The Peace Process in the Southern Philippines: Challenges and Prospects

The focus of my presentation highlights my personal experiences as a former Moro rebel who organized young Muslim Filipinos in the late sixties (1960s) to dramatize the growing discontent of Muslim Filipinos against their government, and to initiate collective action to urge the authorities to efficiently address demands for justice and equality from the native Moros. At the time, Muslim Filipinos had the feeling that their government was treating them as second class citizens in their own country.

To make the presentation more objective and devoid of any bias and prejudice, my actual involvement in the operation of the bureaucracy as former official thereof was likewise factored in this treatise. It is recalled that during the height of the conflict, massive government programs to placate the growing discontent of the Muslim Filipinos were initiated and launched by the Philippine Government.

In so many instances, the Moros were subjected to military atrocities. And their ancestral lands were gradually and systematically taken from them through dubious schemes in the guise of the various resettlement programs initiated by the national government. This was an effort to effectively address and eventually quell the growing insurgency that threatened to tear apart our national socio-political cohesion and even the territorial integrity of the country.

 Resettlement Strategy to Placate Insurgents

The strategy of the government then was to resettle the insurgents from Luzon, which sits at the northern end of the Philippines, and is the country’s largest and most populous island, to the vast agricultural lands in Mindanao, including the areas populated by the Moros or the Muslim Filipinos. Thus, during the incumbency of the late President Ramon Magsaysay, working peasants from central Luzon and even in the landed estates in the Visayas were sent to Mindanao to settle there with government assistance.

In the early years of the program, the settlers and the natives appeared to live and co-exist in harmony. The newcomers started cultivating their lands and at the same time applying for legal titles thereto. Years passed and they were eventually issued titles to their respective landholdings.

Meantime, the native Moros, who, on account of lack of knowledge on the importance of land titling, were left holding no titles, other than their claims that the land they tilled and toiled had belonged to them since time immemorial. They considered their landholdings as part of their ancestral domain.

In addition, the natives started conveying their lands to new settlers through schemes which Moros were not familiar with, like loans and the concept of mortgage. Eventually, the failure on the part of the borrowers to settle the amount borrowed led to foreclosures of property mortgaged.

A Classic Story

I recall of an incident experienced by a friend who was then working in a bank. He narrated to me how a simple bank transaction could lead to serious misunderstanding. His story detailed how since the bank was engaged in lending operations, a native Moro might borrow funds from it using his land title as a collateral for the loan. When the loan account matured, the bank advised the borrower that, unless he settled his loan account within the prescribed period, it would initiate foreclosure proceedings against the mortgaged property.

To abbreviate the story, there being no settlement reached by the lender and the borrower, properties was eventually foreclosed. After the one-year redemption period allowed by law in our jurisdiction, the bank initiated action to consolidate its title over the foreclosed property and thereafter took action to exercise possession and ownership thereof.

Borrowers vehemently objected. They claimed that the bank could have the title to the property and continue to retain the same, but not the land. Otherwise, borrowers warned, they would not deliver the land and would defend it against whomsoever would attempt to take it. They alleged that the land had been owned by their ancestors since time immemorial and would not allow anyone to take possession, custody and ownership thereof.

Perhaps, the incident has been used among the reasons why financial institutions operating in the country do not prioritize Muslim Mindanao, particularly the conflict-affected areas, as priority for banking operations and investments opportunities. Certain financial institutions and investment houses see the areas populated by the native Moros as a graveyard for investment.

Feeling of Discrimination

In recent times, feelings of discrimination against the native Moros were evident. I was reminded of a story where a young Moro, after completing his academic degree in one of the universities in Metro Manila, decided to look for employment in the country’s seat of government. After submitting his application, he took the prescribed employment examinations and he was informed that he had made it with flying colors.

While reviewing the papers and documents the applicant submitted, the owner of the firm noticed that the name of the applicant sounded like an Arab. On realizing that the job applicant was a Moro, the management of the firm was alarmed. The owner of the company finally advised their human resource management officer to find ways to decline the application and to inform the applicant accordingly. Apparently, the only reason for the management’s adverse action was the prejudice and stereotyping against the native Moros of Muslim Mindanao.

In the past, Muslim Filipinos were subjected to discriminations and even atrocities and violence. One significant event in the Muslim Filipino struggle was the infamous Jabidah Massacre where a number of young Muslims from Western Mindanao were lured into enlisting in the military service only to be massacred by their trainers in the historic Island of Corregidor in 1967.

Rise of Militant Groups

As everybody knows, the incident partly primed the trigger that led to the so-called “Mindanao Conflict”. Thereafter, certain Muslim organizations aimed at safeguarding the interest and protecting the rights of the native Moros or the Muslim Filipinos were formed, including, among others, the Ansar-el-Islam, founded by the late Senator Ahmad Domocao Alonto, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIAP), headed by the late Governor Sultan Ali Dimaporo, The Muslim Association of the Philippines (MAP), led by the Senator Salipada Pendatun, the Philippine Muslim Lawyers league (PMLL), founded by the late Senator Abdul Jabbar Mamintal Tamano, and many others.

But what prompted the government to use its power and military resources was the formation of the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) which the late Governor Udtog Matalam of the Empire Province of Cotabato organized. It advocated secessionism and the emerging desire of certain Moro groups to secede from the Republic of the Philippines. There was a growing sentiment among the Moros that they did not feel a sense of belonging in the country they dearly love, as their forefathers had defended it against foreign aggression or invasion.

Eventually, certain young Muslim professionals and student leaders organized the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). However, due to differences in strategy and approach, a group of MNLF leaders and followers broke away from the MNLF and founded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The late Ustadz Hashim Salamat headed the new group. Since then, the MILF has remained one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Muslim liberation front in the Philippines today. 

The Current Peace Process: A product of two decades of Negotiation

With this foregoing backgrounder, allow me to remind those in attendance in today’s forum that the peace process being pushed forward by the government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is a product of two (2) decades of negotiation. It was painstakingly initiated and crafted. There were instances in the past when impasse became inevitable in the course of the negotiation due to highly charged discussions between and among the members of the two panels.

The original draft of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which is now pending deliberations in the two (2) Houses of Congress of the Republic of the Philippines is indeed a product of careful use of language and terminology to reflect and embody the sentiments and aspirations of the stakeholders thereof.

As it is now, the deliberation by both Houses of Congress have encountered certain snags. One is the so-called “Mamasapano Incident”, which resulted from a police operation launched to arrest a Malaysian international terrorist named Julkifli Bin Hir, alyas Marwan, and caused the brutal deaths of forty-four (44) men of the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police. The incident adversely affected the growing enthusiasm of support for the BBL. It has been viewed and used by certain sectors as an opportunity to infuse a political undertone to criticize the Aquino administration.

In fact, the handling of the unfortunate incident by the Office of the President (OP) has resulted in an abrupt decline of the President’s approval ratings according to surveys conducted by certain pollsters as well as in the social media. But when the highly charged emotions shown by the victims’ families and certain political opportunists simmered down, the President’s approval ratings gradually bounced back. Now, it has even surpassed his ratings prior to the incident.

Challenges Attendant to the Peace Process

Lest I drift away from my task here, allow me to proceed and touch on the challenges attendant to the peace process. Like any other initiative and undertaking aimed at addressing concerns of a particular sector, there are always spoilers from certain interest groups. Such groups would find ways to obstruct and ferment discord among proponents and key players of the peace process.

The proponents and active players of the peace process have to impress and emphasize upon all concerned that the peace effort is not confined to a particular group or sector. It has to be pursued and implemented, bearing in mind the concept of inclusivity. It cannot work under the premise that certain sectors are to be excluded from the benefit and consequences thereof.

We also have to impress upon all concerned that the peace process pursued through the approval and ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law or BBL will ultimately be seen to benefit the interest of the country and the other stakeholders thereof. The approval of the BBL and its implementation is not intended as a prelude to independence for the Bangsamoro and the other sectors supporting it, including the native Lumad. 

Specific Challenges on the Peace Process

  1. In specific terms, it is advanced that the following are among the challenges attendant to the peace process, to wit:

  2. The difficulty of disabusing the minds of the critics of the peace process, particularly as manifested in their actuation, reaction and response towards the approval of the BBL.

  3. The manifest reservation, if not insincerity, of certain officials of the government who, by reason of their office and influence, are supposed to fully support the peace process through the immediate approval of the BBL;

  4. The acceptance by the public that, indeed the peace process as contemplated and embodied in the proposed BBL, is designed to enhance harmony and understanding among Filipinos and that the BBL is an effective instrument of peace;

  5. The peace process, through the approval and ratification of the BBL, will provide opportunity for the government to make up for its failure in the past to attend to the administrative needs and development requirements of the Muslim Filipinos, and for the government to rectify the injustices committed against the Bangsamoro;

  6. The peace process, as being pursued through the proposed BBL, is inclusive and that even those who manifest opposition thereto during its legislative consultations and deliberations would enjoy the benefits and advantages thereof after its approval, ratification and implementation;

  7. The peace process, through the BBL, would improve and strengthen the country’s links with the other parts of the world, particularly the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other Muslim international organizations.
MILF combatants celebrate of the signing of the Peace Agreement. Photo: Meg Kagawa

MILF combatants celebrate of the signing of the Peace Agreement. Photo: Meg Kagawa

Prospect for the Peace Process

As noted, the peace process being pursued by the Philippine government, particularly with the Bangsamoro, has immensely improved the peace and order conditions in Muslim Mindanao. Prior to the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), certain areas in Mindanao, especially the conflict-affected communities, were rocked by violence and other form of atrocities.

In other words, the Ceasefire Agreement forged by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been working. Of course, there were instances when isolated cases of fighting and violence involving government forces and certain MILF fighters have taken place. But after invoking and applying the ceasefire mechanism prescribed in the Agreement, the violent skirmishes were put to end and normalcy would resume.

Unconstitutionality of the MOA_AD, Its Adverse Consequence

Thus, except for the unfortunate declaration of unconstitutionality of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) by the Supreme Court of the Philippines (SC) that triggered fierce fighting in some areas in Lanao Del Norte, Maguindanao and North Cotabato, the spate of violence in Muslim Mindanao had been considerably minimized and contained. Gone are the days when sporadic violent confrontations characterized the so-called conflict-affected areas.

Nowadays, seldom do we hear the eruption of violence between the forces of the Government and the Bangsamoro. Indeed, war and violence have no place in civilized societies. After all, there are no victors in war.

It may be pointed out that after the signing of the FAB and the CAB, there was growing enthusiasm on the prospect of the approval and ratification of the proposed BBL. However, the Mamasapano incident triggered the revival of age-old bias and prejudice against the Bangsamoro.

It has generated severe condemnation, albeit unfounded, against the Bangsamoro. Even politicians who were earlier supporting the proposed legislative measure have abruptly withdrawn their support, even before the conclusion of the different investigations being conducted on the incident.

Against this backdrop, we are confident, the peace process as outlined and highlighted in the draft BBL, would find approval and acceptance by our people, particularly the Bangsamoro and other constituents of Muslim Mindanao.

Assalamu Alaikum and have a pleasant day!

Abdulla-U-CamlianAbdulla U. Camlian
Member, MILF Peace Panel
Commissioner, Bangsamoro Transition Commission
Director, Islamic Welfare Society of the Philippines, Inc.

This text is from a speech by Mr Abdulla U. Camlian, Enryaku-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan, 13 November 2015




Abdulla Camlian graduated from Cairo Military Academy, Arab Republic of Egypt in 1965. He was one of the leaders of the liberation movement of the Moro people in the 1970s. He also served government position such as Executive Assistant to the Administrator of Southern Philippine Development Administration, and Deputy Executive Director of the Office on Muslim Affairs (presently, National Commission on Muslim Filipinos) standing between the Philippine Government and Moro people, he has been engaging in various activities to promote peace and development of the Moro communities. Since 2010, he has been a member of the MILF peace panel. He presently sits as Commissioner to Bangsamoro Transition Commission, the office tasked to draft and enforce the law that will provide the political structure for the Bangsamoro Government.

Read a brief chronology of the conflict in the Southern Philippines, by Masako Ishii.