The ongoing peace process in Mindanao, a region south of the Philippines where a long-standing war between Muslim settlers and government forces is at place, suffered an unexpected setback when 44 members of the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) were killed by an alleged combined force of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — the entity whom the government negotiates with — and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) — the breakaway group that continues the armed struggle over Muslim territories in Mindanao — while trying to serve a warrant of arrest for two top international terrorists suspected to be hiding within the territory of MILF, citing a breach of a ceasefire protocol as the primary reason for the “misencounter.” While the Philippine government insists on continuing a landmark deal with the MILF that will create an improved autonomous region in the Muslim territories in the Philippines, several calls for an all-out war — done during the term of former President Joseph Estrada — against the insurgents reverberate among citizens and politicians. These calls distorts the fact that Muslims were forcefully integrated to the Philippines during its colonial history and has since been tried to be corrected for several generations.

Muslims in Mindanao as “Filipinos?”

Muslims in the Philippines have long tried to use arms in advancing their interest, especially in claiming their ancestral lands and asserting that their incorporation with “Filipinos” — a term to them pertains to the Hispanic-colonized people of the lands north of Mindanao which they were really not a part of — is in every angle unjustifiable. Though some hostilities still remain in the Bangsamoro area through the Abu Sayyaf, the BIFF and other members of MILF and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), waging war against a legitimate government proved to be unreliable despite the previous support of various Islamic groups and countries, for nothing really happens except destruction of properties and communities and loss of lives. With a dominant Christian population and thinking vis-à-vis the alleged incompatibility of Islam with democracy, Muslim Filipinos find it hard to articulate their interests in the democracy-loving nation.

The Muslims of what we call now as the Philippines were not really subjected into any external power throughout their ethnic history. The Spaniards had tried to conquer their lands in the southern part of the country but had failed to establish a stronghold or even pacify them. They had also been given relative independence in the American occupation of the Philippines until their eventual fall because of the tactical superiority of the colonizers and their subsequent incorporation in the administration of the Philippine colonial government. Integrated during the Philippine Commonwealth era, the Muslims find it irrational to join them with people who have a different culture and history from them. The thinking that the assimilation of Muslims into the mainstream Philippine government — the imposed political structure by the colonizers — would solve the looming problem of Moro resistance at the end of the Second World War did not help in stopping the Moros to come up in arms and counter what seemed to be the legitimate government of the Philippines during that time. Instead, it has reinforced the difference between Muslims who have preserved their culture and were independent of any external control, and the “Filipinos” who had created a mixture of culture from their colonizers and were subjugated for an extensive period of time under foreign powers.

The contemporary Moro struggle started with the so-called Jabidah Massacre in 1968 where a number of secretly trained Moro soldiers were killed upon defiance of an order to invade and occupy Sabah, a region formerly owned by the Sultanate of Sulu but has been integrated to Malaysia, during the Marcos administration. Together with the rise of Muslim intellectuals in the country — probably as a result of the integration policies implemented during the American colonial government — the incident gave rise to the MNLF and, years after, a more fundamentalist movement in the name of MILF, the two main Islamic factions in the Philippines. During this period, the commonly known method used by Muslims was instituted, so to speak: the use of armed movements to assert their interests in the Bangsamoro ancestral homeland that they had occupied even before the West “rediscovered” the East and robbed from them mostly throughout the American Period, and their right to self-determination. The period also saw the time when the Muslims thought that they were further oppressed because of the imposition of Martial Law and the establishment of the propaganda-filled ideology of Bagong Lipunan (New Society).

The armed struggle method is inculcated by the Islamic secessionist movements in their various manifestos, including those of the MNLF, although this has also been the manner enforced by the Moros in their resistance to the Spanish and American colonizers. They have justified this kind of practice under the concept of jihad in order to protect their interests, especially their lands in the southern part of the Philippines as well as preserving their Islamic tradition and culture. Probably this is the primary reason why Muslims are stereotyped as “terrorists” and “armed bandits” by some Christian Filipinos for this method — together with their perceived hot-temperedness and sensitivity and the effect of prevailing economic conditions to the Muslim Filipinos — has turned their interest articulation into pushing unto some sort of a civil war, if we are to assume that they have to and should be an integral part of the contemporary Filipino society. Pursuing a policy of an all-out war against Muslims do not consider the seemingly different historical development of the followers of Islam compared to their colonized counterparts, and the situation in Mindanao may look like those of the Palestinian conflict with the Jewish nation of Israel, the problem in the Balkans or even the Holocaust by Nazi Germans.