Brown Bag Lecture Series

Recent Violence in The Philippines

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Co-sponsor: Southeast Asian Student Initiative

Lotta Hedman, Senior Research Fellow at IDEAS, the London School of Economics and Political Studies, discussed the growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago regions of the Philippines. By looking at the historical context of these Southern regions, from violent conflicts in the 1970s to the ‘Total War’ in 2000, Hedman argued that the key to understanding the high levels of IDPs stems from the patterns of national integration and electoral contests in the Philippines.

Hedman noted the awkward and incomplete pattern of integration of the Muslim minority, referred to as moros, into the Republic of the Philippines dating as far back as the mid-sixteenth century. When the Philippines achieved independence in 1946, national integration took place through elections and the Muslim politicians from the Southern regions combined easily with Catholic politicians in Manila.

However, with the declaration of martial law by then-President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, Moros began to mobilize to support an independence movement in parts of Muslim Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Soon there was a full-scale armed separatist movement supporting an independent Moro homeland, under the newly formed Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). By the mid-1970s, around 75% of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were deployed to Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago—resulting in over 50,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of IDPs. While an uneasy and unsteady equilibrium developed after the Libya-brokered ceasefire in 1976, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) arose out of the MNLF.

It was not until Marcos was ousted in 1986 that integration with the Muslim minorities and the greater Philippine state was attempted. Unfortunately, strides toward a potential Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) were disrupted by national and international developments in the late 1990s. Joseph Estrada, who was elected President in 1998, waged a ‘Total War’ against the MILF in 2000. These actions built the basis for violent retaliations in the name of the Moro people. One particular group, the Abu Sayyaf Group, founded by a returning member of the jihad in Afghanistan with links to Al-Qa’ida, persistently promoted the idea that Islamist terrorist networks had penetrated the Southern Philippines. This development, combined with the events of September 11th in the United States, gave the government further reason to wage the war against MILF and the MNLF—the ‘Total War’ became a ‘Global War on Terror’ in the region.

In contrast, when the Arroyo Administration came to office, Arroyo tried hard to convince the United States not to label the MILF a terrorist organization, since she wanted to secure Muslim votes. She was ultimately successful, and a Memorandum of Understanding was drafted to provide a formal reconciliation between the government and communities in the Southern Philippines. However, politicians who claimed to represent Christian communities in Mindanao appealed to the Supreme Court to prevent the Arroyo administration from signing the Memorandum, the talks broke down, and armed groups affiliated with local Christian politicians and the MILF clashed.

In the end, Hedman believes that the structure of electoral contests and minority integration in the Philippines can explain much of the growth of IDPs in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Unfortunately, Hedman does not see prospects for the safe return of IDPs in the near future but only continued conflict, violence, and displacement. This event was moderated by Dr. Buehler, Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.