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FOCUS December 2008 Volume 54

Mindanao Conflict: In Search of Peace and Human Rights


The current armed conflict in Mindanao reflects the recurring call for the fulfillment of the right to self-determination of the Muslim population in the Philippines in order to obtain sustainable peace.

With almost forty years of on and off fighting between Muslim armed opposition groups and the Philippine military forces, and the resulting high toll on human lives, the search for sustainable peace and full respect for human rights remains a big challenge.

The current armed conflict started in late 1960s, when a Muslim armed group (Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF) started to advocate for a “Moro homeland.” The Philippine government responded through military means, resulting in numerous deaths among, and displacement of, the civilian population (Muslims as well as Christians). In the 1970s, the Philippine government initiated peace talks and obtained a peace agreement with the then main Muslim armed opposition group (MNLF) to stop the conflict and address the problems. But armed confrontations broke out every now and then, between the Philippine military and the MNLF and also with another Muslim armed opposition group (Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF). For every break out of armed hostilities, thousands of non- combatants are caught in the crossfire, and suffer displacement and other human rights violations.

To emphasize their deep sense of independence as a people, many Muslims in Mindanao collectively call themselves “Moro,” the word used by the colonial Spanish government to refer to the Muslim people. This extends to the use of the word “Bangsamoro” (Moro Nation) to indicate a people separate from the rest of the Philippine population.

Roots of the conflict

The 2005 Philippine Human Development Report (2005 PHDR) lists the following major historical and contemporary roots of the conflict in Mindanao:[1]

  1. The forcible/illegal annexation of Moroland to the Philippines under the Treaty of Paris in 1898;[2]
  2. Military pacification by the American colonial government;
  3. Imposition of confiscatory land laws;
  4. “Indionization” (or Filipinization) of public administration in Moroland and the destruction of traditional political institutions;
  5. Government financed/induced land settlement and migration to Moroland;[3]
  6. Land-grabbing/conflicts;
  7. Cultural inroads against the Moros;
  8. The Jabidah Massacre in 1968 (killing of Muslim army recruits by their superiors);[4]
  9. Ilaga (Christian vigilante) and military atrocities in 1970-72; and
  10. Government neglect and inaction on Moro protests and grievances.

The 2005 PHDR states that the declaration of martial law on 21 September 1972 by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos was a triggering event of the contemporary Moro armed struggle.

The migration of Filipinos from the northern and central regions of the Philippines to Mindanao led to conflicts. As the 2005 PHDR explains:

The Muslims resented the loss of their lands, including those idle but which formed part of their traditional community. This resentment grew as Muslims witnessed the usurpation by Christian settlers of vast tract of prime lands. This ignited disputes between them and the Christian settlers. The question on land ownership and land disputes between Muslims and Christians was crucial during the post-war period. [5]

Peace initiatives

The resulting armed conflict from the early 1970s created a major crisis in Mindanao, and in the Philippines as a whole. In December 1976, the Philippine government signed an agreement with the MNLF through the intercession of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). This agreement, known as the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, provided for the creation of an autonomous region in Mindanao and Palawan (covering thirteen provinces), and the establishment of an autonomous government, judicial system (for Sharia law), and special security forces.

In 1977, President Marcos and the Batasang Pambansa (legislature) came out with a series of laws to implement the 1976 Tripoli Agreement that resulted in the creation of “Sangguniang Pampook [Regional Council] in each of Regions IX and XII” in Mindanao.[6] This solution was rejected by the MNLF.[7]

The 1987 Philippine Constitution brought in a new legal basis for a Muslim autonomous government in Mindanao. It has a provision (Article X) for an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, whose creation is dependent on acceptance in a plebiscite by the people in the affected provinces. Consequently, in 1989, a
law[8] was enacted that led to a plebiscite for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). In 1990, ARMM was established covering the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, whose respective populations voted in a plebiscite for inclusion into the new region.

But peace was still elusive. Formal peace talks between the government and MNLF had to start again in 1993 through the mediation of OIC and the Indonesian government. The Philippine government and the MNLF signed the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) to complete the implementation of the "1976 Tripoli Agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)." The 1996 agreement called for the establishment of a “Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD), the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), and the Consultative Assembly,” and the merging of the MNLF forces with the Philippine military, among other provisions. The agreement also called for an amendment to the law that created the ARMM. In 2001, the law was the amended[9] that led to a plebiscite in other provinces with predominant Muslim population regarding their inclusion in the ARMM. One province (Basilan) and one city (Marawi) joined the ARMM as a result.

By winning in the 1996 elections for the ARMM posts, the MNLF virtually took power since 1996 over six provinces and one city with predominant Muslim population. But the autonomous region formula was not a complete solution toward peace in Mindanao. Another Muslim armed opposition group, the MILF, demanded an independent Islamic state. The Philippine government had to deal with MILF separately for a negotiated settlement of its demands.

The 2005 PHDR states that by early 2000s, “three tracks had emerged, parallel though sometimes converging, which now constitute the current evolution of the Moro conflict: (1) the implementation of the GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement; (2) the GRP-MILF peace negotiations; and (3) Post-9/11 terrorism and counterterrorism on the Moro front.”[10]

The Philippine government (GRP) and the MILF started peace talks toward a negotiated political settlement in 1996. Support for the peace talks by Malaysia, Indonesia and Libya led to the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001. The Implementing Guidelines on the Security Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement of Peace of 2001 was signed on 7 May 2002 in Putrajaya, Malaysia. To maintain the ceasefire, three mechanisms were adopted 1) Joint Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities, 2) the International Monitoring Team (composed of representatives from Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Libya), and 3) the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group.

The continuing peace negotiations between the GRP and MILF resulted in a 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement of Peace of 2001 (MOA-AD). The MOA-AD provides for the delineation of the Bangsamoro homeland, similar to the delineation of the ancestral domain of indigenous Filipinos.[11] It provides for the establishment of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), which is the legal body that will govern the Bangsamoro homeland. Both GRP and MILF saw the MOA-AD as a necessary step to a final peace agreement.

But before the scheduled signing of the MOA-AD on 5 August 2008 in Kuala Lumpur was held, its legality was questioned before the Philippine Supreme Court. The Philippine government decided not to sign the agreement in view of the opposition raised by some Christian local government leaders in Mindanao and other political personalities. The court declared the unsigned MOA-AD unconstitutional in October 2008.[12] The court viewed the BJE, provided for in the MOA-AD, as “more of a state than an autonomous region” allowed by the 1987 Constitution for the ARMM governing body.

Human rights and the peace agreements

Did the agreements between the Philippine government and the MILF consider the human rights dimension of the issues at hand? Some say the MOA- AD ignored human rights due to the unlimited power given to the BJE.[13]

As one author pointed out,14 the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the discussion of the MOA-AD, the General Framework of Agreement of Intent Between the GRP and the MILF (GFAI) dated 27 August 1998, the Agreement on the General Framework for the Resumption of Peace Talks Between the GRP and the MILF (AGFRPT) dated 24 March 2001, and the Tripoli Agreement on Peace Between the GRP and the MILF (TAP) dated 22 June 2001 all refer to the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and mention the principles of justice, freedom and respect for the identity and culture of the Moro people. The TOR also includes the “ILO Convention No. 169, in correlation to the UN [United Nations] Declaration of Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.”

Even the Philippine Supreme Court referred to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  in discussing the appropriateness of the MOA-AD provision on the right of the Moros to a homeland.

Way forward

The failure of the Philippine government to sign the MOA-AD led to a new round of armed hostilities in late 2008 causing death to a number of people and displacing thousands more.

Nevertheless, the MOA-AD is just one step on the long road to peace in Mindanao. The peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF will continue and eventually deal with the existing legal structures brought about by the agreements with the MNLF.

Whatever final peace settlement is reached by all parties (the Philippine government, the MNLF, and the MILF), the international human rights standards should form a crucial part of both the process and content of achieving it. Peace without human rights is not a final peace settlement.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.


1.. Human Development Network, 2005 Philippine Development Report (Manila: Human Development Network, 2005), page 66, citing Macapado Abaton Muslim, The Moro Armed Struggle in the Philippines: The Nonviolent Autonomy Alternative (Marawi City: Office of the President and College of Public Affairs, Mindanao State University, 1994).

2. This is the peace treaty between the US and Spain that ceded the Philippines to the US for 20 million US dollars.

3. The government colonization program led to the migration to Mindanao of Filipinos from the northern and central regions of the Philippines prior to the Second World War.

4. This refers to the killing of members of a special military force who were being trained on guerrilla tactics in preparation for "Operation Merdeka,” a secret plan to invade Sabah. See Jocelyn Uy, “Lone survivor recalls Jabidah Massacre, “ Philippine Daily Inquirer, in

5. Busran-Lao, Y., 2005, “Human Development, Economic and Social Costs and Spillovers of Conflict: The Case of the Province of Lanao del Sur” cited in Human Development Network, op. cit., page 67.

6. See Presidential Decree No. 1618, Implementing the Organization of the Sangguniang Pampook and the Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook in Region IX And Region XII and for Other Purposes.

7. Human Development Network, op. cit., page 71.

8.Republic Act No. 6734, An Act Providing for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

9. Republic Act No. 9054, An Act to Strengthen and Expand the Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Amending for the Purpose Republic Act No. 6734.

10. Human Development Network, op. cit., page 66. The third track covers the Abu Sayyaf Group, which became notorious for its kidnapping activities in early 2000s.

11. The delineation of ancestral domain of the indigenous communities is provided for under the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA), Republic Act No. 8371.

12. G.R. Nos. 183591, 183572, 183893, and 183951, The Province of North Cotabato v. The Government of the Republic of the Philippines Peace Panel on Ancestral Domain (GRP), et al., October 14, 2008.

13. Soliman M. Santos, GRP-MILF peace agreements and human rights, Action for Economic Reforms, in ? option=com_content&task=view&id=747&Itemid=88