Christians Fear Creation of Muslim Sub-State in Philippines

President’s solution to decades of violence could cause more tensions, critics say.
June 26, 2015

MINDANAO, Philippines (Morning Star News) – Christians and others in the southern Philippines have expressed strong fears that legislation creating an Islamic sub-state on Mindanao Island will exacerbate religious tensions rather than resolve them.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), proposed by President Benigno Aquino III last September with the aim of ending decades of Islamist rebel violence in Mindanao, was approved by a House Ad Hoc Committee on May 20 with 50 members voting yes, 17 voting no and one abstaining. The area, comprising five provinces with sizeable non-Muslim populations, already enjoys a measure of autonomy as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and the proposed BBL would give leaders sufficient independence to impose sharia (Islamic law).

“What President Aquino is doing is treasonous to Christian communities in Mindanao,” Rolly Pelinggon, national convener of Mindanaoans for Mindanao (M4M), told Morning Star News.

If Bangsamoro, or “Moro Country” with Moro being colloquial for “Muslim,” were ruled under sharia, non-Muslims would become second-class citizens with drastically reduced rights. Critics of the bill say it would render the federal government powerless to redress human rights abuses under Islamic law.

Pelinggon said the BBL would thus worsen Muslim-Christian conflict. Besides intensifying religious-cultural differences between Christians and Muslims, the BBL would also facilitate monopoly of oil and gas resources by vested groups in Mindanao, he said.

The BBL came about as part of a preliminary peace accord, the Bangsamoro Peace Framework Agreement (BPFA), between the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group, but it has done little to reduce violence. The BPFA was signed in 2013 as a precursor to a final peace agreement. The government claimed there would be no more Muslim rebel attacks in Mindanao after it was signed, but in some areas violence has increased.

In Basilan Province of the ARMM, Muslim separatist groups raided the town of Maluso on June 1 and cut off the Water District Office, managed mostly by Christians. The municipality is now suffering from water crisis that has destabilized the local economy, while security forces have engaged in a firefight with rebels that put more than 20,000 civilians in evacuation centers.

In Pikit, Cotabato Province, two men aboard a motorcycle in October 2014 threw a grenade at a United Church of Christ congregation at the height of worship, killing a nurse and a teacher. The blast injured another teacher and two other businessmen. Separatist rebels have been active in North Cotabato for past 20 years.

In Zamboanga City, an anti-bomb squad of the Philippine Police detonated an Improvised Explosive Device on Oct. 11, 2014. The bomb was similar to previous devices manufactured by separatist rebels. Zamboanga is home to more than 100,000 evangelical Christians and Ebenezer Bible College and Seminary, one of the first Protestant Bible schools in the Philippines.

Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabella Climaco announced in public that Zamboanga will never be part of the BBL and is one of the country’s staunchest critics of the legislation.

In Cotabato, indigenous tribal leader and village chieftain Jojo Sibug also told Morning Star News the BBL would aggravate religious conflict in Mindanao. Noting that the first inhabitants of Mindanao were the Manobo and other indigenous tribes, Sibug denied Islamic claims to the region.

“Our ancestors were already here even before Islam came to Mindanao,” he said. “This Philippine government should consider the welfare and plight of the indigenous tribes, and the Aquino administration should not only focus on one sector, but it should remember the indigenous people were also the first inhabitants of Mindanao.”

Tribal chiefs ruled Mindanao until the 1400s, when many of them embraced Islam after an Arab trader arrived to the island. In the 1900s, U.S. missionaries came to the Philippines and built a number of Christian schools in Mindanao. Many of the indigenous tribes embraced the evangelical Christian faith, including the ancestors of Sibug.

As part of the peace process, early this month the MILF surrendered 75 World War II firearms out of its 16,000 weapons to the government. Opposition Sen. Bongbong Marcos questioned why only 75 weapons were surrendered as part of the decommissioning process. Marcos presides over the Senate committee that conducts hearings on the BBL.

The fate of the BBL lies in the hands of the country’s 24 senators now deliberating the bill. A March poll found that 44 percent of Filipinos opposed the bill, and 22 percent supported it. In Mindanao, 62 percent of those surveyed opposed the bill.

Some have also questioned the 75 billion-peso (US$170 million) budget that would be allocated for the Bangsamoro government. Some critics believe that the MILF could use this huge amount to buy more sophisticated firearms to expand its control. By comparison, the Philippine military has a budget of only 15 billion pesos annually (between 2012 and 2017), or US$34 million.

In Manila, three archbishops, former National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, former Sen. Francisco Tatad and the Philippine Constitution Assembly on June 19 filed a petition with the Supreme Court to nullify the March 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro that gave rise to the BBL. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case.

While Christian leaders fear abuses if the BBL were passed into law, some lawmakers also warned there would be war if the BBL fails to pass. Rep. Tupay Loong of Sulu, a former member of the rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), said in February that if the BBL is not passed, “the war will continue.”

The BBL measure was reportedly fast-tracked by bribes to lawmakers; the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported the accord was endorsed by a majority in Congress after lawmakers accepted US$10 million in bribes to endorse it to the Senate.

In spite of congressional denials, investigative journalist Christine Herrera, who first exposed the alleged $10 million in bribes, has said she stands by the story because no fewer than two high-ranking officials of Congress confirmed the wrongdoing.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigue Duterte said the BBL could increase chances of Christians getting caught between the MNLF and the MILF, who are fighting each other.

“What I don’t like about Manila is they make wrong decisions for Mindanao,” he recently told a national newspaper. “They act as if they know everything about our land, and then put us in jeopardy.”

Muslim guerrillas killed as Filipino army assault frees scores of hostages

Insurgents demanding money for neglected Islamic regions


Philippine forces have killed or captured nearly 100 of the Muslim guerrillas who have held scores of hostages for a week in the southern city of Zamboanga, as the government pushes ahead with an offensive to retake rebel-held coastal communities.

Army troops and police have regained rebel-held grounds and are pressing an assault deeper into communities in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga, where more than 100 Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas are holding hostages, military spokesman Lt Col Ramon Zagala said yesterday.

Several hostages have escaped or were freed, but it was unclear how many were still in rebel custody. Zamboanga city Mayor, Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, said the rebels were still holding up to 40 hostages in one community alone.

Lt Col Zagala said troops taking part in the offensive were trying to avoid harming civilians. “We’re gaining ground, we’re pushing forward,” he said.

At least 51 rebels have been killed and 42 others captured, most while trying to escape along the coast after discarding their camouflage uniforms for ordinary clothes, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said, adding that the gunmen would face criminal charges. The bodies of two rebels, a man and a woman, were found yesterday by troops.

Six policemen and soldiers, along with four villagers, have been killed in the stand-off, which began last Monday when troops foiled an attempt by the rebels to march and hoist their flag at Zamboanga’s city hall. The rebels, who arrived by boat from outlying islands, barged into five coastal villages and took more than 100 hostages as human shields.

Army troops and police, backed by helicopters and navy gunboats, initially surrounded the rebels with their hostages while government officials tried to convince the insurgents to free their captives and surrender.

But government forces decided to attack on Friday after the guerrillas started setting on fire clusters of houses and fired mortar rounds that wounded several Red Cross aid workers, Lt Col Zagala said.

While the government’s offensive is gaining momentum, Mr Roxas said it is difficult to tell when the troops will be able to end the standoff, which has displaced more than 67,000 residents.

The crisis has virtually paralysed the port city of nearly a million people, after authorities closed its international airport, suspended sea ferry services and shut down schools and offices. Officials of a Zamboanga city hospital evacuated 472 patients as clashes erupted nearby last week. Yesterday they pleaded to the military to help them return to the hospital to retrieve ventilators, anaesthesia machines and other equipment.

The Moro insurgents, led by rebel leader Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

The rebels have become increasingly restive in recent months as they’ve been overshadowed by a rival rebel group that engaged President Benigno Aquino III’s government in peace talks brokered by Malaysia. The talks have steadily progressed toward a potentially larger autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south.

Muslim militants in Philippines ambush truckload of laborers

OLIVER TEVES  Associated Press
July 11, 2012

MANILA, Philippines — Suspected Muslim militants ambushed a truckload of rubber plantation laborers in the restive southern Philippines on Wednesday, killing six and wounding 22, following a day of fighting in which eight soldiers were wounded, officials said.

The army commander on Basilan Island, the militants' stronghold, blamed al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf rebels for the violence, which came despite efforts by U.S.-trained Philippine forces to put an end to decades of bombings and ransom kidnappings by the extremists in the predominantly Christian nation.

Col. Arthur Ang said the ambush targeted workers from a rubber plantation that refused to pay the militants' extortion demands. The workers were traveling on a truck when the gunmen opened fire, killing five workers and one government militiaman. Twenty-two others were wounded.

The government-armed militia, which provides security for the plantation, repulsed the attackers, Ang said.

The ambush came a day after eight soldiers were wounded when their convoy ran over a homemade bomb in the same area near Sumisip township, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang.

He said troops were sent to guard voters who were registering for next year's elections in an autonomous Muslim region that includes Basilan.

Abu Sayyaf militants have targeted the Basilan rubber plantation previously over ransom demands.

Three militiamen were killed in an ambush in April, and in 2010, the militants abducted and later killed three workers after they failed to collect a ransom.

A decade ago, U.S. troops deployed in the southern Philippines to train Filipino soldiers to battle the Abu Sayyaf amid several high-profile kidnapping sprees and terrorist attacks.

Philippine offensives have weakened the militants but they remain a threat and are still holding at least five foreign hostages, apparently in an attempt to raise funds for food and weapons in their jungle hideouts.

Philippines: The Moro's

The Philippines has had a long history of Moro insurgent movements dating back to Spanish rule. Resistance to colonization was especially strong among the Muslim population of southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. With pride in their cultural heritage and a strong desire for independence, Moros fought Christian and foreign domination. Spanish control over the Moros was never complete, and the Muslim struggle carried over into the United States colonial era. The Moros earned a reputation as fierce fighters in combat against United States troops. Following independence, Filipino Muslims continued to resist Manila's rule, leading to widespread conflict in the 1970s.

More immediate causes of insurgency rose out of the increasing lawlessness in the southern Philippines during the late 1960s, when violence associated with political disputes, personal feuds, and armed gangs proliferated. In this climate of civil turmoil, longstanding tensions between Moro and Christian communities escalated. Already in competition over land, economic resources, and political power, the Moros became increasingly alarmed by the immigration of Christians from the north who were making Moros a minority in what they felt was their own land (see Muslim Filipinos). By mid-1972, partisan political violence, generally divided along religious lines, gripped all of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. After martial law was declared in September 1972 and all civilians were ordered to surrender their guns, spontaneous rebellions arose among Moros, who traditionally had equated the right to carry arms with their religious heritage and were suspicious of the government's intentions toward them.
In its initial phases, the rebellion was a series of isolated uprisings that rapidly spread in scope and size. But one group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari, managed to bring most partisan Moro forces into the loosely unified MNLF framework. Fighting for an independent Moro nation, the MNLF received support from Muslim backers in Libya and Malaysia. When the conflict reached its peak in 1973-75, the military arm of the MNLF, the Bangsa Moro Army, was able to field some 30,000 armed fighters. The military responded by deploying 70 to 80 percent of its combat forces against the Moros. Destruction and casualties, both military and civilian, were heavy; an estimated 50,000 people were killed. The government also employed a variety of nonmilitary tactics, announced economic aid programs and political concessions, and encouraged factionalism and defections in the Muslim ranks by offering incentives such as amnesty and land. The government's programs, and a sharp decrease in the flow of arms from Malaysia, set back the Moro movement. In 1976 the conflict began to wane.

Talks between the government and the Moros began in late 1976 under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a union of Muslim nations to which the Moros looked for support. The talks led to an agreement between the Philippine government and the MNLF signed in Tripoli that year providing for Moro autonomy in the southern Philippines and for a cease-fire. After a lull in the fighting, the truce broke down in 1977 amid Moro charges that the government's automony plan allowed only token self-rule.

The Moro rebellion never regained its former vigor. Muslim factionalism was a major factor in the movement's decline. Differing goals, traditional tribal rivalries, and competition among Moro leaders for control of the movement produced a threeway split in the MNLF during the late 1970s. The first break occurred in 1977 when Hashim Salamat, supported by ethnic Maguindanaos from Mindanao, formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which advocated a more moderate and conciliatory approach toward the government. Misuari's larger and more militant MNLF was further weakened during that period when rival leaders formed the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization, drawing many Mindanao Maranaos away from the MNLF, dominated by Misuari's Sulu-based Tausug tribe. The Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization eventually collapsed, giving way to the Moro National Liberation FrontReformist Movement. Moro factionalism, compounded by declining foreign support and general war weariness, hurt the Muslim movement both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Moro fighting strength declined to about 15,000 by 1983, and Muslim and government forces only occasionally clashed during Marcos's last years in office.

In keeping with her campaign pledge of national reconciliation, Aquino initiated talks with the MNLF--the largest of the three major factions--in 1986 to resolve the conflict with Muslim separatists. Discussions produced a cease-fire in September, followed by further talks under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In January 1987, the MNLF signed an agreement relinquishing its goal of independence for Muslim regions and accepting the government's offer of autonomy. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the next largest faction, refused to accept the accord and initiated a brief offensive that ended in a truce later that month. Talks between the government and the MNLF over the proposed autonomous region continued sporadically throughout 1987 but eventually deadlocked. Following the government's successful diplomatic efforts to block the MNLF's latest bid for Organization of the Islamic Conference membership, the MNLF officially resumed its armed insurrection in February 1988, but little fighting resulted.

The government, meanwhile, pressed ahead with plans for Muslim autonomy without the MNLF's cooperation. Article 10 of the 1987 constitution mandates that the new congress establish an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. In the November 1989 plebiscite, only two Mindanao provinces--Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur--and two in the Sulu Archipelago--Sulu and Tawitawi-- opted to accept the government's autonomy measure. The fragmented four-province Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, with its own governor and unicameral legislature, was officially inaugurated on November 6, 1990.

Armed activity by the Moros continued at a relatively low level through the late 1980s, with sporadic clashes between government and Muslim forces. The military still based army and marine battalions in Moro areas to maintain order in 1990, but far fewer units than it had in the 1970s. (Four battalions were on Jolo Island, a Moro stronghold, down from twenty-four at the rebellion's height.) Most of the endemic violence in Muslim areas was directed at rival clans, not at the military's peacekeeping forces.
The Moro movement remained divided along tribal lines (Islam is a tribal religion that produces violence) in three major factions. Misuari's MNLF forces in the Sulu Archipelago totaled 15,000, and the Mindanao-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the MNLF-Reformist Movement fielded around 2,900 and 900 troops, respectively. Weakened by these divisions, Muslim infighting (turn the dogs on each other), and the formation of an autonomous region, the Moro armies did not appear to be an imminent threat. Still, the MNLF--which did not recognize the autonomous region--showed no sign of surrendering, and it promised to remain a potent military and political force in the southern Philippines.