The Moro struggle as myth and as historical reality

Patricio Abinales
'A major reason behind the inability to come up with a lasting peace plan for Mindanao has to do with an orthodox explanation that promotes a historical narrative of an unceasing resistance by a unified Muslim minority against the state and the Christian majority'

Those involved in the raging public discussion over the fate of Muslim Mindanao post-Mamasapano, might consider it worthwhile to factor in two elements into consideration: first, the Muslim separatist revolt itself, and second, the national government’s scheme to disposess Moros of their lands by flooding Mindanao with northern land-hungry migrants.

A major reason behind the inability to come up with a lasting peace plan for Mindanao has to do with an orthodox explanation that promotes a historical narrative of an unceasing resistance by a unified Muslim minority against the state and the Christian majority. But this is what the historian Eric Hobsbawm calls an “invented tradition,” as conflict between Moro armed groups and the national government had been intermittent but also localized. During the American colonial period, revolts were even lesser and one-sided battles like the Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak were the exceptions rather than the norm. Moreover, these were never symbols of a grand vision to “liberate” the Moroland or defend it from outside invaders. They were motivated mainly by immediate exigent demands which included taxation, abuses by colonial officials, the end of slave trade, and intra-elite conflict.

You can actually have an idea of how isolated and insignificant these “revolts” in a listing of historian Samuel K. Tan has in his book The Filipino Muslim Armed Struggle, 1900-1972 (1977), as reproduced below. None of the “revolts” he cited were for “Moro liberation,” and neither were they ever in solidarity with one another. They were all local. There was no umma as asserted by an orthodox explanation that is widely shared, from the University of the Philippines to the NGOs of Moro Mindanao.

Muslim “revolts” against Americal colonial rule, 1900-1913 (Source: Tan, 1977: 161-67)
DATE VILLAGE DISTRICT CAUSES MUSLIM CASUALTIES*
1900 Jolo Sulu Inter-Muslim** n.d. (not determined)
  Tawi-Tawi Sulu Inter-Muslim n.d.
  Basilan Basilan Inter-Muslim n.d.
1901 Seit Lake Sulu Inter-Muslim n.d.
1902 Tunggul Lanao US militarism leader killed
1903 Maciu Lanao US militarism 150-200 killed
  Taraca Lanao US militarism n.d.
  Jolo Sulu US militarism 74 killed
1903-1904 Jolo Sulu Filipino abuses 250 killed
  Rio Grande Cotabato US militarism several killed
1904 Lake Lanao Lanao Anti-Christian n.d.
  Luuk Sulu Anti-Christian leader killed
1904-1905 Jolo Sulu Anti-slavery 320 killed
1905 Tubig Puta Sulu Inter-Muslim n.d.
1906 Bud Dajo Sulu Revenge 600-1,000 killed
1913 Maganui Cotabato Forced labor, tax extraction n.d.
  Buldon Cotabato US militarism n.d.
  Bud Bagsak Sulu Disarmament 450 killed
  Talipao Sulu Toll tax n.d.

More important but conveniently ignored is the prolonged period of Muslim collaboration with their supposed enemies. The late Maranao scholar Mamitua Saber noted as early as 1973 that Muslim elites did not hesitate to work with the Marcos dictatorship to keep their authority over their constituents. With their longer history, social embeddedness, and ability to make political adjustments, Muslim elites have easily outwitted and outlasted the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). If peace comes to Moro Mindanao and the Bangsamoro entity created, I am sure the MILF will have its hands full competing and controlling these equally armed traditional rivals.

This brings us to the second issue that this orthodox narrative of an unrelenting Moro resistance has made many of us accept as valid – the role of various government colonization schemes in abetting the conflict.

What this narrative does not tell us is that these programs failed, victim to limited budgets, corruption, and inefficiency in Manila as well as in the field sites. The US embassy complained in 1952 that the Land Settlement Development Corporation was nothing but “an agency of incompetent political appointees and corrupters” that had made the “fast clearance of land titles next to impossible to accomplish.” Professor Peter Krinks, a social geographer who studied land patterns in Mindanao also found evidence that the Bureau of Lands, which was supposed to oversee the organized distribution of homestead settlements, was “hampered by the wartime destruction of records, the lack of funds and by the illicit intervention of politicians.”

It was not government settlement schemes that were the culprit but spontaneous migration that filled up the frontier fast (1.2 million by the early-1960s) that led to competition over deforested lands. Yet this did not even immediately led to clashes with Muslims. Settlers and Muslims coexisted peacefully, trading in marketplaces where goods and harvests were traded and sold. “Peace” was ensured by the Muslim elites who saw the settlers as new electoral constituents. But when President Marcos began to intervene aggressively in Moro politics, this glue that kept the peace broke up and Muslim politicians joined the MNLF, albeit only briefly.

The consequences of this inefficient state delivery system and anarchic autonomous migration were dramatic, with many settler communities suffering from hunger and famine during this period. The rodent pestilence that plagued the Cotabato settler communities aggravated what was already a dire situation, as rats attacked ravenously farmlands and barns where rice were stocked. From this devastation emerged one of the most feared symbols of settler violence against Muslim communities: the dreaded extremely brutal Ilaga militia group headed by the now legendary Feliciano Luces, a.k.a. Kumander Toothpick.

A few years later, Nur Misuari teamed up with the Alontos of Lanao, Udtog Matalam of Cotabato, and the student group headed by the Islamic scholar Hashim Salamat, to form the MNLF. And war came to Moro Mindanao. – Rappler.com

Patricio N. Abinales is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He is from Mindanao. 

*American casualties from these conflicts were not determined
**Tan does not define the term “Inter-Muslim,” but it presumably means conflict within elements of Muslim societies.