The Philippines Flashpoint

Can the conflict between the Christian government and Muslim rebels on the island of Mindanao ever be resolved?

Manila, Philippines

Toward the end of April this year, negotiators from the Philippine government and the radical Moro Islamic Liberation Front (milf) agreed to resume peace talks, which had been stalled for three years. Barely six hours after the two sides agreed to talk, fighting broke out again on Mindanao, the largest southerly island of the Philippines. Each side blamed the other for starting the conflict. An intense battle raged for 19 days; hundreds of thousands of families were displaced in four provinces. More than 500 people were killed or wounded on the side of the Filipino government, and the milf reportedly suffered twice as many casualties and injuries.

During the height of the conflict, Muslims cried for “jihad” (holy war), and Christians formed vigilante groups calling for a “Muslim-free Mindanao.” Throughout the archipelago, citizens feared the worst. Despite Philippine President Estrada’s assurances that he would not tolerate the dismemberment of the republic, many were concerned that the fighting would escalate northward into a nationwide civil war.

A Look Into the Past

The Republic of the Philippines, like most countries, has had its share of conflicts and war.

During the early 16th century, Mindanao was part of the Sultan of Sulu’s domain. The native Filipino Muslims, who were converted to the Islamic religion many years before, were under the rule of the sultan. They had a high sense of dignity and were steeped in the rich royal trappings that were handed down from their rulers. They were proud to be a part of a kingdom which extended as far away as Manila and Pampanga, both on Luzon Island, more than 600 and 700 miles away respectively.

When the Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500s, they attempted to colonize the native Filipinos (called Moros) and convert them to Christianity. Although the islands were dominated by the Spaniards, and even officially named after the king of Spain, Philip ii, the Moros of Mindanao resisted fiercely and were never subjugated fully.

The Spanish colonial government ceased to function in 1898, and was succeeded by a military government under the United States. The Americans, too, tried to enforce a way of life that was contrary to Filipino customs. For nearly half a century, the Moros continued to fight to preserve their religion and culture. They did it all in the name of their faith.

In 1945, the Philippine Islands became independent. The island of Mindanao and its Muslim inhabitants became a part of the Republic of the Philippines, along with the other 7,099 scattered islands.

A Land of Promise

After the Second World War, Mindanao was viewed as “a land of promise” because of its vastness and overall potential. Its soil was rich enough to support various crops such as coconut, corn, rice, coffee and pineapple. Its hills and mountains were thick with wood for lumber. Everywhere, it seemed, there were God-given resources and plenty of opportunities for anyone willing to labor. The Philippine government thus opened the region to settlers.

Thousands of Filipinos answered that call, including many of the industrious tribes from the north islands. Nearly all of the northerners were Christians. Mindanao’s population increased greatly as people migrated southward. The newcomers bought either already developed acreage from the Moros, or they simply cleared the timber in the flatlands and made way for new agricultural plots.

In time, Christian Filipinos established their own culturally diverse communities alongside their native neighbors. For a time, Christians and Muslims co-existed peacefully, and the next generation of Filipinos even began intermarrying. Mindanao seemed to be well on the way to becoming what everyone expected it to be: the republic’s breadbasket.

The Price of Neglect

Rich in resources, Mindanao Island easily could have been as prosperous as the regions nearer to the Philippines’ center of power: Luzon Island and its capital city of Manila. Because of its great distance from Manila, however, Mindanao was often left out, or, if remembered at all, given less in the allocation of the much-needed government funds for development.

The situation was aggravated further by misappropriated funds. Corrupt officials at the top often embezzled money for their own selfish ends, and thus Mindanao’s progress lagged far behind its northern island neighbors as time went by. The economic gap between the rich minority and the poor, soil-dependent majority widened. The politicians who promised a better life to the masses failed to deliver as expected. Because of their neglect, a voice of discontent resulted—quietly at first, but gradually rising to a cacophonous din.

The Awakening

Toward the end of the 1960s, the public’s dissatisfaction grew—particularly among the dwindling Muslim populace on Mindanao, which shrank considerably after the influx of Christian Filipinos. The Moro residents felt that the national government was not at all concerned about their welfare. They felt cheated as they saw the vast wealth and resources of their former ancestral lands serving others—mainly those greedy few at the top.

Matters came to a head in the 1970s when the awakened Muslim minority, led by a former professor, formed the Moro National Liberation Front (mnlf). Other smaller groups were formed later, but the mnlf was the most vocal and dominant. Many joined the movement because of the “economic difficulty” and “abandonment” they felt they were experiencing from the national government. They waged war against the government, and they called their war “ideological” because they were fighting for “economic survival and their own rights.”

Reaching peak strength in the tens of thousands, the mnlf waged a costly armed struggle (in terms of lives and property) against the government. The use of vigilante groups further deepened the rivalry between Christians and Muslim groups, pitting Filipino against Filipino. To date, more than 100,000 lives have been lost in this ongoing civil war—including civilians, military personnel and rebel fighters. Many who died were considered the elite, the cream of the crop, of the nation. This conflict has benefitted no one. Indeed, the peace that once reigned in Mindanao has been shattered, along with the hopes and dreams for the island’s development.

During the mid-1970s came a glimmer of hope. At the behest of concerned Muslim states around the world, a breakthrough was reached, finally, in December 1976 with the signing of the Tripoli Agreement in Libya. The agreement called for the cessation of hostilities and a speedier development for Mindanao. At that time, other Muslim groups consolidated with the mnlf in negotiating with the government.

The following decade saw “the peaceful revolt of the masses,” culminating in the overthrow of dictatorial President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. His immediate successor, President Corazon Aquino, continued to stave off the Christian-Muslim conflict. Mrs. Aquino’s administration prevailed, for a time, because of its unified vision, style and strategy.

The new government began to allow regional autonomy, in accordance with constitutional processes. It initially promised autonomy to 13 provinces and nine cities in Mindanao. A law was created subsequently paving the way for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (armm).

Meanwhile, the government’s armed forces went on the offensive because its leaders sensed that they were winning and that total victory was in sight. However, the civilian government’s efforts for a peaceful political solution won, much to the displeasure of the military. A plebiscite conducted in 1989 revealed, surprisingly, that only the four Muslim-dominated provinces favored autonomy; and no city wanted to be part of the armm. The hope of autonomy began to fade for Mindanao’s Muslims.

A Temporary Lull

When Fidel Ramos took over the presidency in 1992, he inherited the unsolved problem of Mindanao. Moreover, he faced a troubled economy brought about by the inefficiencies of the previous administration. He tackled both problems head on.

Using his West Point skills, coupled with a fierce determination to turn the economy around, he succeeded after a year of steady, yet often-criticized, efforts. Mr. Ramos’ efforts to reduce business restrictions, break up monopolies, and encourage foreign investment, were credited with stimulating economic growth of some 6 percent. Exports of electronics, textiles and other industrial products increased.

Mr. Ramos also negotiated a settlement to the Mindanao dilemma. He was able to implement the Tripoli Agreement and address the need for autonomy in Muslim areas—but “within the realm of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.” The Muslim mnlf leader, Nur Misuari, became governor of the armm. Former mnlf rebel fighters, upon passing a screening check, were integrated into the police and armed forces in accordance with the terms of the agreement.

The Mindanao quandary, however, did not go away as quickly or as neatly as was hoped. Even the formation of a National Unification Council, which suggested a formula of “Six Paths to Peace,” was not adequate to solve the problem permanently. The creation of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, composed of Muslims, Christians and highlanders of Mindanao, raised strong hopes for solutions. However, progress was slower than expected because of various limitations placed on the council.

While the Moro National Liberation Front accepted negotiations as a road leading to regional autonomy for Muslims, many former mnlf comrades who became disgruntled over the governor’s alleged ineptitude and corruption, defected to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (milf), and built a jungle army of some 30,000 guerrillas.

Initially the milf, which was already in existence prior to 1996, was also supportive of President Ramos and ready to participate in the new autonomous government. Yet, as its leaders believed the formula for peace and development was failing due to the national government’s foot-dragging in the release of needed funds, they finally distanced themselves from the whole process. Other close watchers of the process blamed the new leadership in the region for the misappropriation of funds for Mr. Misuari’s “pompous trips abroad.”

Those mnlf rebels who did not join the milf joined either the extreme splinter group Abu Sayyaf (“Sword of the Father”) or the Islamic Command Council. These three factions—including others posing as rebels but in reality just plain bandits—carried out kidnappings and terrorist activities to embarrass the new government. They also put more emphasis on their desire for a separate Muslim state.

In his 1996 book Break Not the Peace, President Ramos wrote that he foresaw, as early as 1992, that the most serious threat to the stability of Mindanao was the emergence of extremist Muslim groups supported by equally radical entities from Muslim countries. He had witnessed the wave of Islamic extremism experienced by Egypt, Algeria and Pakistan in previous years and predicted that a similar movement might develop in the Philippines. He challenged the Muslim fundamentalists of his country to seek peace through further negotiations, not terrorism. However, the rebel factions did not listen. They failed to see that they also were, through their terrorist activities, part of a worsening situation.

Wanting to forestall a massive Muslim uprising, the Ramos administration embarked on an aggressive effort to propel Mindanao forward. He launched construction on roads and other vital infrastructures, and established plans to maximize remaining resources to sustain more than 70 million Filipinos.

Part of the development singled out the city of General Santos in southeastern Mindanao. Because of its strategic location relative to America’s geopolitical and economic interests, a modern airport and a deep-water seaport were built.

Another Warning

When President Ramos’ term expired at the end of 1998, a peaceful transfer of government occurred. Incoming President Joseph Estrada promised to continue on the path toward economic relief for Mindanao. However, a financial meltdown was occurring in Asia at that time and, consequently, economic growth in the Philippines was stunted.

Late in 1999, the armm governor warned that lack of adequate progress in the development and autonomy agreements could lead to further restlessness and frustration among the Muslims. Already, the milf was readying itself to call for a separate Islamic state by establishing more camps outside its main camp in Maguindanao. Financial assistance from sympathetic Muslim countries was used to construct fortifications and a network of supply tunnels, much like Vietnam’s famous Ho Chi Minh trail, and to train more fighters in the camps. Adding to the intensity of the whole situation, Philippine government sources charged that the milf was waiting for a massive arms shipment, allegedly purchased with funds provided by Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden.

The Estrada administration countered these moves by building up its strength in troops and matériel in the potentially explosive areas. The seemingly small skirmishes were designed to put a check on the separatist tendency of the milf.

The Cost of Conflict

The conflict in Mindanao has put much strain on the nation’s economy. A dominant force in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, the Philippines today lags far behind its Asian counterparts. The struggling nation is almost on a par with Indonesia economically. It is the world’s leading exporter of manpower. There simply are not enough jobs for its millions of graduates that exit college every year.

The Philippines no longer ranks as a favorite investment area due to its unstable political climate, which is said to be rife with cronyism, corruption and other social ills. Due to the unrest, investors, who were seen as a boon to the ailing economy, have been scared away. Moreover, the recent hostage crisis in the southern islands has eroded the confidence of many tourists, although most of the skirmishes have occurred hundreds of miles away from the main tourist havens. Sporadic bombing incidents, which have taken place in various parts of Mindanao, have now spread to Manila—and have adversely affected the local stock market and peso-dollar exchange rates.

At the height of the conflict, it was estimated to have cost the Philippine government nearly 30 million pesos a day (us$700,000) to carry on the war, which involved more than 80,000 troops. One congressman was so concerned that he warned against applying appropriations for health and education for the war effort. Some civilian employees in the military have complained that some of their benefits were withheld and possibly diverted to the war effort.

In a country where one M-16 bullet costs as much as a kilo of rice, the cost of conflict is felt deeply. In Mindanao 50 percent of families are below the poverty line, as compared to Manila’s 34 percent. The money that is being spent to ward off terrorist activities of ragtag rebel armies of independence seekers could go a long way to help Filipinos rebuild burned-out homes, restore war-damaged farms, construct farm-to-market roads, build more schools and health centers, and so on. For a developing country so long ravaged by internal conflict, such as the Philippines, the list of needs for social and economic advancement is endless.

Peace Talks For Peace?

While representatives from both sides often meet in peace talks to address the simmering conflict and its alleged causes, little progress is ever made.

Due to the seeming insincerity of Muslim leaders in the talks, the government has adopted a fight-as-you-talk strategy, which has resulted in the dismantling of several milf camps. According to the Philippines’ defense secretary, the main objective of the recent offensive strategy is to degrade the armed capability of the milf and to prevent its carrying out attacks on civilian targets such as national highways.

Sadly, such strategies will never bring about lasting peace. Throughout mankind’s 6,000-year history, talks and negotiations between warring groups have never produced permanent solutions. More than 19 centuries ago, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans about the fact that men, notwithstanding their sincerest desires, do not know the way to real peace. Paul said—and so does the Trumpet magazine today—that peace can only be achieved when God’s laws are obeyed!

The Coming Peace of God

In his column “Roses and Thorns,” published in the Philippine Star Daily, former Education Secretary Alejandro Roces wrote about the solution to the Mindanao problem. He wrote, “Peace is the highest law of nature. What is needed in Mindanao is peace through reconciliation. To achieve it, both parties are to be subdued for the mutual benefit. In Arabic, it is called ‘Rahmat Allah,’ the Peace of God.”

Whether he realizes it or not, Mr. Roces’ statement comes very close to what the Bible says about peace. Soon this world will finally experience the peace of God. However, it will not come through mankind’s peace talks or his peace processes. It will come through the return of Jesus Christ, in full power and glory as King of kings and Lord of lords! Isn’t it amazing that men will literally have to be forced to live by the way that produces peace, prosperity and happiness?

Most of humanity today refuses to live by God’s word—and yes, so do most so-called Christians. They often scoff at the prophets of old and label them doomsayers. Yet, the Bible is full of prophecies of hope and peace.

The Prophet Micah, for example, foresaw a time when men will not “learn war anymore” (Mic. 4:1-4), after God’s government is established here on Earth. The ancient Prophet Isaiah looked forward to the time when Jesus Christ would be the Prince of peace on earth and therefore “of his government and peace there shall be no end” (Isa. 9:6-7). Even the New Testament speaks of a time in the near future when God will bring about the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21).

For the war-affected tribes in Mindanao and elsewhere, the “times of restoration” will soon be a reality. The ruling family of God will guide reconciliation among humans, God’s way, and harmony will be achieved at last.

One day, in that world soon to come, school children in Mindanao will only know of the present conflict through history books. No more will they be fleeing for their lives in the mud and pouring rain just to be safe from bullets and bombs. They will instead sing a song their forefathers sang in the past: “Upon the grassy plain of fair Bukidnon, contented cattle graze, with herdsmen gazing on. Full streams of water clear, that flow from verdant hills, give life to homes and farms, and feed the busy mills.”