It is not surprising that pundits, political analysts/scientists, opinion writers as well as government officials and a whole heap of politicians are quick to make commentaries and “analyses” on the Mamasapano encounter soon after it was brought to public attention.
Expectedly, policians’ and government officials viewed the unfortunate event based on their limited political interests and plans for the next elections; some opinion makers had theirs on the basis of which side of the political fence they are protecting and benefitting from; certain civil society organizations’ (CSOs) and non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) had founded their positions on their ideological, political, and organizational orientations; while political analysts/commentators/ academics’ interpretations were myopic and had no added value to public’s education.
No independent fact-finding mission was ever conducted worthy of respect. The findings of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Board of Inquiry, Senate’s Report, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Investigation Report were meant to serve and protect each other’s interests, hence those implicated in whichever report refused to accept its verdicts. Conclusions were made and prejudged even before the facts have been examined and truth revealed.
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What transpired was a “blame game,” accusations were exchanged between and among politicians and organizations (“revolutionary” and otherwise) who cannot accept sole responsibility for the objectionable event. Focus has been on organizational politics rather than getting the job done, while the grieving families of victims remain frustrated, demoralized, and disgusted over the turn of events.
What is more appalling, which I think is most important, is the timing. The bloodshed occurred at the period when the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is under consideration by the lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature. The BBL, chiselled out for a year by government and MILF peace panels after the final peace agreement (the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro [CAB]) was signed, is now the victim of the Mamasapano conflict; a collateral damage (in military parlance) as a result of a legitimate operation of police commandos (Special Action Force [SAF]) against two high-ranking Jemaah Islamiyah-affiliated terrorists (Zulkifli Abdhir [also known as Marwan] and Abdul Basit Usman).
In the attempt to resuscitate the BBL and save it from shredding it further apart from the pointed teeth and powerful jaws of wolves in government, President Benigno Aquino III formed the peace council on 27 March which will lead a National Peace Summit to “deliberate on and discuss the BBL,” as if it will make any difference.
The Real Issue and the Big Picture
As commentators, analysts, CSOs/NGOs, and politicians were too absorbed with the Mamasapano incident and the BBL, and argue from emotions rather than reason, they miserably missed the real issue and big picture of the problem – the Bangsamoro self-determination struggle.
At the core of Muslim self-determination struggle is self-governance and political autonomy. This clamour started as early 1920s, 15 years before the establishment of the Commonwealth Republic and 26 years before the Americans granted Philippine independence. Nearly a century, 95 years to be exact, had passed and the Muslim minorities have not relinquished their demand. The issues have fundamentally been the same — government’s continued apathy and negligence of the Muslims’ legitimate demands.
Unless this issue is conclusively addressed, there will be more Mamasapanos, more “peace agreements” will fail, and more “autonomous” politico-governmental entities will break down. Hence armed conflict will persists in Mindanao.
What is the Right to Self-Determination (RSD)?
The concept and definition self-determination is broad and encompasses both external and internal dimensions. External self-determination usually refers to the right of people to secede its conceived territory from an existing state while internal self-determination concerns the choice of a system of governance and the administration of the functions of governance according to the will of the governed.
In both respects, self-determination is an acknowledged principle of the basic human right of individuals to participate in democratic governance. This includes the individual’s right to engage in the political, economic or cultural system of the state. Secondly, it is a collective right of groups as national, religious, ethnic or linguistic minorities to express, practice, and promote their own culture, life-ways, language, and religion which require protection from the state. Thirdly, it is a right of people to their homeland or claimed territory which embodies their identity, culture, and political autonomy. Finally, the right to self-determination, especially the claim to one’s territory, has to enjoy the state’s consent.
Thus, while people are entitled to their territory, this does not necessarily extend to a free determination of the international legal status of the territory. The right is bounded by the endorsement or rejection by the state concerned taking into account the physical or geographical and demographical changes that have occurred in the area that people have “historical claim.”
In the international law literature on self-determination, two main views are pulling in opposite directions. The first is the more restrictive which limits the exercise of the right to self- determination within the confines of the territorial jurisdiction of existing states; the right cannot be invoked if the territorial unity of the state will be transgressed. The second is expansionary which acknowledges and, to varying degrees, validates state-busting practice in a reformulated legal approach. The latter view takes due note of the degree to which non- sovereign territories of the Soviet Union (12 out of 15 republics seceded from the former USSR), Yugoslavia (Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo) and Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic and Slovakia), were given diplomatic recognition and admitted to the UN as sovereign states.
The controversy on the principle and right to self-determination has led peoples and states to armed conflict. Struggles for autonomy and secession on the defense of peoples’ national rights are politically and militarily confronted by the state, invoking its right to protect the inviolability of its territory. Peoples of the world are told they have the right to self-determination. Nevertheless, if this right is suppressed by a sovereign state, the international community supports territorial integrity until a war of independence is successful. As in the past, the entire problem is settled on the battlefield. The conflict has been the source of tremendous human suffering and destruction in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Bangsamoro self-identity and RSD
It is against this backdrop that Muslims in Mindanao framed their struggle for self-governance and political autonomy under the right to self-determination. The 1920 peaceful quest for a separate Muslim nation-state was re-sparked less than 50 years later when about 28 out of less than 200 Muslim military trainees, mostly Tausug and Samal from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi who were undergoing guerrilla warfare training in Corregidor Island, were summarily executed on 18 March 1968 in what was known as the Jabidah massacre. Notwithstanding a few congressional hearings on the issue, no one was arrested and held responsible for the ghastly massacre.
The injustice that Muslims got from the state led to the launching of a couple of Muslim separatist organizations which eventually were co-opted by then President Marcos and relinquished their vision of a separate Muslim state — Udtog Matalam (then Cotabato province governor) and Raschid Lucman (a member of the House of Representatives) who formed the Muslim (later renamed Mindanao, to include Christians as well as non-Christian/non-Muslim indigenous tribes) Independence Movement (MIM) in 1968, and the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organisation (BMLO) in 1971 respectively. The Moro in BMLO was later dropped and adopted Bangsa Muslimin Islamic Liberation Organisation (BMILO) in1984.
The failure of both organizations to carve out Muslim nation-state from the Philippines was perceived by the younger and more militant BMILO members as a sign of capitulation. The frustration and disgust caused by the leadership, by and large composed of Muslim politicians and traditional elite of Muslim society, led to the founding of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) by Nur Misuari in mid-1971.
The MNLF sets it apart from the two (2) previous organizations. It conceived to re-claim the Bangsa Moro (Moro Nation), as the homeland of 13 ethno-linguistic Muslim groupings “unjustifiably annexed by the Philippine state” and to wage war against Muslim traditional politicians and aristocratic leaders who cooperated with the Philippine state. In the maiden issue of Mahardika, MNLF’s clandestine newsletter, Misuari called upon his brethren to renounce their identities as Filipino-Muslims and declare their identity and nationality as “Moro,” a reincarnation of the pre-colonial identity as the descendants of the “unsubjugated” and “uncolonised” peoples (in Gowing 1985: 185). On this occasion Misuari distinguished the Moros from Filipinos (collectively referred to as “indio” until 1872) which symbolises the Christianised, Hispanised, and subjugated people of the Philippines.
Misuari transformed the epithet “Moro” into a positive identity of the Muslims and symbol of unity and pride in the course of national resistance against the Philippine state. The ethnicising of Muslim identity was a consequence of the awakening of Muslim self-consciousness. What looked to be the state’s prejudices against the Muslims had found a national expression.
Despite the differences between the more secular MNLF and more Islamic MILF (a breakaway faction of MNLF in 1977 after the conclusion of the 1976 GRP-MNLF Tripoli Agreement), they are intractably united in tracing the historical roots of their Moro identity and the existence of a Bangsa Moro centuries before the advent of colonialism; a Moro nation-state that never succumbed to colonial rule but was illegitimately annexed by the current Philippine republic regarded as alien. They speak of the same “national past” and a “national future” which could be realized by trekking different paths.
While factionalism in the Bangsamoro struggle, either among or between traditional political elite or new intellectual and counter-elite had existed historically, which by the way is common in all movements and organization, identities have not dissolved and primordial interests have been sustained. They were seldom surrendered to the imposing power of the Philippine state.
Ethnic ties have emotional, psychological, and religious depths that are not easily severed. These are human ontological factors which cannot be subjected to authoritative controls; thus, no amount of coercion or repression can contain Moros aspirations to self-determination in an extended period of time in spite of their difficulty to transcend their innate ethno-linguistic identity. Nonetheless, this differences did not prevented them to work and relate with each other ethnic amicably—both Muslim and Christian. This is attested by the presence of Christians and Muslim converts in several armed and unarmed Moro organisations. The cultural boundary has been permeable and spongy.
Indeed, the linkage between Moro identity and territory is intricately intertwined. Nicos Poulantzas, emphasising the importance of territory to the notion of group self-identity, refers to the “historicity of a territory and territorialization of a history”—a territorial tradition concretized in the homeland. A territory by itself is a human construct which serves as the material basis in defining and redefining human, group, ethnic, and social relations. It is the source of one’s social security, assistance, dependency, sociability, and intimacy. It assures the continuity of culture and endurance of collective memory of peoples. As such, the concepts of space and territory are of extreme importance in ensuring the tenacity of one’s identity and survival as a people.
Hence, Bangsamoro’s self-definition bears on the goals that need to be pursued not without but with the re-claim of the territory perceived to have been illegitimately annexed by the Philippine state. The right over their ancestral domain is none other than the right to their homeland—the Bangsamoro territory. It is not only about claims and rights to obtain ancestral domain titles as what the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997 IPRA promises, but the right to self-determination and the correction of historical injustices.
The absence of or restriction to such control may invariably threaten the fulfilment of the peoples’ rights and imperil their identity to a particular territory. In this respect, the anxiety of the Bangsamoro over the future of their homeland simply infers their lack of full control over their lives. The right of a group with a distinctive politico territorial identity to determine its own destiny is the political translation of aspirations in the demands for self-determination. Judge Hardy Dillard of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), writing in a separate opinion on the Western Sahara Case, says that: “It is for the people to determine the destiny of the territory and not the territory the destiny of the people.” (Williams 1988: 217).
The crux the Bangsamoro struggle, past and present, is essentially a quest to the right of self-determination. It is the process of Bangsamoro nation-building. And in the process, it has to defy the state and its authorities, and confront their armed forces. Separatist movements, like in other countries, have to demonise the threats of the state as the enemy and mobilises the masses to take collection action against such threats. It has to appeal to an educated Muslim middle class and is invariably populist, intended to induct the masses into politics. Leaders present themselves as rulers as well as rebels in order to supplant the jurisdiction of the alienized state with their own localized version.
History making or myth making is part and parcel an idea in the whole process of nation-creation. Historical accuracy is not vital in constituting a nation since the story is told for the purpose of self-definition. What is important is that stories should be generally believed or that there should be substantial convergence in the versions of a story that are to be believed. Stories are not only needed at the time during which a national identity is being created, it is also required for one to understand what it means to be a Bangsamoro and one has to accept a version or some versions of the common story to grasp the significance of one’s identity.
What is to be done
Moro conflict is sparked and protracted more by the centralism of the state and inadequate democratic space that limits the self- governing power of the minorities, particularly the Muslims in southern Philippines. The tenacity and seriousness of the conflict remains complicated with the unremitting inability of the state to substantially and decisively address, over a long period, its core causes insubstantial political autonomy; socio-economic grievances and deprivation; and perceived injustice, discrimination, and alienation of the people from the mainstream of Philippine political and economic development. The issue boils down to political and economic equity and social justice, the crux of the state’s responsibility and kernel of nation’s spirit.
It is essential therefore that Moros be drawn within the domain of the state and make them feel that they are part and foremost stakeholder of the Philippine nation. The sense of Moros’ separateness as a people can be altered or modified. Perceptions are neither fixed nor permanent. They change as material conditions change; identities and communal interests also change and are equally malleable and pliant as they interact with the power of the state.
Yet, the process of reversing such outlooks and feelings of alienation and transcending ethnic boundaries also demand a strategic approach of sustained and indefatigable efforts and commitment on the part of the state towards greater democratisation, meeting the new challenges of mosaic democracy and heterogeneous development. It requires the state to redefine itself and adopt an institutional framework of governance that would allow the expression of democracy in kaleidoscopic forms.
Obviously, the meaning of democracy is violated when minority groups lack any reasonable chance to take part in the policymaking process in government on a more or less permanent basis without suffering from the “tyranny of the majority.” In other words, the rule of the majority or “majoritarian democracy” in deeply divided societies is likely to be profoundly undemocratic.
Since the post-colonial years the unitary state has worked towards the integration, assimilation, and transformation of multiple ethnic identities into a single national identity—a downward exertion of state nationalism. The nationalism of the state is materialised through the assimilation and integration of minorities into the majority’s culture, system of governance, and socio-economic structure. This tends to destroy minority rights and cultures even when there is no conscious intent to do so. State nationalism is henceforth resisted by those groups who do not see themselves as part of the Philippine nation. They feel strongly against the erosion of their self-identity and see it as a gross violation of their political, economic, and cultural rights.
The threat of national disintegration will continue until an appropriate institutional framework for political governance which can accommodate Mindanao’s social and ethnic diversity is ensconced. Apart from re-engineering political institutions in Mindanao, there is a need to lay emphasis, at least at the local level, on good governance, the rule of law, improved civil-military relations, accountability of public officials for corruption, and human rights protection.
An alternative to external self-determination is to seek substantial and meaningful political and cultural autonomy within the Philippine political system not necessarily within the current presidential unitary system as defined in the constitution. Conferring a semi-sovereign status resembling a federal structure of governance to Muslim areas of Mindanao would be an option that the state can work on to further the nation-state building not only of the Philippines but also of the Muslims.
A “unified approach” in bringing together various ethnic, religious, and national groups into the Philippine nation- state in general and Mindanao in particular can be a promising politico- administrative instrument in dealing with the complexity of living in a physical environment where people of differing ethnicities, religious beliefs, and cultures thrive and prosper, and conflicts are resolved and justice claimed in a non-violent means.
Whether or not the state would be able to meet the challenges of nation-building and national unity is difficult to surmise at this point. Definitely, there will be no quick fixes and no shortcuts. Wounds that have festered for a long time cannot be healed overnight, nor can confidence be built or dialogue developed while fresh wounds are being inflicted. It is a process that requires special and extra effort on the part of the state to guarantee human rights and uphold the rights of people to their own development.
In as much as conflict is created in one’s mind, peace can likewise be a product of one’s mind. One of the critical elements therefore in conflict resolution is the conscious construction of a positive outlook towards building a new and better relationship to an erstwhile archenemy. The courage in seeking to come to terms with the past is an essential part of the search for a new way forward.
Gowing, “Moros and Khaek: The Position of Muslim Minorities in the Philippines and Thailand,” in Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia, compiled by A. Ibrahim, S. Siddique, and Y. Hussain (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1985), 184–185.
Williams, C.H. 1988. “Minority Nationalist Historiography.” In R.J. Johnston, D.B. Knight & E. Kofman (eds.), Nationalism, Self Determination and Political Geography. New York: Croom Helm.
[Photo courtesty SERDEF.org.]
Consultant in Southeast Asian politics and International development. Formerly Associate Professor at De La Salle University-Manila and Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, London, UK.