PHILIPPINES: The Mindanao war and Moro self-determination


The following is abridged from a speech on the situation in Mindanao presented by the chairperson of the Philippines Socialist Party of Labour (SPP), SONNY MELENCIO, at a public forum in Manila on May 18 organised by the SPP and sponsored by various other progressive groups.

Philippine president Joseph Estrada has been using the alibi of going after the Abu Sayyaf group in order to crush the forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has already deployed more than 80% (200,000) of its troops in Mindanao. The troops are being used to bomb and attack the areas under MILF control. Around 250,000 people have fled these areas and most are now in refugee centres in central Mindanao.

Hundreds of civilians, MILF fighters and government soldiers have been killed during the three-month old escalation of the war. It is reported that the AFP has been using its entire war arsenal in Mindanao, including arms left by the United States during last January's joint exercises with the Philippine military.

The government line

The Estrada administration has been whipping up public opinion against the recent terrorism of Abu Sayyaf in order to crush the struggle for self-determination of the Moro people in the south of the Philippines. In the midst of the hostage crisis brought about by the Abu Sayyaf's abduction of Filipino school children and teachers in Basilan and 21 tourists in Jolo, the government shifted its military operations into the MILF areas, bombing MILF camps and areas under its control.

The MILF strongly deplored the Abu Sayyaf's terrorist acts of kidnapping and attacking Christian communities even before the latest hostage crisis. Insiders from the Philippine intelligence network have admitted that Abu Sayyaf was a creation of the Philippine National Security Council (NSC) with urging from the US Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1992-93, Jose Almonte, head of the NSC, regrouped a number of ulamas (Islamic priests or scholars) and Philippine Moro youth who had fought as mujahideens in Afghanistan. The government military intelligence council formed the so-called Islamic Command Council, which later fragmented into a number of groupings.

The idea was to form a counter-force against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that was then waging a guerilla war for self-determination in Mindanao. The government was expecting long drawn out negotiations with the MNLF guerillas in the south.

The MILF was then a small force in Mindanao, unrecognised by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and not considered to be part of the negotiations.

The fragmentation of the Islamic Command Council led to the formation of a small band of terrorists who called themselves the Abu Sayyaf ("Father or Bearer of the Sword"). The group links itself with the extremist forces of the Islamic struggle and is reported to have ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and with the terrorist groups under Osama Bin Laden. The Abu Sayyaf, which has just renamed itself Al-Haratakul Islamiya (Islamic Struggle), stated recently that its ideology of jihad (religious war) differed substantially from the "revolution" being waged earlier by the MNLF and by the MILF today.

Moro liberation

While we condemn the terrorist and extremist character of the Abu Sayyaf, we consider the MILF as a liberation force of the Moro people. The struggle in Mindanao is a national liberation struggle being fought in the main (through arms) by the MILF. (The MNLF on the other hand ceased to be a national liberation army in the south after it was coopted by the Philippine government. MNLF head Nur Misuari became the governor in the so-called autonomous areas of Mindanao, and the MNLF guerillas were integrated into the Philippine state army.)

The SPP's support of the MILF struggle is founded in its recognition that the Bangsa Moro (the Muslim nation in the south of the Philippines) has long been an oppressed nation, and that the democratic struggle in the Philippines cannot be completed without granting them the right to self-determination (including the right to secede and form their own state). The SPP's support does not mean, however, that every group that claims to be a national liberation force in Mindanao is automatically acclaimed as such. The Abu Sayyaf is clearly a bandit group and the MNLF is now part of the Philippine chauvinist state army.

The government has been trying to cover up the main issue of self-determination by the atrocities committed by the Abu Sayyaf. The government is also whipping up the anti-Moro sentiment perpetrated for centuries by the Spanish colonisers (1500s to 1800s) and the US imperialist forces (early 1900s). There have been reports of an escalating formation of Christian vigilante groups that are receiving arms and funding from the Philippine army.

Who stands to gain from this attempt to divide the Moros and the Filipinos are Estrada, who was trying to recover his dwindling popularity rating through a "tough stance" on the Mindanao issue, and the big multinational corporations in Mindanao (which are the big grabbers of Moro lands). No wonder that the US government and the European Union are giving 100% support to Estrada's handling of the Mindanao crisis.

Renew negotiations

The SPP calls for a stop to the war against the MILF and the Moro people, and the immediate pull out of all AFP troops in Mindanao. We call for a renewal of negotiations. But it should be a negotiation towards the implementation of self-determination for the Moro nation.

This is in line with the MILF's effort to open the talks again. The MILF declared a unilateral cease-fire for 48 hours (May 6 and 7) to show its sincerity for talks. But the government countered by putting in two conditions for talks: for the MILF to lay down its arms and release the hostages.

But the MILF never had a single hostage. The government's conditions put the Philippine media in a state of confusion by falling into the government line that Abu Sayyaf and the MILF are one grouping.

We do not support the government launching an all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf, as this is only a pretext to crush the MILF. The war is being used against the Moro nation. This is an escalation of the occupation by the reactionary Philippine state of the Moro land.

For the Moro nation, the ultimate solution is to allow the Moro people and their representative organisations, such as the MILF, to decide how to resolve the hostage crisis. Hostage taking by Abu Sayyaf has, in the past, been resolved not by the Philippine military's intervention, but through interventions made by MILF and other Moro groups.

The MILF recently renewed its offer to go into a cease-fire and help out in the negotiations for the release of the hostages if the government will stop its military operations in Mindanao and allow the OIC and United Nations to help in the process too. The government again refused the offer because it wanted to show that it was in full military control of Mindanao.

Progressive response

We call on the progressive forces to mobilise against the war in Mindanao. It is our responsibility to see to it that the crisis in Mindanao will not lead to an "all-out war" being waged by the Philippine state. It is our responsibility to assist in the struggle for self-determination of the Moro people, as it is our state that is oppressing and wiping them out.

The crisis will be used by the Philippine state to divide the peoples in the Philippines and to put the whole country in a state of emergency that will wipe out whatever remaining democratic rights we have. This will also fan the fire of a Moro-Christian conflict that can spread not only in the southern islands but also in Luzon and metropolitan Manila.

We do not agree with some groups, like Bayan, which have come out with "ultra-left" calls for intensifying the war by calling on the New People's Army (NPA) to step up punitive actions. It is the Estrada regime that wants war, and this line of intensifying the war falls into the government line. The MILF has called for a cease-fire and the renewal of negotiations. This is the main line that the progressive forces should support.

Even a combined guerilla force of the NPA and the MILF in Mindanao cannot solve the impasse of the war. Intensified war will favour, not the Moro nation, but the government, which has been itching to use the opportunity to crush the Moro resistance.

If the MILF or any liberation force in Mindanao was in its final war offensive, and the Moro masses were in an insurrectionary mood, then we should not only call for a combined military action by the NPA and the MILF, but for all progressive forces to arm themselves and support the revolutionary conflagration in Mindanao.

The Philippines Communist Party position of intensifying the armed conflict is the continuation of its previous confused policy, having no clear political perspective on the Moro struggle for self-determination. The CPP program describes the Moro nation as a "national minority" — a vague, non-political characterisation which conveniently avoids addressing the critical issue of the national oppression of the Moro peoples and the demand for a separate state put forward by the Moro resistance.

On the other hand, sections of the progressive forces which have been calling for "pacifist" actions ("No to war", period!) and asking both the government and the MILF to stop their military operations conveniently forget that there is a war for national liberation being fought by the Moro nation. It will be disastrous for progressive forces to blame equally the government and the MILF for the "war situation" in Mindanao.

We support the right to self-determination, including the right to self-defence by the Moro nation against attack by the reactionary chauvinist Philippine state, which the Moro fighters have always regarded as an occupation force on Moro land.

The "tri-peoples" approach

Another characterisation put forward by sections of the left (e.g., the Revolutionary Workers Party) is the "tri-peoples" approach to resolving the Moro question. This refers to the co-existence of three "peoples" in Mindanao — the Moros, the ethnic Lumad tribes and the Filipinos.

This is a liberal, "civil society" type of approach that blurs the central issue — the national oppression of the Moro people. And it ignores the fact that the majority of Christian Filipinos in Mindanao have been settled there through a conscious government policy of resettling Christian Filipinos on Moro land (through acts such as the infamous Homestead Act of the 1950s).

The left has to take sides: do you or don't you support the right to self-determination of the oppressed Moro nation, which includes its armed resistance and the call for a separate state? We call on the Philippine left to take a clear stance against the reactionary state policies in Mindanao. Finding a genuine solution to the struggle of the oppressed Moro nation is an increasingly central part of the national democratic revolution in the Philippines.