From the outside looking in, the Bangsamoro nation conveys a seemingly united and monolithic stance, but a closer look will show otherwise.
The recent conflict that shut down the bustling city of Zamboanga for about three weeks with similar attacks spreading in neighboring Lamitan in Basilan demonstrates how tenuous and hollow the idea of a Bangsamoro nation is.
Notwithstanding clashes of ideologies and strategies between major rebel players, as well as intrigues and personal clashes between and among their leaders, what escapes public scrutiny is the fact that Moro identity itself remains problematic.
The violence that gripped Zamboanga was widely attributed to a faction of the rebel group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari who was allegedly sidelined in the recently concluded peace agreement signed by the government with another rebel outfit, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Founded in 1971 with the aim of achieving an independent Moro state, MNLF was the first dominant Moro rebel organization until it signed the 1976 Tripoli Agreement with the government settling for autonomy.
A follow-up 1996 accord implemented the 1976 pact. A split occurred in 1978 when other Moro leaders disagreed with the autonomy deal and MILF was formed to continue the demand for an independent state. But by 1997, MILF too had begun to explore peace talks with the government and a breakthrough was reached in 2012 with MILF accepting the expanded autonomy offered by the government.
In response, Misuari had declared Moro “independence” in August 2013 arguing that the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH)-MILF peace deal violates the earlier GPH-MNLF agreement. From this, one can glean fractures in the so-called Bangsamoro community running along political and leadership lines. But the cracks also reveal deep-seated geographic and ethno-linguistic divides.
It can be argued that Bangsamoro nationalism is still an enterprise in the making.
Internal cohesion and unity has been put in the spotlight in recent times with simmering disputes that sometimes led to open conflict between MNLF and MILF, with the former being predominantly Tausug-backed and the latter being largely Maguindanao-based.
Cracks in the MNLF also run along geographic and ethnic lines, with some Tausugs in the Sulu archipelago still standing behind Misuari, while the so-called Council of 15, the MNLF group largely based in Mainland Mindanao who felt disappointed with Misuari’s leadership (of both MNLF and as Governor of the autonomous ARMM) officially expelled Misuari from MNLF and have entered into a unity agreement with the MILF.
As such, some Tausugs have even begun to call for a Bangsa Sug as distinct from a demand for a Bangsa Moro. Clashes between MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf Group (which is strong in Yakan-dominated Basilan and have been known to cooperate with some MILF elements) have also been recorded.
The idea of a unity Bangsamoro is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are no historical predecessor state of such a community that encompasses all the lands being claimed by Moro leaders as belonging to their aspired country.
In pre-Hispanic times, not one but several power centers existed in the region of which the most noteworthy would include the Sultanate of Sulu and the Sultanate of Maguindanao. But even at their zenith, neither of these held complete control of what is now being considered as Bangsamoro territory — large swathes of central and southern Mindanao, Palawan, Sulu and nearby islands. In addition, rivalries, jealousies and competition between these power centers also existed.
The Bangsamoro nation has long been in a state of identity crisis.
There is no common language and set of traditions and the Muslim faith is not even universally shared by all constituents of any proposed Bangsamoro entities since they encompass areas inhabited not only by Christians but also by non-Muslim natives collectively called lumads.
It seems that the only thing that really unites them is their contempt of previous Philippine administrations for largely neglecting and marginalizing their interests and welfare. Moro leaders harped on these historical grievances and the religious, linguistic and cultural differences of Moro people from that of their largely Christian-majority countrymen to rally support for their separatist agenda. Christian settlers from Luzon and Visayas also eventually displaced Muslims to become majority inhabitants in many provinces in central and southern Mindanao further fuelling Moro resentment.
The Bangsamoro problem can be seen as a failure on the part of the Philippine government to engage and enlist Muslims in the south in the nation-building process. The rebels were also able to get external support and training enabling them to sustain the conflict. Recent peace initiatives undertaken by the Philippine government through the mediation of foreign governments and concerned non-government organizations may help address these issues and increase the momentum for stability and development in the war-weary area.
But engaging and obtaining the commitment of all principal actors is critical in the success of any enduring peace endeavor. Furthermore, educating the people about these peace efforts is also important in order to win popular grassroots support. Breaking the power of corrupt local leaders and power brokers which thrive on the ignorance and poverty of long-time conflict areas is also essential to secure the seeds of peace planted in pacified ground.
Peace is a process and a continuing agenda in as much as it is a state. Present and proposed improvements of peace framework should be built from previous ones, cognizant of the lessons learned and best working practices developed over time. Finally, the sincerity and commitment to negotiate and compromise must be there as a foundation for any feasible peace agreement.
The views expressed here are the author’s own.
This article was published at Sharnoff’s Global Views and reprinted with permission.