How can Mindanao be the ARMM

Domestic conflicts

Jan Martin Vogel

born 1983, studied political science and sociology with a focus on South and Southeast Asia. After graduating, he worked for several years at the University of Giessen in the field of international law and regional integration. Then he switched to teaching English and politics.

The autonomy regulation for the Muslim part of the Mindanao region of the Philippines opens up the chance of an end to the armed conflict. In the three-year transition period, the new elites that emerged from the MILF independence movement are faced with the challenge of achieving economic upturn.

Filipino Islamists of the "Moro Islamic Liberation Front" in 2012. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Current situation

The conflict between Muslim independence supporters in the Bangsamoro region on the island of Mindanao and the Philippine government is entering a new phase after decades of military conflict. In 2018, the government in Manila passed a new constitution for the parts of Mindanao, which are predominantly inhabited by Muslims. This is the most far-reaching success of the autonomy movement since the beginning of the conflict. The agreement was negotiated between the largest regional group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte. The "Bangsamoro Organic Law" (BOL) was adopted by referendum in 2019. At the same time, the provinces concerned were able to decide whether to join the "Bangsamoro Autonomous Region" (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region Muslim Mindanao - BARMM) [1]. 4.2 million people live in the newly created region, about one sixth of the population of Mindanao. Over 90% are followers of the Islamic faith.

One of the essential elements of the Bangsamoro Organic Law is the introduction of Islamic Sharia law in disputes between Muslims. The law also provides that, after a transitional phase, elections for the regional parliament will be held in 2022. The parliament should then elect the regional government. These steps towards democratization open up the opportunity for a large number of interest groups to participate in the political decision-making process. But there are also risks. In the Philippines, parties are often only electoral organizations for individual politicians or family clans. Influential clans could dominate the entire political process through these weak party structures and put their own very limited concerns above the interests of the region. The power of the clans was already evident in the referendum on the BARMM in the Sulu Archipelago. The dominant Tan family strongly opposed joining the autonomous region. She fears that this will cause her to lose power. Although 99% of the island's inhabitants are Muslim, only 45% voted to join. Due to a special regulation, Sulu nevertheless became part of the BARMM.

The region will be administered by the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority until the first elected regional government takes office at the end of June 2022. It consists of 80 local members, 41 of whom were selected by the MILF and 39 by the Manila government. Murad Ebrahim, a former guerrilla fighter and leader of the MILF, is acting as Interim Chief Minister. In the transition phase, the basic laws for the organization of the BARMM must be passed, especially in the areas of administration, taxation, education and the right to vote. For the politically inexperienced MILF members, this is an ambitious workload.

The greatest challenge for the transitional authority and the subsequent government will be to bring about an economic upswing in which as many as possible participate. This also includes creating employment opportunities for the former fighters. Only in this way will the new political leaders win the support of the people. The potential for this is there, the growth rate of the economy of the BARMM, which is still the poorest region in the Philippines, was 7.2% in 2018, the fifth highest value among the Philippine provinces.

The demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of the former fighters represent a great test for the ability of the new institutions to act. Teams from the MILF, the Philippine army and the national police were formed to carry out and control the demobilization. They are supported by an international group with the participation of Brunei, Turkey and Norway. At the beginning of 2020, as planned, 30% of the around 12,000 milf fighters had already given up their weapons. However, due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic, disarmament has been significantly delayed and there is still resistance, especially from ex-combatants of the MILF.

Those armed actors who do not support the agreement represent a risk factor for the peace process. These are both radical groups, for whom the agreement reached does not go far enough, and criminal gangs, who benefit from the unstable situation. Radical groups in particular reject any presence of the hated Filipino army in the region. In addition, these actors are entangled in transnational networks of the Islamic State (IS) and criminal militant groups such as the Abu Sayyaf group, which has been responsible for numerous hostage-taking and murders since the 1990s. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) - a split from the MILF - have also joined the IS. There are repeated (suicide) attacks and armed clashes in the region, for example in October 2019 when seven MILF soldiers were killed in a battle by a rival radical group.

Causes and Background

At its core, the Mindanao conflict is a consequence of the disadvantage and marginalization of the Muslim population. The feeling of economic, social and cultural neglect and discrimination fueled the drive for independence of the mostly Muslim-majority island of the Philippines at least since the conquest of the Philippines by the USA (1898-1902). The conflict was exacerbated by the increasing immigration of Christians from the north of the country since the beginning of the 20th century, some of which was promoted by the government in Manila. As a result, the proportion of Muslims in Mindanao's population fell from 80% in 1900 to around 20% in 2015. The Muslims perceived this as a threat to their regional and religious identity.

Immigration was also accompanied by an economic process of displacement to the detriment of Muslims. Traditionally, a large part of Mindanao's population lived on agriculture as self-sufficient, but without clear proof of ownership of the land. This was used by large landowners from the north to seize the land. The Christian majority of the population now fears that in the event of an agreement they will lose their power and property again. It was therefore one of the toughest opponents of autonomy.

The Philippine Army has also repeatedly fueled the conflict over the past decades. As a vehement opponent of all forms of autonomy and secession, she urged the government to take clear action against all forms of politically militant and armed separatism. If the government did not meet these demands, the military carried out unauthorized operations, which repeatedly stalled the peace process.

Processing and solution approaches

Negotiations over the status of the South Island have been going on since the 1970s. In 1972 they were stopped by the state of emergency declared by President Marcos. A first agreement came into being in 1976 under international pressure from the Organization of Islamic States (OIS). However, it was only implemented after the end of Marcos' authoritarian rule in 1989, albeit without leading to lasting pacification. In 2001 a new round of negotiations began with the mediation of Malaysia. An international contact group consisting of Great Britain, Japan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia has been assisting and moderating the peace process since 2009. The European Union and other donors have been supporting the peace process financially since 2005 through the Mindanao Trust Fund. However, President Duterte suspended EU funds in 2017 as the EU criticized his ruthless crackdown on drug gangs and traffickers and called for human rights to be respected.

The Duterte government was able to rely on the preparatory work of several previous governments in negotiating the Bangsamoro Organic Law. The agreement that has been adopted is largely based on the peace agreements that former President Benigno Aquino concluded with the MILF in 2012 and 2014. But only President Duterte managed to get the newer agreement through the legislative process of the Philippine Congress. His dedication to this project can in part be explained by the fact that he was mayor of Davao City, Mindanao's largest city, for a long time. That is why he is well acquainted with the dynamics and consequences of the conflict.

Basically, a compromise on three central elements had to be found in the negotiations: (1) the scope of regional self-government within the political system of the Philippines, (2) the demilitarization of the region and (3) the integration of the separatists into the new structures to be created . While the first point is completed with the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the other two aspects will be central challenges for the interim administration.

Helping the expansion of self-government gain acceptance at the national level is arguably the most difficult part, as the still fairly centralized political system in the Philippines contains few federal elements in fiscal terms. For example, the Bangsamoro government to be elected in 2022 would be entitled to large parts of the tax revenue generated in the region. Bangsamoro's degree of autonomy roughly corresponds to that of a German federal state. That is a big exception in the Philippine state. That could arouse desires in other regions and strengthen the internal political centrifugal forces.

History of the conflict

Historically, the conflict can be traced back to the 16th century and the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The Muslims living on Mindanao resisted the Spaniards from the start. Because of their religion, the inhabitants of the island called them "Moro" (German: Moors) - a name that Muslims bear with pride today. Unlike most of the population in the northern islands of the Philippines, they did not convert to Catholicism. The resistance of the Moro led to an economic gap between the north and the south, which had been modernized by Spain, as early as the 16th century.

The conflict escalated in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to an unresolved event, the "Jabidah massacre". 28 Muslim soldiers who had been trained for use in the Philippine armed forces are said to have been executed by the Philippine army. The soldiers were asked to be part of a special unit to instigate riots in Sabah, a Malaysian province. Since there are close ethnic ties between the residents of Sabah and Mindanao, this would have meant fighting relatives, which is why the soldiers refused to give the order. As a result, the soldiers are said to have been executed, presumably in order not to endanger the secrecy of the mission. Regardless of the truthfulness of the descriptions, they led to the open outbreak of the latent conflict between the Muslims in Mindanao and the central government. A visible sign was the establishment of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In total, the conflict is estimated to have cost at least 120,000 lives to date.

The current attempt to resolve the conflict with an agreement is not the first. The "Autonomous Region Muslim Mindanao" has existed on Mindanao since 1990, to which four of the 14 provinces in the region had joined after referendums. However, after the founding, critical voices quickly rose again, for whom the agreed rights of autonomy did not go far enough. Nevertheless, in 1996 the Philippine government and the MILF's predecessor, the MNLF, signed a peace treaty. While most members of the MNLF then ended the fight and integrated themselves into the regional administration, the supporters of the split-off MILF took up arms and continued the fight for a completely independent Islamic state.

In response, the then President Estrada declared "total war" against the MILF in 2000, which in turn responded with "jihad" against the government. A ceasefire negotiated by Estrada's successor Macapagal-Arroyo in 2002 did little. Only after a change in leadership within the MILF in 2003 to a more moderate generation, which moved away from the goal of a separate state in favor of extensive autonomy, the negotiations were resumed.

In 2008, the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo surprised with a secret agreement reached with the MILF. This included a significant expansion of the autonomous region by up to 700 villages and further political rights. However, the implementation was prevented by the highest court in the Philippines. It ruled that the Philippine Constitution did not allow such extensive autonomy. The MILF felt betrayed and the fighting broke out again. After tough negotiations, the government of President Noynoy Aqui signed the so-called Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in March 2014, which, however, was judged to be partially unconstitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court and subsequently not ratified by the Philippine parliament.

In 2017 there was a massive flare-up when groups close to IS conquered the city of Marawi and were able to hold it for four months. At least 1,200 people died and over a million fled the violence during the fighting between the Philippine Army and the Marawi terrorist groups. The reconstruction of the largely destroyed city is one of the most critical tasks for the new leadership of the BARMM, in which they can demonstrate their ability to act and integrity in the face of the widespread corruption of the family clans.


Bolte, Patrick / Möller, Kay / Rzyttka, Ozman (2003): Political Islam, separatism and terrorism in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines. SWP study, March 2003, Berlin.

International Crisis Group (2019): The Philippines: Militancy and the New Bangsamoro, Asia Report No. 301, Brussels, June 27, 2019.

International Crisis Group (2016): The Philippines - Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao, Asia Report No. 281, Brussels, July 6, 2016.

Köppinger, Peter (2013): The Peace Process in Mindanao, KAS Country Report, January 2013.

Kreuzer, Peter (2019): One step closer to peace in Mindanao, PRIF Spotlight 1/2019, Frankfurt a.M.

Peng Hui (2012): The "Moro Problem" in the Philippines - Three Perspectives, South East Asia Research Center Working Paper Series No. 132, Hong Kong, December 2012.


Current coverage of regional events in Mindanao in English:

Reports and analyzes of the International Crisis Group on Mindanao: