Mindanao: fighting despite new autonomy deal

New fighting was reported from the southern Philippines island group of Mindanao Oct. 29, despite a recent deal on regional autonomy aimed at ending the decades-long insurgency. Former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels accused the Philippine military of attacking its members in western Sulu province, sparking a gun battle that left four soldiers dead and several more wounded. The MNLF said marine troops attacked its followers at a village in Patikul municipality, who were only harvesting coconuts. But the military’s Western Mindanao Command insisted that troops had clashed with militants of the jihadist group Abu Sayyaf. The army was reportedly sent into the area after reports that Abu Sayyaf’s kidnap victims had been spotted. The military said two militants were also killed in the clash. (See map.) (Mindanao Examiner, Oct. 29)

The new autonomy deal was signed on Oct. 15 following lengthy negotiations between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which were brokered by Malaysia. The accord creates a new autonomous region in Mindanao, to be called Bangsamoro, providing for the transfer of security responsibilities from the army to the new Bangsamoro police force in a “phased and gradual manner.” The 40-year conflict that has cost an estimated 120,000 lives. (BBC News, Oct. 15)

The MILF broke from the MNLF in the 1980s and continued the armed struggle after the MNLF signed a Libya-brokered peace accord in 1996. Those accords led to creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), incorporating parts of the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The new accord exapnds the ARMM into the new region of Bangamoro, adding several municipalities and barangays (villages) that voted to join in the adjacent province of Lanao del Norte, as well as the cities of Cotabato and Isabela. Bangamoro will have an elected council and executive, as well as a clerical judiciary to oversee sharia law for the Muslim majority within the territory. (Philippine Star, Oct. 15; Muslim Mindanao)

The split between the MNLF and the MILF continues despite the accord—with the MNLF ironically now assuming the hardline stance and attacking the Bangsamoro deal as a sell-out. At a rally in Davao City after the deal was signed, MNLF chair Nur Misuari was introduced as “president of the Bangsamoro Republic” (despite the fact that no elections have been held yet), and attacked the agreement as a product of a “tripartite conspiracy” (presumably referring to Manila, the MILF and Malaysia) that reduced the Bangsamoro homeland to “five tiny provinces hardly the size of the Cotabato of yore.” (Minda News, Oct. 22)

The original Cotabato province, known as the “Empire Province of Cotabato,” was based on the former autonomous sultante in Mindanao and was the largest in the country in terms of land area until 1973  when an order was issued breaking it up into new provinces. This was seen as a move to dilute Muslim political power as Christian settlers started moving in from the island groups of Visayan and Luzon to the north. The contemporary province of Cotabato is now 80% Christian. (Philippine HistoryCotabato City website, National Statistica Coordination Board, Philippines)

MILF officials urged Nur Misuari and the MNLF not to sow disunity among the Moros and unify around the Bangsamoro government as conceived under the accord. (Inquirer Mindanao, Oct. 22)

  1. Tribal peoples under attack in Mindanao
    B’laan communities affected by the SMI-Xstrata Tampakan Copper-Gold Mining Project and their support groups last month called for a high-level investigation by the Philippine armed forces and the Commission on Human Rights on the escalating tension and violence in South Cotabato. The request arrived just two weeks after two B’laan clan members were killed in an alleged military operation; and three months after the massacre of an entire B’laan family. (Intercontinental Cry, March 2)