The Philippines has been battling Muslim secessionist movements in the southern part of the country for over thirty years. Indeed, Manila has emerged as a key player in America’s fight against terrorism because one of its local Muslim separatist groups, the Abu Sayyaf, is believed to have links with al Qaeda. Global terrorism has so alarmed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that she has welcomed U.S. military and technical assistance to the Philippines for a quick resolution of the problem.
This month, (March 24th to be exact), is the sixth year to the day when the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) agreed in Malaysia to engage in peace talks. After a series of peace talks held in the past, such efforts have yet to yield results. Most recently, however, the Philippine government has offered the Muslims the right to self-determination, which, according to Al Haj Murad, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) “can be a breakthrough” in ending “one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.
Nearly one-fourth of the population of the Philippines, about 20 million, lives in the southern islands of Mindanao. Of these, approximately 5 million, comprising at least 13 ethnolinguistic groups, profess Islam. They are generally and collectively referred to as “Moros.” Despite ethno-linguistic differences, they have a common bond in Islam. Introduced to the Philippines by Arab traders and Islamic missionaries in 1310, Islam rapidly spread throughout the archipelago. However, the arrival of the Spaniards in 1565 checked and rolled back its further advance. The Spanish colonizers never succeeded in subjugating the Muslim natives, although they succeeded in creating a notion of “otherness,” since majority of the Muslims refused to be converted to Christianity.
At the crux of these peace talks is the demand of the MILF to grant the Filipino Muslims the right to self-determination, to their own Bangsamoro identity and a homeland. The chairman of MILF so declares that his group “. . . would never compromise the right of the Bangsamoro people to self-determination,” adding that his group is willing to enter into a negotiated political solution “that is just, lasting, and comprehensive.” The aim is to “underscore Islam as the rallying point of the Bangsamoro struggle.” The group insists that the issue of “ancestral domain” be made the centerpiece principle of the peace talks, viewing it as key to settling Muslim grievances. In their draft proposal, the MILFs argue that all lands, including natural resources, occupied by Filipino Muslims since time immemorial by cultural bond, customary law, and historic rights should be declared as rightfully belonging to the Bangsamoros.
There seems to be a strong consensus among scholars of Philippine Muslim politics that the only practical and just solution to the ethnic problem in Mindanao is to grant them exclusive right to these lands based on the principles of self-determination and cultural separatism. Muslim leaders argue that since their people are of a distinctive minority, differing from the majority in religion, ways of life, and language, they are entitled to autonomy if not independence. Besides, for all the years of government neglect and unjust prejudices they claimed to have suffered in the hands of the majority, Filipino Muslims think that separatism is the right policy prescription. In this, the Muslim question resembles ethnic conflicts occurring in many parts of the world, wherein leaders of rebellious ethnic groups demand self-determination on the basis of their historical and cultural uniqueness.
The Philippine government seems to agree (as governments of other countries facing ethnic wars seem to do). Its Muslim policy is informed by the same principle, with its attendant perceptions that some groups are uniquely privileged and others burdened. Through its laws, it has allowed legal provisions for the creation of autonomous regions for areas “sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage . . .” It seems to believe, as most proponents of culturalism do, that ethnic groups, by virtue of their cultural identity, may justly claim particular and often exclusive entitlements, and, that governments owe them such entitlements.
On the surface, this looks like a reasonable and just policy. But it is not. Proof? The problem of ethnic conflict continues to exist and would not go away. And the proposed peace talks premised on the same principle will not achieve much either. Negotiating parties must understand that cultural