Focus on the Philippines

An Ancient Conflict That Won't Go Away

by Madge Kho*

The current situation in Mindanao and Jolo is once again calling attention to a long history of conflict in that area. This time, the media at least is seeking to understand the real issues rather than just falling prey to the pat analysis of a religious conflict. Ever since Spain's attempts to conquer the south in the 16th Century, Islam has become the Moro's articulation of their identity as a people.

In his book, Swish of the Kris, Vic Hurley predicted the Moro-Christian conflict would continue (E.F. Dutton, 1936) if the Moro is not treated well. He said "The Moro is poised at a crossroad. He can accept the peace the Filipino offers or he can, with equal facility, pick up the bloody kris he dropped at the Battle of Bud Bagsak."

The 1913 battle at Bud Bagsak was one of several bloody massacres committed by U.S. troops on the island of Jolo. Mark Twain and Moorfield Storey, two prominent members of the U.S. Anti-Imperialist League, an organization opposed to U.S. annexation of the Philippines, denounced an earlier massacre, the Battle of Bud Dajo in their writings.

In 1899, the U.S. signed a peace treaty (Bates Treaty) with the Sultan of Sulu as a way of preserving its forces in the north where it was battling Filipino revolutionaries opposed to its occupation. The treaty promised to uphold the Sultanate's sovereignty. As soon as the north was defeated in 1902, the U.S. launched its full scale offensive against the Moros which lasted for the next 10 years.

In an effort to keep Mindanao and Sulu for U.S. business and separate from the Philippines, New York Congressman Roger Bacon filed a bill in the U.S. Congress. (House Bill 12772, 69th Congress, May 6, 1926; Congressional Record, 69th Congress, 1st Session, Vol. 67, No. 164, June 24, 1926, pp. 11956-11964) but he did not get enough support.

In 1935, against the will of the Moro people, the U.S. incorporated the South to the Philippine nation when it decided to give the Philippines its independence. Muslim leaders staged a protest in March that year. Some even sent petitions to the U.S. President and Congress calling for a separate state. But their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Apart from stemming a potentially volatile peasant uprising in the north, the resettlement of northerners in Mindanao and Sulu was a policy meant to "Filipinize" the south. In his 1914 report as Governor of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu, Frank Carpenter (War Dept., Gov. Printing Office 1916, pp. 325-407) stated that in order for the

Philippine nation to succeed, there has to be an "amalgamation or blending of these various elements into a homogenous whole."

True, the influx of Christians did not spark immediate rebellion. But the conflict over land has been simmering with Christians being given land titles as justification for taking land grabbed from the Moros. And, the Americans did spread Christianity but unlike the Spaniards it came under the cover of education.

In 1913, Muslims made up 98% of the population in Mindanao. In 1972, it was reduced to 40% and by 1982. A recent study states that in 1982, only 17% of land were in Moro hands; today, that number has been reduced to 15%. To make things worse, most of the land owned by Moros are in remote and infertile mountain areas.

The only reason why there appeared to have been relative peace during the Aquino and Ramos administration was because the Moros were waiting to see what the Manila government was going to offer. Many of the MNLF cadres I spoke to in 1987 wanted a respite from their long years of living the harsh and cruel lives as guerrillas and wanted a return to the life the had before 1972.

It was not a surprise then that the MNLF finally signed a peace pact with the Ramos Administration in 1996. Unfortunately, this agreement did not bring peace or much improvement to the region. In Jolo, the town where I grew up extortion, kidnappings and murders have been daily occurrences since the mid-1980s.

The Abu Sayyaf has succeeded in calling attention to the plight of the Moro once again. To prevent further escalation of the civil war in Mindanao, the Estrada administration should seize this opportunity to pay attention to economic development in the region as a way of resolving this ancient conflict rather than responding with a military solution. The Philippine military would once again be tied down in the south just as it was during the Marcos years.



*Madge Kho is a native of Jolo and co-chair of the Friends of the Filipino People, an organization founded in 1973 to oppose U.S. support for the Marcos dictatorship.

Issue #13
29 May