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Assessment for Moros in the Philippines

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Moros in the Philippines, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 23 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Philippines Facts
Area:    300,000 sq. km.
Capital:    Manila
Total Population:    77,726,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Moros have four of the factors that increase the chances of future rebellion: current insurgency; territorial concentration; regime instability in the past five years; and recent government repression. Factors that could inhibit future rebellion include the Philippines' recent transition to democracy and transnational efforts by Libya and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to not only facilitate a settlement with the MILF but also to help ensure the full implementation of the 1996 agreement reached with the MNLF. More than 65,000 people have died since the violent conflict began in the early 1970s.

Analytic Summary

Concentrated in the Philippines' southern region, the Moros primarily reside on the islands of the Sulu archipelago and on Mindanao and Palawan (REGIONAL = 1). The Moros are a collection of tribal groups that include the Tausug, Maquindanao, Maranao, and Sulu. They are united by a common religion, Islam (BELIEF = 3). The majority Filipinos are Catholics. The Moros speak multiple languages but the country's official language is Filipino, a formal version of Tagalog (LANG = 2).

An Islamic presence in the southern Philippines dates back to around 1280 A.D. Muslim political institutions such as the Sultanate were well established when the Spanish conquered the territory in 1565. Moro resistance to Spanish rule ensured that the colonizers were not able to exercise effective control over the southern region during their more than 300-year reign. In 1898, under the Treaty of Paris the territory came under American colonial rule. For the next 17 years, the Moros fought against American forces until they were formally incorporated in the territory. When the Commonwealth of the Philippines was established in 1935, the Moros, fearing domination by the majority Christian population, asked that Sulu and Mindanao remain under U.S. administration. Their request was rejected.

Japanese occupation of the Philippines in the Second World War was overthrown by a combined U.S., Moro, and Filipino force. In 1946, the country became independent. Political efforts to achieve greater self-rule for Muslim-majority areas emerged in 1961 when a Sulu politician unsuccessfully tried to file a bill that sought the separation of the archipelago from the rest of the country.

Relations between the Christian Filipino and Muslim Moro communities began to deteriorate in the 1950s as migrations of Christian settlers into Muslim-majority areas raised tensions over the ownership of land and the use of the area's natural resources (MIGRANT = 2). The autocratic government of Ferdinand Marcos favored the Christian settlers. Militant mobilization along religious lines emerged as Christian and Muslim self-defense groups engaged in organized violence.

In 1968, some 28 Muslim recruits in the armed forces were shot when they rebelled. It was alleged that the recruits were being trained to help promote dissension among the peoples in Sabah and North Borneo in neighboring Malaysia as a pretext for the Philippines to annex these areas. Southern Muslims refer to the incident as the Jabidah Massacre. The Moros formed the Muslim (later renamed Mindanao) Independence Movement (MIM) and began press for an independent government to rule Muslim-majority areas (PROT65X = 2).

Increasing communal violence in the south led to the imposition of martial law in 1972. Some analysts have argued that this action foreclosed any conventional political activities by the Moros. In mid-1971, the leadership of the MIM, which consisted of traditional tribal leaders, was replaced by a secular group led by political scientist Nur Misuari. Misuari dissolved the MIM and created the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), The MNLF succeeded in coalescing the various Muslim groups to such an extent that by the mid-1970s, the rebel organization posed a significant challenge to the country's armed forces (REBEL70X = 6). The Moro rebels were sustained in their armed campaign through military aid from Libya and Malaysia and political support from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Efforts to reach a negotiated settlement between the MNLF and the government were first undertaken in 1975 under the auspices of the OIC and in December of the following year an agreement was reached through the active mediation of Libya. The Tripoli Agreement provided for the establishment of an autonomous Muslim region comprising thirteen geographic areas in the southern Philippines.

Disputes over implementation of the Tripoli agreement arose in April 1976. The MNLF opposed the government's demand that a plebiscite be held to determine if the south's residents favored autonomy. This is likely due to the fact that continual Christian migrations had made the Muslims a minority in their traditional regions of residence. As a result of the referendum, three provinces left the proposed autonomous region. The Moro National Liberation Front resumed its violent campaign, choosing to press for independence rather than broad autonomy (SEPX = 3).

Divisions within the MNLF erupted in 1977 as the movement was weakened by military losses and differing views about the role of Islam and whether autonomy or independence should be the goal. Two new factions emerged: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the MNLF-RG (Reformist Group).

The 1986 People's Power Revolution led to the overthrow of the Marcos regime and the subsequent elections brought Corazon Aquino to power. President Aquino initiated negotiations with the MNLF and by September of that year an amnesty and ceasefire agreement had been reached. The Jeddah Accord was signed in January 1987. It provided for the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM); however, disagreements between the MNLF and the government about the size of the autonomous region resulted in the return to violent hostilities. The two other main Moro rebel groups did not participate in the talks. The ARMM was created in 1989. Only four noncontiguous provinces joined the ARMM as militant Moro and Christian groups boycotted the autonomy referendum.

The next negotiating effort began in 1993 through the auspices of Libya and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. President Ramos, who won the May 1992 elections, actively sought to reach peace agreements with the Moros and the communist New People's Army. After three years of sustained talks mediated by the OIC and Indonesia, a comprehensive agreement was signed on September 2, 1996. The agreement created a Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) that was initially managed by the MNLF. The geographic area of the autonomous region comprised fourteen provinces, which is roughly the size of the territory included in the Tripoli Accord. The leader of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, subsequently became the head of the SPCPD and the governor of the ARMM. A referendum was held in August 2000 to determine the scope of the autonomous region. One more province and another city chose to join the ARMM which consists of four provinces.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf, both of which favor the creation of an Islamic state in the south, refused to participate in the negotiations or to adhere by its provisions (REB98-03 = 6). The MILF began its own talks with the government and a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1997 but it was consistently violated by both sides. In mid-2000, the military overran the MILF's main headquarters, Camp Abubakar on Mindanao island. Another ceasefire was reached and negotiations resumed but significant violence also continues. Libya and the OIC have been mediating the negotiations.

Abu Sayyaf began its military actions against state authorities in the early 1990s but it garnered widespread attention after it was alleged to be responsible for a May 1995 attack that resulted in more than fifty civilian casualties. In recent years, Abu Sayyaf has been best known for its kidnaping of both locals and foreigners. Successive governments have refused to negotiate with the group, asserting that it is only a terrorist organization. This designation has been highlighted since the events of September 11, 2001. Alleging that it has links with Al-Quaeda, the US has declared Abu Sayyaf a terrorist organization. Hundreds of American soldiers have been deployed in the Philippines to assist the armed forces in their attempts to quash the group.

Significant demographic stresses confront group members including deteriorating health conditions, declining caloric intake, environmental degradation, and dispossession from their land. The Moros have the country's lowest life expectancy and they are the most impoverished group. Historical neglect and/or restrictions account for the group's disadvantaged political and economic status. Since the mid-1990s, successive regimes have attempted to promote economic development in the region, especially in support of the peace agreement (ECDIS03 = 1). However, limited progress in furthering economic growth has been achieved, in part because foreign investors have been detracted due to the continuing violence. Moro political participation has increased through the institutions created as a result of the 1996 accord but Muslims remain underrepresented in senior bureaucratic and military positions (POLDIS03 = 1).

While most Moros favor broad autonomy, it is not clear what segment of the group is seeking independence. Obtaining a greater share of public funds and economic opportunities are significant concerns as is the protection of their religious and cultural beliefs and desires for safeguards to ensure that jobs and land are not provided to advantage the Christian community.

Militant organizations such as the MILF and Abu Sayyaf primarily represent group interests. Conventional organizations include the MNLF which splintered in late 2000 into two factions: those who support the former MNLF leader Nur Misuari and those who favor the current leadership (COHESX9 = 3). The Misuari group staged an attack on an army outpost in November which led to some eighty deaths. Misuari is currently in a Philippine jail facing charges of rebellion. Protests have been held to demand his release (PROT02-03= 4).

Sporadic violent acts between the Christian and Moro communities have occurred but the degree of violence has been reduced in recent years as some self-defense groups have chosen to disarm (COMCON02 = 1, COMCON03 = 3). State repression of the Moros includes the destruction of property, arrests, saturation police/military presence, and the destruction of suspected rebel areas.


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