The Armed Conflict between the Mindanao Separatists and the Philippine Government

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The armed conflict between the separatists in Mindanao and the Filipino government has deep historical roots and causes. To begin with, the Spanish Crown and Church in a bid to colonize the islands about three centuries earlier, carried out an active division campaign that saw the ‘Indios’ people Christianized, Hispanicized and subjugated while the unsubjugated and unchristianized ‘Moros’ and other peoples became labelled ‘non-believers’ (Kelman, 1998). Consequently, the believing Indios were conscripted to the service of the colonizing Spaniards and actively used to subdue the unsubjugated Muslims of the South, chiefly the Moros. Later in the early twentieth century, the American government took charge of the country. In 1946, the Americans facilitated the attained of Independence for the Philippines and the idea was to create a single Philippine statehood (Kelman, 1998). However, the historical divisions remained unresolved and thus became fertile ground for political and economic exploitation by the subsequent Philippine elitist regimes that took over.

This historical division thus laid the ground for the later conflicts of interest and clashes over resources and even ethno religious identity. For example, the Moros/Filipino Muslims (who are also the separatists in Mindanao) feel that they have been politically and socially isolated and discriminated. In addition, they are claimed to be economically alienated by the Christian majority and as such, they view the Philippine government to be an extension of colonialism from the days of Spanish and American foreign rule. The Muslim exclusion is thus a matter of subjugated feelings and perceived discrimination by the Christian majority government supposed to be democratic and inclusive of all people under the banner of the nation and statehood of the Philippines as a collective country. The religious grievances also extend to language and region because the Muslims predominantly come from the ‘Moro’ people mainly in the Mindanao South as opposed to the Christian ‘Indios’ arise from the described historical background.

In this paper, the objectives of the research will be aimed at evaluating these and related causes of the protracted armed conflict which include the political powerlessness of the Muslim Mindanao separatists, their economic underdevelopment, social injustice, and prejudice as well as the use of ethnic identities for purposes exploitation. In addition, the historical conscription by the colonizers of one faction at the expense of the other will be examined in the context of the ensuing conflict. The politicization of Christians against Muslims and the ineptitude of the Muslim leaders themselves to the cause of their followers will also be discussed to understand the real roots of the armed conflict. Lastly, possible solutions to the conflict will be suggested.

Statement of the Problem

From the background addressed in the introduction, it can be seen that the problem under study is: What are the key causes of the armed conflict between the separatists in Mindanao and the Filipino government, and how can the Filipino government intervene in order to solve it?”

Research Objectives

The objectives of this research are;

1. To find out the main causes of the conflict pitting the Mindanao separatists and the Philippine government.

2. To explore how the Filipino government can intervene to solve the armed conflict.

The Scope of the Research Problem and Structure of the Paper

The paper will involve a theoretical examination of the armed conflict and this will be covered in chapter two. The research will also trace the historical roots of the conflict arising from the Spanish and American foreign rule as well as the consequent attainment of independence in 1946. Problems with the succeeding authoritarian and democratic Philippine regimes that ensued will also be evaluated. Following this detailed discussion, there will be presented valid conclusions on the topic and lastly, recommendations to address the problems will be elaborated.

Delineation of the topic as to time period and aspects covered

Chronology of Events.

The events of the conflict began when the Filipino Muslims started their search for self-determination in the 1920s during which time, the Muslim Elites had petitioned the United States Congress to consider them as a separate sovereign state, which motion was rejected (Kelman, 1998). However, the country was reunited for the Philippine independence before the Muslim sovereignty issue was re-sparked in 1968. This marked the beginning of the war with 28 out of 200 Muslim military trainees being killed (Ibid, 1998). The Muslim elites considered this as a state assault towards Muslims who were offering services to the government. The Muslims blamed the Christians for acting on behalf of the government to kill the 28 Muslims.

The Muslims in the Mindanao and Sulu archipelago over a long period, have been afraid of the loss of their religion, culture and traditions following the forceful assimilation by the Christian dominated the Philippine Republic. Religious conversion and political domination have been among the priorities of all previous governments in the Philippines, hence the explanation to the prolonged conflict in Mindanao (Lara, Schoofs, & Lamb, 2016). In 1980, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was established as a splinter movement from MNLF. This group was a staunch promoter of Islamic ideals and beliefs as opposed to its mother group which was in pursuit of only the Moro Nationalist objectives. MILF’s main objective was to gain self-determination and separation of all states with a majority of Muslims which mainly constituted the Southern region. In addition to waging war against the Philippine army, the MILF army also targeted Christian communities and Christian employees of companies in terrorist-like attacks (Watts & Center, 2017).

Contribution to current literature

This research will identify the gaps in literature from previous works concerning the causes of war and armed conflicts around the world. The research will also serve to bolster existing literature concerning the specified armed conflict in Mindanao. Ideally, it ought to add into the previous findings in trying to identify the underlying injustices that lead to the continuity of war and difficulties in trying to find peaceful solutions to internal conflicts.

Chapter II.

Theoretical part

The Realistic Conflict Theory. The Realistic Conflict Theory states that hostility between groups can be the result of competition for scarce resources and the effect of clashing goals (Terhane and Matusitz, 2016). Prejudice and feelings of discrimination can arise towards the enemy group due to these clashes and as such, the intergroup hostility becomes escalated while at the same time, in-group solidarity gains strength (Terhane and Matusitz, 2016). The Realistic Conflict Theory can be considered an extension of the Social Identity Theory, which also explains that competition over scarce resources, and clashing interests cause an in-group and an out-group.

An in-group refers to the agitating faction of the struggle and in the Philippine conflict, this is the Moro/Filipino Muslim grouping. The out-group on the other hand, refers to group in opposition to the agitators and this is consequently the Christian majority led Philippine state government. In addition, the underlying cause of this prolonged conflict between the stated groups has been the clash of interests as well as the competition over scarce resources. On the one hand, the Moro/Filipino Muslim faction agitates for Muslim identity and attached cultural inclusion which extends to economic empowerment and consideration. On the other side, the Christian Filipino state government views them as violent Islamist secessionists out to destroy the fiber of the nation so established (Kelman, 1998). Indeed, their use of force against such fighters as the Abu Sayyaf Group/ASG is claimed to be an effort to curtail radical Islamism aspirations linked to terror groups including the Jamaah Islamiyah

based in neighboring Indonesia.

The Acquisition of Group Identity Theory. According to Kelman, group identity can be arbitrary depending on the interests and opportunities perceived by the leaders galvanizing the group for political action (Kelman, 1998). In the case of the Moro/Filipino Muslim resistance to the Philippine state and post-independence governments, it can be seen clearly, that there were instances of such leaders acting in their own interests. For instance, Datu Udtog Matalam who formed and spearheaded the first official Muslim secessionist calls after the grisly Corregidor Jabidah Massacre of 18th

March 1966, had a complete shift of such calls when he was co-opted into the government of then authoritarian President Marcos, hardly three years after the incident in 1969 (Ibid, 1998). Udtog Matalam, looking out for his own interest and rewarded as a Presidential adviser on Muslim affairs, was then not only willing to serve alongside the dictator but also called on his followers to abandon the secessionist agenda altogether.

Needs Theory of Political Efficacy and Political Participation. Renshon, the proponent of this theory states that the individual seeks sufficient personal control over political processes in order to control other relevant areas of life (Potapchuk, 1990). This is in cognizance of the centrality and important position of control in both individual and societal life. As such, the theory posits that an individual either alone or in cohort with others like-minded seeks to exert political control over situational contexts to satisfy the other human needs in question (Ibid, 1990). Evaluating the conflict in the Philippines from this theoretical perspective thus, indicates that on the one hand, the peoples of Sulu and Palawan regions have coalesced self and personal interests either as Filipino Muslims or the ‘unsubjugated and unhispanicized’ Moro indigenes of the Philippines. These identities although distinct, are all supposed to coalesce the individual and collective political power of the inhabitants of these regions in addressing the common agenda of belonging and inclusion into the Philippine state and government by extension. Such belonging and inclusion can then materialize into real benefits such as economic empowerment and cultural inclusivity that would elevate the statuses of individuals within the larger movements.

The Evolutionary or Biologist Theory. This theory explains the causes of war/armed conflict manifest in two ways. The first is the aggression brought about by the genetic makeup of people and the other perspective is the search or maximizing one's survival chances (Riggs, 2012). Evolutionary biologists aver that war as a behavior can be taught and learned. The theory thus explains that the environment of a person and the day-to-day activities towards development and growth can lead to behaviors that are more inclined to war and violence (Riggs, 2012).

The Cost-benefit theory. Another relevant theory to the armed conflict the Philippines is the Cost-benefit theory. This entails maximizing the benefits of either a person, a country or a community. This theory applies mostly to the least developed and developing countries rich in natural resources. Such armed violence can also be fanned by external parties seeking to benefit (Riggs, 2012).

Conceptual definition of all key variables & indicators

According to Fisher, theory construction involves combination of induction and deduction. The process of theory building moves from specifying basic variables to the laws of interaction, propositions and empirical indicators to the hypothesis to be tested by research (Fisher, 1990). The key variables include;

Identity - In this case, this refers to the need/sense of belonging. In terms of indicators, there can be positive identity and negative identity. In the first, the people in question should feel included and part of the country while in the latter, people feel prejudice, discrimination and misalignments.

 Self-determination - This can be defined as the need for independence in pursuit of interests and resources. Indicators of self autonomy include legally recognized governance structures and executive power of representative officials of a given grouping of people.

Resources – these are the natural and human wherewithal for sustenance of life for a people. Indicators in this research include a measure of the monetary and economic resources available for the Southern region of Philippines.

Role of government – In this case, government role is nation and statehood building.

Justification of choice of theories

The theories presented above are justified because they most suitably align to the objectives of this paper. These include finding out the main trigger to the war, establishing the role of religion in the conflict, uncovering the economic aspect in the conflict and laying down the roles of the Filipino government in ensuring the resurgence of peaceful coexistence among its citizens.

Statement of the method used

The research was carried out qualitatively by conducting a thorough scientific review of relevant literature. Secondary sources including the referenced books and journals on the topic were the main source of information in this paper. Historical publications were also consulted for information gathered through this method. Data was then analyzed qualitatively through a noticing, collecting and thinking model. In essence, all the sources that were evaluated had to have collated information such as on the way events took place as a way of ascertaining truth from fiction. Information presented had to come from three or four different and credible publications or books and have collaborated information between the authors. This safeguarded biased or one-sided reporting that would have percolated into this paper. The methodology can thus be summed up as a combination of the analysis of scientific literature, research synthesis, and generalizations. From this methodology, the theories presented above proved most relevant and suitable to the research discourse and thus justifiably used to frame the topic.


The operationalization of the stated variables is based on the propositions of Lewis Coser where essentially, conflict can be either Realistic or Non Realistic (Coser, 1956). Realistic conflict refers to a justified conflict due to objective causes or need for revenge or rage (Coser, 1956). Alternatively, nonrealistic conflict is largely unjustified because it is regarded only as a means to an end. In this research, the variables are operationalized on the latter nonrealistic conflict dimension because by nature, the Filipino conflict should have alternatives as the grievances are not merely the object of revenge or rage.

Criteria for making conclusions

Two concepts will make the criteria for conclusions namely; state nation building and state creation endeavors. The first is an evaluation of how Filipino government interventions serve the agenda of statehood while the latter examines the success or failure of the Moro/Muslim Filipinos in attaining self-determination within the state.

 Results (empirical part)

Resources. According to Lidasan (2013), the dispossession of land from the Muslims by the Northern Christian migrants led to lack of economic development among the Muslims as well as the Southern region. He adds that fifteen of all the poorest provinces in the Philippines are located in the Islamic south. Moreover, the south has the highest illiteracy rate of 75% and the lowest life expectancy rate of 57 years.

 Application of the causal theory (theoretical framework) to case

Taking into consideration the above causes of the Mindanao conflict, there is clear evidence of the application of the social and cultural theory of war as well as the cost-benefit theory. The fact that there is the dominance of ethno religious factors in the war brings into context the social aspects of the war. In the Filipino armed conflict, it can be clearly seen how the colonizing Spaniard and American in a bid to exploit the resources in the region fanned animosity between the Moros and Indios as explained.

Concerning the evolutionary/Biologist theory, Moro Muslims have become too accustomed to a domineered position right from the days of colonialism and this has caused behavioral tendencies such as growing up feeling inferior and oppressed. As a result, the natural instinct for this faction has come to be one of reacting to the perceived injustice and often, many are willing to spend their lives for and in the conflict.

The Acquisition of Group Identity Theory is vital to this discourse as it explains how group identity can be abused by self-serving leaders. In the Philippines, these have contributed to the protracted conflict because they have proved ineptitude in addressing the legitimate concerns of their followers. To illustrate, whereas the main grievance of the conflict has been the need to recognize the uniqueness of the Muslims in the Philippine government, several bodies and organizations have kept forming and morphing as the leaders shifted goalposts from time to time in their own interests. To this extent, the underlying question of Muslim identity and belonging into this society has remained largely unresolved while the vehicles to attain these ideals have changed from the Muslim Independence Movement (1966) to the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization/BMLO (1969) to the Moro National Liberation Front (1971) and so on. As such, the Moro/Filipino Muslim agenda in the country has come to disillusion even the staunchest of supporters of the cause.

Needs Theory of Political Efficacy and Political Participation can be applied to the case as follows. On the other end, the ‘Christianized and Hispanicized peoples identifying as Filipinos, have coalesced under the banner of the democratic and internationally recognized Philippine state formed after Independence was gained from the United States of America in 1946. On the other, the Moros refuse to be part of this state and instead want secession or at least autonomy within the larger polity. The Needs Theory of Political efficacy and Political participation in this context, therefore, is useful in understanding the divisions causing the conflict between the Filipino and the Moros on the common Philippine state on which they both reside and live.

 Looking up the elements of the theoretical framework in the empirical data on Mindanao

The Resource Dimension. After the attainment of independence, the Philippine Government deprived the Muslims in the south of their rights to land ownership as well as the ownership of other factors of production. All the Mindanao lands were unregistered and ownership priority was given to the Christians. The cost-benefit theory of war explains the causes of war as a result of the exploitation of one group for the purposes of maximizing benefits at the expense of other parties.

The leadership of the country continuously imposed exploitative economic policies and uneven investment flow. This only benefited the Northern industries and Christians hence fuelling the anger and aggression of the Muslims from the deprivation and alienation in their own land and hence the uprising of the Islamic insurgency (Watts 2017).

The Political Dimension. The rise of the Muslim armed resistance against the state which was called the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) and later changed to Mindanao led to the call for a secession from Philippine and preferred to be referred as Moros. The fight has been under two grounds; self-determination and protection of their state rights which the government had refused to offer (Unruh, Williams, & Sachs, 2013). In 1971, Nur Misuari founded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), whose main role was to fight for the separation and independence of the Moro Islamic Nation. This led to the intervention of the United Nations which saw the signing of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976. However, this did not hold due to the continued lack of autonomy of the Minorities, in this case, the Muslims in the south. In a political dimension, this can be termed as the state’s centralism towards the deprivation of Mindanao.

Previous Government Interventions. Previously, the government has tried to hold talks and sign agreements between the Islamic fronts and the state in a bid to reinstate peaceful coexistence in the Philippines as well as tone down the calls for independence from the two Moro groups. While some of these tactics have brought calm for certain durations, none of them has been sustainable in ensuring unity in the country. Interreligious dialogues kicked off in the 1970s on a slow pace and were accelerated in the 1990s. However, due to mistrust among the Christians, the efforts bore no fruits and no serious agreements were reached. The civil society also took an active role in trying to come up with “spaces for peace” whereby people were encouraged to stay out of certain locations. This move was taken up by communities that avoid more effects of war. This move helped to halt hostility by pushing for a cease-fire in 2003. Nevertheless, sustainable peace was not established and only a firm government commitment to peace could bring to an end the long conflict.


State nation building;

Conclusively, an evaluation of how Filipino government interventions serve the agenda of statehood indicate failure. The historical injustices to the Muslims in the south since the colonial regimes evokes aggression and anger for the Muslims to continue with the search for justice and independence from Philippine hence the Cultural aspect. From the adduced evidence, a truism emerges that social disparities among people can be a trigger to armed conflicts. Underlying the conflict are ethnic discrimination, religious alienation as well as historical wrongs that socialize a group of people towards developing a hostile culture. The political deprivation of the Moro people led to their need for independence and self-determination as a separate entity constituted of a majority of Muslims. The politicized religion of the Christian Majority and Muslim Minorities has also served as the main catalyst to the conflict. As such, state nation building spearheaded by the government has failed in totality.

State creation endeavors;

From the research, there has been failure of the Moro/Muslim Filipinos in attaining self-determination within the state. .Economic deprivation of the southern region of Philippines has caused them to feel excluded and thus led to conflict. In the context of Mindanao, deregistration of all the southern lands which ensured the dispossession of land owned by Muslims by the Christians was largely unjust. This led to the peripheralizing of the Muslims in their own land. Additionally, the flow of resources and development from the government to the Muslims in the South was limited hence leading to illiteracy and economic underdevelopment. The Northern region which was dominated by Christians thus unjustly thrived at the expense of the Muslim dominated south.


Lewis avers that, where conflicts are the result of clashes of interests or personalities, the role of struggle becomes limited because there exist other means to attain the ends, for which struggle is merely one of the options (Coser, 1956 ). Focusing this light on the armed conflicts in the Philippines thus enlightens us that there can be alternative solutions away from the hitherto unfruitful struggle of the Moro and the Filipino. The following is recommended;

Inclusion policies by the government

Analyzing all aspects involved in the eruption of war in Mindanao, it is true to state that Religious discrimination played a major role in the eruption of an armed conflict, which can be addressed by inclusion policies by the government to ensure social, economic and political equality to the Muslims. The Filipino government has maintained its search and destroy policy which targets a Muslim terrorist group called the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which is said to be linked to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist organization. Despite the long ongoing peace talks, their failure to bring about peace is as a result of the reluctance of the government to tackle the pressing problems to the Muslims such as Political Powerlessness, social injustices, economic underdevelopment in Mindanao and the cultural alienation of the Moros (Watts et al., 2017). Additionally, the political ideologies behind the religious and ethnic identities of the Christian Majority and Muslim Minority have lengthened the peace building process. These need to be abandoned and instead, there should be inclusive policies by the government.

Sustainable Peace Pact

To solve the Mindanao armed conflict, all relevant stakeholders should also be actively involved in coming to a sustainable peace pact. They include the government, the civil society, the Muslims, and the Christians. In this case, the Muslim society should be strengthened in a bid to rectify the existing religion imbalances. Interreligious dialogue should aim at ensuring a change in the all citizen’s attitudes in order to avoid behavioral triggers of war. The Philippine government should also ensure the involvement of local governments and the decentralization of politics. Historical injustices should be given priority especially in relations to Land redistribution in order to curb the periodic calls for independence from the Muslims in the South. This will ensure the inclusion of the Muslims in the economic development of their own region. Finally, the civil society plays a major role in ensuring coexistence between Christian and Muslim workers, landowners, clans, tribes, and employers.


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August 01, 2023

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