KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 1 / January-February-March 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Retrospect and Prospects:
Toward a Peaceful Mindanao

by Rufa Cagoco-Guiam

Part Two

Graphic: by Buggy Ampalayo in Mindanao Focus, Vol. 12 No. 3, 1994

The Moro revolutionary groups

While Moro resistance was already widely established during and immediately after colonial rule, it was not until the early 70s that the "formalization" of the Moro revolutionary movements took place.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) emerged as the very first revolutionary group among the young Moro radicals. Its emergence came in the wake of a growing Islamic consciousness among Philippine Muslims. The MNLF was in the forefront of the separatist movement among the Moros: it was then representing the general sentiment among the Moros of national oppression in the hands of a Christian-dominated Philippine government.

Perhaps many of us vividly remember the series of violent encounters between Muslim/Moro militias and Christian military and paramilitary groups in various parts of Mindanao. For many, the wounds of such wars have not yet healed completely, and these have cut deeply along the faith identities of both its protagonists and innocent victims.

The separatist struggle of the MNLF from 1971 to 1976 took a heavy toll on both sides (Mercado, 1992). Estimates of lives lost range from 50,000 to 80,000, and about 300,000 displaced, many of whom have sought refuge in neighboring Sabah.

A breakthrough came after five years of bloody confrontations with the signing of the now famous Tripoli Agreement in December 1976. Among other things, the agreement provided for an establishment of an autonomous region in 13 provinces in Mindanao and Sulu, "within the realm of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines…, subject to constitutional processes." In April 1978, a referendum was held to ask the voters in the 13 provinces whether they would opt to join the proposed autonomous government. Three of these provinces, namely Davao del Sur, South Cotabato and Palawan, refused to join, so only nine provinces comprised the autonomous government then.

While the two autonomous regions were slowly put in place in Zamboanga and Cotabato cities, the MNLF leadership was seriously rocked by disputes allegedly due to the inter-ethnic differences among its top officials. Some observers believe that this was largely concocted by President Marcos’ military lieutenants to divide and weaken the Moro struggle for a separate state.

As a result of such divisions, the MNLF later on became more than one group. Thus the rise of the Maguindanaon-led Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), led by Ustadz Hashim Salamat, and the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization, led by a Maranaw, Dimas Pundatu. This latter group came to be known as the Reformist group in the MNLF.

The phenomenon of People Power and the ascendancy of Corazon Aquino to the presidency in 1986 marked a new round of government–Moro, revolutionary interactions. Cory decided to talk directly to Nur Misuari of the MNLF in Jolo, and there laid the groundwork for a new round of negotiations with the Philippine government and the MNLF. Eventually, this would lead to the establishment of a new structure of another form of autonomous government, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

In the current set-up of the ARMM, and with the renewed interest among the various Moro fronts to assert their right of self-determination, there is a growing apprehension among both Muslim and Christian residents in Mindanao that the war of the 70s will be repeated. The fears are not based on thin air: there is a discernible pattern of heavy militarization on the part of government on the one hand, and on the other, massive recruitment and training among the Moro fronts.

Boundaries that hinder peace building in Mindanao

As an anthropologist, I have done fieldwork in various rural areas in Maguindanao province. I treasure pleasant memories of my immersion with uncomplicated and genial rural Maguindanaons. One of those interactions I had with them can’t be erased from my memory. I’m referring to their varied experiences of "timbaka" (gunfight). Many of them are survivors of the fierce gun battles in the 70's and of recent pocket skirmishes. We may think that they have become inured to warfare and guns don’t intimidate them any more. Not so. They still cringe at the sound of gunfire and may start packing their meagre belongings as a sort of reflex action.

Some of them told me that all they want is to be left in peace – to till the land and freely enjoy the fruits of their harvest without the thought of being harassed by armed men who will partake of the little wealth that they have. At the time I did fieldwork among them, the hottest issue among the urbanite Maguindanaon Muslims was the establishment of the autonomous government. But to the simple rural folk, they couldn’t care less about what autonomy is all about. They were more concerned with their day to day survival in an uncertain, unpeaceful situation. For them, this was one insurmountable barrier that prevented them from living in peace and from maintaining openness with others of different culture. Wars are indeed formidable boundaries, they can make enemies out of fellow human beings.

For quite some time now, there has been a raging debate on the use or abuse of the word "Muslim." In the media circle, of which I used to be a part until about a year ago, the debate has awakened renewed hostility and inarticulated feelings of animosity among media practitioners, especially among the Muslims and Christians.

The debate was triggered by the recurrent use of the word "Muslim" as a description or label to define or specify a suspect in a violent incident. Countless newspaper headlines have used the term as a modifier for thief, kidnapper or what have you. The constant use of the term in both print and broadcast media has led to a widespread and rather pervasive perception that Muslims, who are stereotyped in earlier literature as "blood hungry" or "savage looking" are indeed good for nothing but inciting violence and other forms of bloodbath.

The use of the term in such a way obfuscates the fact that the word "Muslim" is a religious identity. In Arabic, the language of the Islamic Holy Book or the Qur'an, "Muslim" means one who completely submits himself to Allah (SWT) who is All-just and All-merciful. Thus, it is quite blasphemous, or at the least anomalous, to use the terms "Muslim thief," "Muslim bandit/kidnapper." For how can one claim to be a Muslim, as earlier defined, if he violates the rights of others? How can one be God-fearing and yet have the audacity to violate His commandments? Indeed, a "Muslim thief or kidnapper" – if ever there is one – is a contradiction in terms.

On the contrary, when it is a lowland majority Filipino (e.g. Cebuano, Ilonggo or Ilokano) who commits a crime or becomes a suspect in one, no such definition like "a Christian kidnapper" has ever been used in both newspaper and television or radio reports. Both "Christian" and "Muslim" are religious identities, yet only the latter has been used, even abused in most news reports.

There are those who argue that if writers and reporters choose to use the word "Muslim" to identify a criminal or suspect, it is his or her prerogative to do so. This reinforces the general public’s feelings of animosity against a group of people earlier stereotyped as the dregs of the earth. At a time when people are strongly clamoring for peace, this dogged insistence on using one’s "creative" prerogative can lead us to war. Rebels are not the only ones who can create war. Reporters and journalists too, can incite warfare by abusing their responsibilities of fair and balanced reporting.

Toward a framework for lasting peace in Mindanao

Breaking down the boundaries that hinder peace building is quite difficult to do. More so here in Mindanao, among its people who have suffered needlessly from many wars which were not of their own making. But it is an imperative if we are to establish the superstructures which will pave the way for lasting peace.

The following tips, though by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, can help us forge a framework for peace in Mindanao:

  1. A basic requirement in breaking down barriers is tolerance. Tolerance for other lifeways or lifestyles is necessary so we would be able to see the "other" (as suggested in Noel Copin's paper) not according to our own cultural standards. It’s true that we can’t help judge other people by our standards. Our culture makes us see others through our cultural glasses, so to speak. But consciously doing so makes us put boundaries that reinforce our differences. Perhaps we can learn from anthropologists who are trained from the start of their course to adopt the attitude of cultural relativism, i.e. that there is no inferior nor superior culture or way of life, and that each culture is unique and functional for the people who practice it. This attitude is the opposite of ethnocentrism which makes one assess another's culture using his or her own culture as a basis.

  2. There is a need to recognize the role of women in promoting harmonious relations among diverse peoples, and their general contributions to the maintenance of society. Statistics show that women compose more than half of the country’s population. Surprisingly, even their obvious contributions to society’s production and reproduction gets very little acknowledgment from our patriarchal-oriented society.

    This is not to mention the fact that women are not given a significant role in the current moves of government to talk peace with the Moro rebels. There is no woman member in both the government and the rebel group’s panels. But more than just involving women in the peace panels, government and the rebel groups should give an expressed recognition of the tremendous capabilities of women as active participants in the peace process. Women should not only be seen, they should also be heard. For as long as women are relegated to the background, no meaningful social change can rake place. It is high time they are given their due in terms of providing them opportunities to participate actively in all affairs, especially in the on- going peace process. Won’t it be a more peaceful world if more than half of those who live in it live in an atmosphere of a lasting peace?

  3. Above all, there is a need for all of us to join hands in the establishment of a more just and humane society. Many of the roots of our unpeaceful situation are found in the structures of violence which have perpetuated the nagging poverty and its concomitant powerlessness among us. To paraphrase the words of one of our foremost nationalists, the late Sen. Jose W Diokno, for as long as there is no adequate food, jobs and no land for our people to till, there can be no lasting peace.

Concluding Remarks

As journalists, you are all challenged to become the purveyors of truth in reporting events and other issues of relevance to widely divergent peoples. Perhaps your greatest contribution to this never-ending search for peace is to go back to what Noel Copin sees as your primary responsibility: "to know the truth of the other..." so that you may not stay on one side of the fence and incite the other half of society to attack or defend.

Again, knowing how journalists work, and the kind of work conditions they are in, especially here in Mindanao, Copin's exhortations may be comparable to asking for the moon. But then, some impossible things have happened, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. Perhaps then we can hope the seemingly impossible dream of uniting ourselves and striving hard to understand the "others" among us.

Fatima Mernissi, a famous Moroccan woman sociologist and feminist, wrote in 1992 a thought-provoking book on "Islam and Democracy." In this well-written riveting prose, Mernissi contends that freedom, human rights, peace are all possible – even in a highly boundaries-filled society like that existing in the Arab world. All we need, she strongly points out, is a breaking down of all our fears of the differences we see in other people. Once we start breaking down the artificial, culturally-imposed barriers among us, we can all start to communicate and engage in an unlimited dialogue. Then, as she concludes, we may be able to "create that global mirror in which all cultures can shine in their own uniqueness."

This vision of a new and peaceful world is what all of us, especially the journalists among us, should aim for.

Thank you and wassalam.

Moro Kurier is published quarterly by the Moro People's Resource Center, Inc., PO Box 309, Cotabato City, Mindanao, Philippines.