The Nexus Between Discrimination and the Mindanao Conflict

By: Atty. Zainudin S. Malang*

First, I would like to thank the organizers – the Ateneo de Davao University Research and Publication Office - for inviting me to be a reactor in today’s presentation of the 2005 Philippine Human Development Report. Second, allow me to congratulate the Human Development Network team that prepared this Report on behalf of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). I sincerely believe that through this Report, you have made a substantial contribution towards an accurate understanding of the nature and roots of the Mindanao conflict and, potentially, to its resolution as well.

I. The 2005 PHDR: An Emerging But More Nuanced Understanding of the Moro Insurgency

These past few years, I have noticed a shift in outlook on the roots of the Mindanao Conflict, particularly that which is between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine State. Earlier, there was the World Bank’s Social Assessment of Conflict Affected Areas in Mindanao which, although primarily delving on the socio-economic costs of the war, also partly looked into the nexus between the land issue and the conflict (2002). This was followed by a yet to be released study commissioned by the World Bank on the causal link between land tenure problems besetting the Bangsamoro and the war.

The conventional belief among policy-makers and public institutions is that the Moro insurgency was brought about by economic reasons. With this premise, it was therefore convenient to conclude that with massive infusion of funds into the Bangsamoro areas, the clamor for independence and, by extension, the conflict would peter out. But we have seen so many administrations do just that since the outbreak of the 20th century phase of the Moro Wars and yet the insurgency is still there as well as the sense of Moro nationalism that feeds it, stronger than it ever was before. Now, we are beginning to see the fallacy of this shallow and condescending view. And hopefully, studies such as those contained in the 2005 PHDR will cause decision-makers as well as the general public to re-examine how they view the Moro Wars.

Anti-Muslim Prejudice and the Roots of the War

Back when I was still studying at the Ateneo de Manila School of Law, I was explaining the Bangsamoro perspective on the Mindanao conflict to a classmate who is also a good friend and she, quite matter of factly, told me that I have a persecution complex. Well, now at least, we have the 2005 PHDR which tells us that “anti-Muslim bias are not imagined nor random”. Maybe now is a good time for me to get in touch with her and give her a copy of this report.

Now, we know that every time a Muslim like me walks the streets of Metro Manila or other Christian-populated cities, almost 5 out of every 10 people on the same street thinks that I am a “terrorist”. Ditto for every Maguindanon student who has to attend school, a Maranao applicant for a job, a Tausug who has to face a policeman or soldier. For Muslims in this country, there is no escape from that prejudice even when one is merely reading the mainstream papers wherein a columnist can unabashedly object to the building of Mosques in Metro Manila, a sentiment purportedly shared by his wife who is ironically related to the UNESCO, or wherein pictures of Muslims protesting indiscriminate arrests are captioned as protests against the detention of “allegedly innocent” Muslims. For Muslims in this country, it is their innocence that must be alleged and not their guilt because the latter is already presumed. So much for Muslims enjoying the right to be presumed innocent under the Bill of Rights of the Philippine Constitution.

The relevance of this bias to the conflict is far more important than studies commissioned by credible international public institutions before the 2005 PHDR cared to attach to it. Pro-independence sentiments arise out of a lack of feeling of belonging, of being outcasts, of being second class citizens to whom concessions are only made grudgingly. Prejudice by the largely Christian body-politic rears its ugly face in the government, in the media, and other sectors of civil society. Going over the history of relations between the Bangsamoro and that Christian body-politic shows that there is no lacuna for reasons to feel that Muslims are outcasts even in their own homeland.

Starting from the early 1900s, the national government engaged in a policy of changing the demography of Mindanao by repopulating it with settlers from Visayas and Luzon. Strategies included providing financial assistance and land titles to the new inhabitants (e.g. Agricultural Colonization Act) to outright forcible land-grabbing by providing weapons to para-military groups (e.g. Ilagas in the 1960s) to granting timber concessions over thousands of hectares of Moro ancestral lands. Muslims, on the other hand, received no such assistance. Worse, the land titling system was not only alien to them but actually clashed with their own indigenous system of landholding. And when they fought back against the forcible-landgrabbing, the national government and the media were quick to label them as terrorists. Is it any wonder how the Muslims ended up being reduced from 76% to a mere 18% of Mindanao’s total population? And yet when they venture out of Mindanao to Luzon and Visayas, they are denied jobs, not allowed to build their mosques, subjected to humiliation in schools and workplace, and told to leave and go back to where they came from. Go back to what? Their lands have already been taken away from them.

We might as well face the reality of Christian-Muslim relations in this country, as Muslims perceive it. The resources of Mindanao are all-too welcome in this country, but Muslims themselves are not. Should we then wonder why pro-independence sentiments, expressed through armed struggle, is still strong notwithstanding many efforts, military and economic by the government? And if we need more convincing about the nexus between violence and exclusionary practices of the majority against the minority, we only need to look at what is going on in France for the past week. There, the majority even in a highly developed Western European country has to face the ugly consequences of their prejudice.

This is not to ignore the valiant efforts of those in Christian communities who view the roots of the conflict differently from the majority but as the survey attached to the PHDR itself has shown, there is an uphill battle to be waged in changing the present sad state of relations.

The Democratic Deficit of the Philippine State Vis-à-vis the Bangsamoro

Maybe now is the time for the largely Christian body-politic to ask themselves whether they truly want Muslims to be part of a pluralistic multicultural country. More importantly, maybe its about time to let the Bangsamoro themselves decide their political future. To put it more succinctly, recognize their “freedom of choice” as the UNDP itself defines human security.

Months ago, I was interviewed by a group of professors from the University of the Philippines who were conducting a democracy audit in the Moro areas. Among the indicators that they were looking at were government’s ability to provide for the basic services for Muslims, e.g. health, housing, education, etc.. It occurred to me during the interview that if they were truly interested in conducting a democracy audit, then they need to go back to the fundamental premise of democracy – the consent of a people to be subject to the sovereignty of a particular state.

For decades since the inception of the Philippine Republic, the largely Christian body-politic has failed to see the moral inconsistency between their prejudice and exclusionary practices and their refusal to let the Bangsamoro choose their political destiny. “Mindanao has always been and will always be part of the Philippines” is often the emotional reply to such clamor. This retort, bearing in mind the treatment to which Muslims are subjected, only begs the question whether it is Mindanao’s Muslims or Mindanao’s resources that they want to be part of the Philippines.

The inconsistency becomes more pronounced when we note the all-out support that was given by Christian civil society to East Timor’s assertion of its right to self-determination and yet at the same time fail, refuse, or reject outright any recognition of the Bangsamoro’s own aspirations. Perhaps, herein lies the psychological utility of prejudice and bias against Muslims. Creating a negative image of what Edward Said refers to as “the other” makes it more morally palatable to close one’s eyes to, even condone, the deprivation of rights of that “other”. OK lang, mga terorista naman yan eh (That’s alright, they are all terrorists anyway)! No wonder the bias has persisted for so long. It is convenient, it is useful.

II. PHDR: Implications for the Ongoing Peace Process Between the GRP-MILF

Every time I am asked about my assessment of the ongoing peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), my standard reply has been that I am not so much worried that the two panels will not be able to arrive at a peace agreement. For its part, the government seems to have arrived at the conclusion that to prolong the conflict would be too costly for the entire country, economically and socially. For the MILF, it too has to spare its Bangsamoro constituents from a never-ending war.

My confidence, however, does not go as far as for me to say that the government will have an easy time “selling” the peace agreement to its national constituency. For how does a government sell an agreement to a populace that fails or refuses to look at the root causes of the conflict? Any such pact would immediately be labeled as “treasonous”, “a sell-out to extremists”, and giving too much “special treatment” to a minority.

I recall President Ramos’ peace convoy being pelted by tomatoes by Christians in Mindanao when he entered into a final peace pact with the other Moro liberation movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). I also recall the difficulties the agreement faced in the halls of congress when it came to translating its provisions into law, resulting in a watered down version. Now comes a peace agreement with the MILF that is expected to concede to the Muslims more than that with the MNLF. Is it not reasonable to expect that the opposition to it will be more intense?

By identifying bias against and the socio-economic exclusion of Muslims as the underlying root cause of the conflict, the PHDR has actually identified the steps that need to be taken by those advocating for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. As the report recommends, there is a need to build a constituency for peace and that constituency must be built not only within the government but in the greater populace. And that constituency must be based on a true understanding of what propels and fuels the conflict for only then a peace pact be “acceptable” to the public. Without a fairly nuanced understanding, we will continue to have a constituency that thinks economic or military solutions or a mixture of both are the only things needed to resolve the conflict – a myopic outlook that has led to so many failures and to so much destruction.

Thus, I therefore encourage policy-makers, advisers, and the academe to increase their understanding of the conflict. More studies about the conflict be conducted and, equally important, these studies must be disseminated to as wide an audience as possible. If successful in that regard, it might be possible to convince the national constituency to look at the ongoing GRP-MILF negotiations as a process by which the two panels will define a new “term of coexistence” or “modus vivendi” for the Bangsamoro and Christian communities. The history of the conflict has shown that existing and previous ones have been abject failures. Hopefully, the new “modus vivendi” to be crafted by the GRP-MILF panels will be one that is well grounded on the roots and nature of the conflict, thereby increasing its viability and sustainability.

As important shapers of public opinion, media must be engaged. Unrealized by many media practitioners, there are many norms of professional ethics violated by their reportage on the conflict. For instance, in addition to its unfair description of Muslim detainees as “allegedly innocent”, the editorial board of the Inquirer has seen fit to give greater prominence in its front pages to the SWS survey than Pulse Asia’s thereby giving the impression that it gave more credence to the former’s assertion that all is well in good in Christian-Muslim relations. This would have been innocuous were it not for the fact that the latter preceded the first and is far more detailed in its questions. But since the Inquirer seems unconvinced about the survey conducted by Pulse Asia, conducting a survey among Muslims themselves might settle the issue. Let them speak on their views on Muslim-Christian relations. Let them be active participants in the study and not just its passive object.

III. Re-Assessing Strategies for Development Interventions in Conflict-Affected Areas

There is a need to draw lessons from the implementation of the 1996 Peace Accord between the MNLF and the GRP. It is unfortunate that during the period when huge amounts of developmental funds were poured into the ARMM, the HDI has not gone up. Thus, there is a need to re-examine our strategy for rehabilitation and development so that an MILF-GRP peace pact may not suffer the same fate.

The first step in this regard is for us to look at how we have prioritized development interventions. How many have heard of a multi-lane EDSA-type circumferential road for the island of Sulu? I have also heard many teachers complain of being made to attend so many training sessions outside the region (some of them identical in content and design) only to go back to schools that have no blackboards or, worse, no schoolbuildings. I have heard ARMM bureaucrats complain of repetitious training and other capability building activities funded by different aid agencies but all having similar or identical content.

I am also aware that of the many “rule of law” interventions, none include initiatives that promote an environment of equal opportunity. There is yet no well-supported advocacy for the enactment of an equal employment opportunity law, an unfortunate situation since religious discrimination in the workplace is one of its most socially divisive and pernicious manifestations. Some types of discriminations hurt the spirit, others hurt the stomach.

I am likewise surprised that there are far less funding for human rights initiatives than there are for promoting Barangay Justice and Muslim personal laws. Muslims, as a community, are far more concerned about indiscriminate arrests, indiscriminate bombings, and discriminatory practices by the majority than they are about divorce or their petty quarrels with their neighbors. Clearly, the absence of a well thought-out prioritization of interventions lead to tragic-comic situations.

Thus, aid agencies need to wean themselves out of the practice of delegating the lead role in designing programs to those lacking sufficient knowledge of the Bangsamoro environment and context. Indeed, the bias that the PHDR mentions afflicts even in the development assistance community. In one forum organized by a European Union conducted in this same city, one organizer refused to recognize the delegation coming from the ARMM.

To complement a rethinking of how projects are identified, prioritized, and designed, it might also be a good idea to prepare an HDI map of the conflict affected areas which can be used as a benchmark in assessing the efficacy of developmental interventions. This has been my suggestion to the OPAPP. Such a template was lacking at the inception of the MNLF-GRP Peace Accord and that prevented development agencies and stakeholders to accurately measure the actual impact of their projects after the agreement was signed. It would do well to prepare one for an expected MILF-GRP agreement. Accountability must be exacted not just from the government or the parties to the agreement but also from the donor community. There were a lot of failed expectations from the ’96 Agreement, the Philippines can ill afford to fail again.


By way of concluding my reaction and my inputs on anti-Muslim bias, allow me to read a portion of an article I wrote for my column “From the Plains of Kutawato” in the Mindanao Cross:

Two Moro Kids in Baguio

I want to share with my readers a heart-wrenching story I saw the other night on NHK, a Japanese TV network.

The TV documentary featured two kids from Lanao - Nuruldin and his younger sister Marimar - both of whom could not be more than ten years old. The two had to leave their family, including their sickly mother, and their lakeside home in Lanao due to the war and the poverty that surrounded them. So poor were they that their relative in Baguio to whom they were entrusted was himself only slightly less poor than they are and yet sending them to him \was already thought of as an escape for them. Thus, Nuruldin and his sister had to spend their freetime selling plastic bags in a Baguio market.

One of the most heart-wrenching portions of the documentary was when Nuruldin and Marimar were asked how it is to live in Baguio City in Luzon, far from the Muslim communities in Mindanao. Their answers were unpleasant. Nuruldin recounts how along the alleyways of the market, he is commonly confronted and asked if he is a Muslim and why he is in Baguio – the program actually showed a middle aged storeowner doing this. Invariably, he is told to go back to Mindanao.

His sister’s experience is no less unpleasant. She goes to an elementary school where she is the only Muslim. Often, she is taunted by her classmates and schoolmates with “Abu Sayyaf ka, umalis ka dito, bumalik ka na lang sa Mindanao” (You are an Abu Sayyaf, get out of here, go back to Mindanao).

As the camera focuses on Nuruldin’s face while he recounts this story, I could see clearly from his eyes how such encounters hurt him. And his stories tug at the heart because as the program went on, I could sense that there could be few kids more adorable, more devoted, more full of love than he and his sister, and least deserving of being subjected to such terrible treatment.

This story reminds me of an article I read in a daily newspaper a few years back. It told of Muslim kids in the same city, Baguio, who were participating in an independence day parade. Dressed in colorful traditional Moro garb, the kids were obviously eager to join in the festivities and to show their oneness in commemorating Philippine independence. But as their floats were going around the city, they were greeted by other kids watching the parade at the roadside with chants of “Abu Sayyaf, Abu Sayyaf!”

I am also reminded of my own experience as the lone Muslim in my batch in a special science high school in Manila. Back then, there were no Abu Sayyaf yet. Back then, the taunt was simply “Muslim, Muslim”, as if being a pure monotheist was some form of a social disease.

But back to Nuruldin and Marimar. Apparently, a Baguio-based NGO has initiated an activity where Muslim and Christian kids could mingle and get to know each other. In the presence of Nuruldin, a Christian girl was asked what she thinks of Muslims. She replied: Ayaw ko sana silang galitin pero ang ayaw ko sa kanila eh iyong mayroon sila sariling Diyos (I don’t want them to get mad at me but what I do not like in them is that they worship a different God). The poor ignorant girl might as well have just said: Magugustuhan ko lang sila kapag nagsimba sila sa Cathedral sa araw ng Linggo (I will only like you once you start showing up for mass at a Cathedral on Sundays).

These are words from the mouth of babes. Imagine if you were the one who had to hear it. I’m sure many if not all of you have had the same experience living as a religious minority in a Christian country.

* LL.M., I.M.R.I., J.D.; Director, Bangsamoro Center for Law and Policy; comments may be sent to morolaw@yahoo.com. This reaction paper was read at the presentation of the 2005 Philippine Human Development Report on November 8, 2005, at Waterfront Insular Hotel, Davao City.