Philippines: The Vexed Question of Muslim Autonomy


Dr Ron May

Both President Aquino and President Ramos inherited the problem of the unresolved demand for separatism in the traditional areas of Muslim influence in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. President Marcos had attempted earlier to end the Muslim insurgency in the south, in part through the negotiation of an arrangement - embodied in the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 - which gave Muslims a degree of political autonomy; but negotiations broke down, the principal Muslim organizations rejected the proposed autonomy, and the armed conflict dragged on. In 1986, President Aquino revived negotiations with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari, and provision for an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was written into the new, post People Power, constitution. But the issue was still not satisfactorily resolved. In 1996, however, President Ramos succeeded in negotiating Misuari's return to the Philippines to head a new, predominantly-Muslim regional organization, the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD). Although there were initially strong misgivings among the south's Christian population about the creation of the SPCPD - and threats of a return to the communal violence which had preceded the formation of the MNLF in then early 1970s - the 1996 agreement was widely hailed as a major breakthrough in resolving the longstanding conflict between the Muslim separatists and the national government. The achievements of the 1996 agreement were real, but far from conclusive. For one, the relationship between the earlier-created ARMM and the new SPCPD (and between the SPCPD and the national government) was not clear. The fact that Misuari, appointed head of the SPCPD, was subsequently also elected as governor of the ARMM, however, largely obviated the need immediately to resolve this issue. Secondly, the holding of a plebiscite to determine who was in and who was out of the new arrangement was postponed for two years. The problem was - and remains - that, while the Moro separatists modified their original claim for all of Mindanao, Sulu and southern Palawan, they still defined Bangsa Moro (the 'Moro nation') in terms of the thirteen provinces of traditional Muslim influence. As a result of continued heavy inmigration during the twentieth century, however, Muslims predominated in only four provinces and one city, and consequently any vote on Muslim autonomy was bound to yield a substantial negative vote - as was foreseen by the MNLF in 1977 and demonstrated in the 1987 poll. Thirdly, by the late 1970s the MNLF had split into three major factions, and although one of these appears to have effectively died out, in 1996 the MNLF's main rival Muslim separatist organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), refused to recognize the agreement and vowed to maintain the armed struggle. On coming to office in 1998, President Estrada was met by a considerably less volatile situation in the south than his predecessors had faced, even though the MILF has maintained an armed struggle (notwithstanding initiatives for an independent settlement), and Governor Misuari has threatened if the Muslim population of Mindanao-Sulu does not get satisfaction through the ARMM/SPCPD, that Moro fighters will return to the hills. There is little doubt that a plebiscite in the (now) fourteen provinces and four cities will again produce a negative vote in all but three or four provinces. Such an outcome, combined with the growing feeling in the Muslim south that little has been done to improve the lot of the Moro population, and seemingly growing disenchantment with Misuari's leadership role, will severely test the viability of the 1996 agreement. A return to Muslim insurgency - at a time when there is evidence also of some revival of Communist insurgency - is the last thing the incoming president needs, as he attempts to address issues of economic recovery, governance, law and order, and sovereignty.

WATCHPOINT: President Estrada will ultimately face must face the crunch on the Muslim issue that his predecessors managed to postpone.


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