughout the conflict between the government and the armed groups, a number of ceasefires and peace agreements were concluded. For example, already in 1976 the government and the MNLF signed the Tripoli Agreement, which – following the forsaking of independence for Mindanao by the MNLF –  established the framework for an autonomous region for the Muslims. However, this was not implemented by President Marcos and the fighting continued. In 1986, President Corazon Aquino fulfilled the provision, but under the condition of a plebiscite. When only the four regions with a Muslim majority decided to join the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), instead of the thirteen agreed provinces, the MNLF claimed non-compliance with the Tripoli Agreement by the government and continued the hostilities. 


The ongoing peace talks with the MNLF resulted in the final peace agreement in 1996, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful in its implantation too and clashes re-erupted. Even though the MNLF has been the most influential armed group for most of the conflict, the focus of the government changed eventually to the MILF, a splinter group of the MNLF that continued to hold onto the idea of an independent Mindanao. The government entered negotiations with the MILF in 1997 and subsequently concluded several agreements, for instance, the peace pact signed in 2012. Although the numerous ceasefires have suffered skirmishes multiple times and interruptions throughout the years, the conflict parties have held onto the prospect of finding a peaceful solution to the civil war for the most part. This stamina has finally ended with the peace agreement between the MILF and the Government of the Philippines in 2014. 


Sustainable peace at last? 

Despite its promising name, the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement on the Bangsamoro” from March 2014 was not the end, but only the beginning of achieving peace between the MILF and the government. In January 2015, the Mamasapano Tragedy occurred, where over 60 people died after an encounter between the Special Action Force and the MILF. As a result, the peace process suffered severely: The planned law was revised but failed to pass Congress, and despite the commitment to peace from both sides, it took years until further progress was made. 


Finally, in July 2018 the Bangsamoro Organic Law came into force. This law did not only expand and supersede the previous ARMM, but also provided for a transitional authority until the elections of a parliament and government for the region in 2022. In the beginning of 2019, a referendum was held which approved the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region


Following the referendum, President Duterte inaugurated the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), which is now in control of the “Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao“ in accordance with the peace agreement from 2014. This interim government has, similar to a federal state, exclusive powers over internal matters such as budgeting, justice administration, agriculture, education, health, social services, tourism, trade and industry. Only a few national matters remain in the control of the central government, namely constitutional issues, foreign affair or defence. Additionally, an “Intergovernmental Relations Body” was set up to resolve issues on intergovernmental relations. 


In its first years, the BTA has accomplished several achievements to guarantee transparency and accountability, including the passing of the Administrative Code in October 2020, which defines the structural, functional, and procedural principles and rules of governance. Despite this progress, the new autonomous region has been slow in reaching its goals. Besides delays caused by the global pandemic, the main obstacle is major transition funds that have not been released yet and consequently, the BTA had to work with the budget of the previous administration. Following a mid-term review in October 2020, a recommendation was made to extend the transition period until June 2025. As a result, two bills have been filed in the House of Representatives acting on this recommendation. Congress now has time until June 2021 to amend the Bangsamoro Organic Law in order to extend the transition period. 

By Lavinia Spieß

Lavinia Spieß is a London based Legal Researcher with a passion for International Humanitarian Law, grave human rights violations and other issues related to armed conflicts. Lavinia is a master’s graduate in Law from University from Graz, Austria and holds an LLM in Human Rights from Queen Mary University London. She has worked for several human rights NGOs supporting marginalised groups before joining Peace of Asia as a Research Associate.

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