UNDERSTANDING THE
MINDANAO INSURGENCY

from OG5 Digest October-December 2004; p29
by: Cecille Aycocho

 

 

The Philippines faces a myriad of national security threats, which starts and ends with insurgent groups fighting for either independence or reforms. The rebellion by Filipino Muslims in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago has plagued past governments. The Muslims had waged guerilla warfare since 1972, alternately pressing for either secession or increased autonomy.

 

Despite various attempts at neutralizing these groups once and for all numerous peace talks, the country is yet to have its peace. Now we are at a loss about the next step. What more can we do that hasn’t been done to solve the problem of insurgency? What are we missing?

 

Disunity in Diversity

 

            Muslims, also known as Moros, have nurtured a sense of separatism for most of our history. There hundred years of Spanish colonization brought most areas of the Christian population under control, but the Spanish were never able to assert broad governance over those areas of the southern Philippines that were host to the slim percentage of Muslims. (For much of Philippine history, Muslims represented 4-5% of the population, but that has recently risen to 7-8%). During the American occupation, some of fiercest battles fought against authorities were from our Muslims brothers.

            Despite this long history of separatist sentiment, Filipino Christians and Muslims alike trace current frictions and internal conflict over Muslim separatism not to differences, but to economic inequities.

            Specifically, resettlement policies in the 1950’s encouraged Filipino Christians to migrate from over-crowded Luzon province to Mindanao, where Muslims comprised a majority of the population and owned approximately 40% of the land. Both the Muslims percentage of the population in Mindanao and their land holdings there shank significantly as Christians Filipinos became the majority in Mindanao and gained a solid preponderance of land.

            Those provinces of Mindanao which have significant Muslims populations are still among the poorest in the Philippines. By the 1970’s, the economic impact of this transmigration trend was widely felt among Muslims in the Philippines and a Muslims separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), arose to challenge Manila’s rule in Mindanao. At it’s height as an insurgent force, the MNLF had 60,000 combatants. Already subject to insurgency of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), Mindanao became a busy battlefield.

            The separatist goals of the MNLF were reinforced in the late 1970’s and 1980’s by the global wave of Islamic fundamentalism. Over a twenty-year period, the MNLF and Manila waged internal war but gradually came to accord, and a peace agreement was signed in 1996.

            Several years before, as it became obvious to Filipino Muslim radicals that the MNLF was prepared to consider Manila’s offer of autonomy, fundamentalist group split from the MNLF. The most significant of these was the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf. However, six provinces with Muslim populations voted to become the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), under MNLF political control. Approximately 25,000 MNLF combatants were demobilized under a Philippine government program, with economic assistance from the United States.

            This program provided agricultural inputs and training to enable insurgents to become farmers. However, the “peace dividend” – the larger package of economic assistance that the ARMM expected from Manila – has been slow to come, causing discontent and disillusionment. Moreover, the factionalism which has characterized the Filipino Muslim community for centuries did not prevent further splits in the MNLF after the 1996 accords were signed.

 

The Roots of Insurgency

 

            Our history with insurgencies has yet to end if we want to attain peace and unity in the country. After all that has been said and done on the subject, one must try to look deeper into the problem and to address there root cause/s.

            In his book, Professor Thomas McKenna, author of Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines, traced the causes of the Mindanao problem and came up with the conclusion that a cultural and religious gulf divided Muslims and Christians since the Spanish occupation.

            He further writes in his book that cultural differences do not by themselves create ethnic conflict. But the Christian Filipinos, including representatives of the Philippine state, have often tended to view Philippine Muslims as socially backward and untrustworthy precisely because of their history of resistance to hispanicization. While Muslims have tended to be highly suspicious of the intentions of the Philippine government and generally wary of Christians. Although, as mentioned earlier, this is not to say that religion issues and cultural differences exactly caused the tension and created this unrest, but more because of economic inequalities. The resettlement policies encouraged Filipino-Christians to relocate from Luzon to the Mindanao area. As a result, by the late 1960s Mindanao Muslims found themselves a relatively impoverished minority in their own homeland. Marco Garrido an the Asian Times, agrees on these observations and wrote, “Thee events in particular – Christian immigration in Mindanao, sectarian violence, and martial law – transformed the kind of pliable sanitized Islam the colonial administration had propagated into a basis for discrimination and, eventually, rebellion.”

            History would tell us that no insurgency arose without a viable reason. But political and economic issues certainly create unrest and dissatisfaction. The root cause of insurgency relates to the social, economic and political inequities which create conflict. The present administration is aware of these facts, and very much so. In the “Strategy of Holistic Approach”, the government outlines the roots of insurgency as: 1. Poverty, which includes low productivity, criminality, marginalization, environmental degradation; 2. Ignorance, which includes poor resource base and low quality education; 3. Disease, which includes malnutrition, poor delivery of health services; Injustice, which includes human rights violations, graft and corruption, land conflicts.

            Some thoughts written by Salah Jubair, in his book, “Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyranny,” are encouraging, “The Moros are not asking for the whole Mindanao, because circumstances have superseded some facts of history. They just want a parcel of it, especially where they predominate. This will enable generations after them to live in peace and piety, as Islam enjoins all believers. The indigenous peoples, whom the Visayans call Lumads may opt to join their blood-brothers, the Moros, and they are welcome. After all, the two peoples are inseparable in the history of Mindanao and Sulu. Is this too much a price for peace, development and prosperity for all?”

            Keeping these observations in mind, there is only one viable solution – address the issue of poverty.

 

Giving Peace A Chance

 

Economic Standpoint

 

            Since we have established what seems to be the obvious, that poverty is the root cause of insurgency, addressing this should be the main focus, which the present administration has also realized. We know that steps to address this issue have been done, many programs formulated and planned. But what ever happened to them?

            According to statistics, poverty incidence is highest in Mindanao. Forty-five (45) percent of Mindanao’s families live below the poverty line, compared to only 30 percent in Luzon and 38 percent in the Visayas. This figure (45%) is even way below the Philippine poverty incidence of 32 percent. According to data from National Statistics Coordinating Board (NSCB), of the 4.5 million Filipino families that cannot meet the minimum food requirement for survival, 1.4 million are in Mindanao.

            In 1996, the Davao Consensus, which created a limited Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, was underpinned by a wider Zone of Peace and Development dedicated to the enactment of social economic programs. Administration by administration, agenda is laid down. During President Joseph Estrada’s administration, The National Peace and Development and the Strategy of Total Approach (STA) was laid down. It contained the Strategy of Total Approach, which covered the various policies and programs that would address the multi-faceted dimensions of the armed conflicts and insurgencies in the country. Despite these plans, behind the STA, the Four-Point Agenda and other programs was President Estrada’s policy of an all-out-war against the Muslim rebels. He sought to weaken them enough to bring them to the negotiation table. According to those who worked on the ground to help those afflicted by the fighting, all these programs were good on paper but were not implemented. Hardly any of the resources supposedly allocated by the government for development reached the community; this is attributed to the high level of corruption in government agencies.

            The Arroyo government has also promised to devote a substantial amount for the development of Mindanao. As with the previous administration’s agenda, we seem to already have an understanding on what needs to be done, and yet, the problem is in the implementation. Measures should be implemented to ensure that funds reach the intended to ensure that the funds reach the intended project and community. Infrastructure and facilities must be funded, and people given more employment opportunities.

 

Social Strategies

 

            Education is also very important. Rebels and insurgents use psy-war to win supporters in their areas. Emotional approach is almost always very effective in convincing people. When rebels go around advocating their ideologies, it’s almost a probability that these people would believe them, especially the youth. Living in a poverty-stricken area, with no evidence of development, they know very little or none at all of the government’s programs for them. And rebels in return, knowing these things so well, treat these people’s minds like a sponge that whatever information they feed them would be considered the truth. Who wouldn’t? When you know nothing else, there is no basis for comparison, to which you base your judgments on. With education, residents will not be as easily swayed by leftists as easily as uneducated residents will be.

            Goals of a long-range counterinsurgency plan should also include deterring alienated youth from joining a terrorist group in the first place. This may seem an impractical goal, for how does one recognize a potential terrorist, let alone deter him or her from joining a terrorist group? But this one is more of a proactive approach, instead of a reactive one. Instead of going to areas where rebels are said to be popular, it would also be logical to also educate people in areas, where the rebels are not yet established.

            Doing so, you give them the information they need, and affirm to them that their government works for them, before they are even fed the wrong ideas. A counter strategy could be approached within the framework of advertising and civic-action campaigns. Not only should all young people in the region be educated on the realities of guerilla life, but a counterterrorist policy should be in place to inhibit them from joining in the first place.

            Likewise, image building and intensive consultations with key opinion leaders in these areas are also logical. Opinion leaders are members of the community who have the power to influence residents in his area, to believe in his opinions. Using this, our forces can reach out to these key opinion leaders and win their hearts and minds. That way, they have secured help to bridge the gap with the people in the area.

            Also, insurgents work by employing psy-war tactics, as we very well know. They work by blending in with the people, interacting with them. This s also what the government forces must do. Reach to people and establish relationships, build friendships, this will create a positive image for the government and will also convince the people that military forces are not there to antagonize, but to protect them. Forge alliances with the media, to create a positive image for the government effort, and to use these tools for information dissemination to tell the people of the programs.

 

Military Solutions

            Military presence would still be effective. But going on an all out war should not be the plan anymore, as the past administration’s experience would tell us that this is not the way to peace. Making our presence felt should be enough to tell these insurgents and the people that we are serious in our efforts. It is a truism of counterinsurgency that a population will give its allegiance to the side that will best protect it. This is why the chief goal of insurgents is to deprive the population of that sense of security. Through violence and bloodshed, insurgents seek to foment a climate of fear by demonstrating the authorities’ weakness and inability to maintain order.

 

The Road of Peace

            Although social and economic development – when properly supported and implemented – can inhibit insurgency, development alone cannot eliminate it. Development is most effective when it is incorporated into a multi-pronged approach that includes wider political, military, and community-relationship dimensions. These qualifications aside, there is a noteworthy potential for development policies to reduce the threat of insurgency.

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