A Conflict That Won’t Go Away
by Madge Kho

"The Moro is poised at a crossroad.   He can accept the peace the Filipino offers or he can, with equal facility, pick up the bloody kris he dropped at the Battle of Bud Bagsak." 

Vic Hurley


The abduction of foreign tourists from Malaysia to the Philippine island of Jolo in April 2000 has once again put a spotlight on the long history of conflict in the southern Philippines. In attempting to make sense out of this seemingly unending war, it is easy to dismiss it simply as a religious war. Ever since Spain's attempts to conquer the south in the 16th Century, Islam has been the Moro's articulation of their identity as a people. The roots of the conflict date back to 1898 when Spain included Mindanao and Sulu in the cession of its territories to the U.S. even though it didn't have sovereignty over these islands.

The American businessman turned writer, Vic Hurley, predicted the Moro-Christian conflict would continue if the Moro was not treated well.  Bud Bagsak, the site of a battle in 1913, was one of several bloody massacres committed by U.S. troops on the island of Jolo. It is in Talipao, the area where the foreign tourists have been taken to by the Abbu Sayyaf, the extremist Muslim separatist group. An earlier battle at Bud Dajo on March 9, 1906 became the subject of numerous articles in the U.S. press. Many prominent Americans, including Mark Twain, who headed the U.S. Anti-Imperialist League, an organization opposed to the annexation of the Philippines, decried this massacre of innocent men, women and children. Moorefield Storey, a prominent lawyer and member of the Anti-Imperialist League, compared the massacre to the lynching of black men in the U.S. south: " ... the spirit which slaughters brown men in Jolo is the spirit which lynches black men in the South."

What the Spaniards did not succeed in accomplishing, that of Filipinizing the south, the Americans did in less than several decades. A "Policy of Attraction" was implemented, encouraging northerners to exploit the vast resources of the south. Frank Carpenter, governor of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu, wrote in his 1914 report that "all the first-class agricultural land remaining in the public domain [that are still] available for acquisition under the public-land laws is to be found in Mindanao and Sulu." Each family relocated from the densely populated areas of Luzon and Visayas were given 5 acres of land to build agricultural colonies in Mindanao. He saw this as a way of redistributing the Philippine population in lands where there were "uncontrolled settlement more or less inhabited by nomadic people."

Cotabato was to be the rice granary of the Philippines. It "lacks only people to cultivate its rice land, which is adequate to produce all rice required to feed the present population of the Philippines," claimed Carpenter. He felt the only way that Mindanao and Sulu could successfully be integrated into the new Philippine nation was to repopulate these islands with northern Filipinos. He envisioned agricultural colonies where these two cultures could amalgamate into "a homogenous whole" as the Moros did not identify with the Filipino nation and saw themselves as a distinct people. Massive resettlements began as early as 1912.

The U.S. knew from the beginning of their occupation of the Philippines that Mindanao and Sulu were not integral to the Philippines they inherited from Spain. This was the reason why in 1899, the U.S. signed a peace treaty, the Bates Treaty, with the sultan of Sulu to permit a concentration of its forces in the north, where it was battling Filipino revolutionaries opposed to its occupation. The treaty promised to uphold the sultanate's sovereignty. As soon as the revolution in the north was defeated in 1902, the U.S. launched its full-scale offensive against the Moros in the south. This lasted for the next 13 years. In August 1910, in a visit to Zamboanga on the southern tip of the island of Mindanao, Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson who favored keeping Moro land separate from the north, heard testimonies from both Christians and Moros on what they thought the future of Mindanao and Sulu should be. The Christians stated that they were now 70,000 strong in Mindanao and were ready to govern Moroland while the Moros pleaded that if the U.S. no longer wanted the Moro province, it should be returned to them. The secretary himself thought that the Filipinos were inconsistent wanting on the one hand independence from the U.S. and, on the other, wanting to rule over the 335,000 Moros.

The debate on what to do with Mindanao and Sulu continued in the halls of the U.S. Congress. U.S. business interests wanted to keep it separate from the Philippines. Their ally in Congress, Roger Bacon, a Congressman from New York even filed a bill, House Bill 12772 in the 69th Congress on May 6, 1926, denying Filipinos the right to rule Mindanao and Sulu; but he did not garner enough support. In the meantime, U.S. businesses such as Dole, Del Monte, Weyerhauser, Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich, and Firestone penetrated the vast fertile land of Mindanao, taking up huge tracts of land to cultivate pineapple, bananas, timber, and rubber for export.

If the land of the Sulu Group and Mindanao prove the land of promise that some hope – if American enterprise and capital gradually change the country from a jungle to a paradise of tobacco, hemp and coffee plantations – then the Moro and his institutions will gradually be shoved out, succumbing, as our North American Indian succumbed, to the superior race. 

Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines

As the U.S. was preparing to give the Philippines commonwealth status in preparation for its independence in 1946, word got out that Mindanao and Sulu were to be incorporated into this new nation. Moro leaders lobbied against it. They argued that, if the U.S. no longer wanted their land, it should be returned to them to rule and not to the northern Christian Filipinos. They even sent a delegation to the U.S. Congress to ask for their self governance. "We want you to understand: there are two communities in the Philippines with different cultural traditions and religions ... If independence is bound to be granted, the republic must not include Mindanao and Sulu."

In 1921 Muslim leaders from Sulu petitioned the American president to not put their land under Filipino rule. Then on March 18, 1935, Muslim chiefs and residents gathered in Lanao to oppose the inclusion of Mindanao and Sulu within an independent Philippines. They sent a letter to President Roosevelt warning him of potential troubles if their islands were to be included in an independent Philippines. "Our public land must not be given to people other than the Moros," they urged. One testified " ... if we are deprived of our land, how can we then earn our own living? A statute should be enacted to forbid others from taking over our land, a safe and reliable way to forestall a tragedy." But their pleas fell on deaf ears. The U.S. went ahead and gave the islands to Filipino rule.

If the Filipino nationalists were bent on integrating Mindanao and Sulu into their new nation, they did not seem serious enough to treat them as their equals. At their first Constitutional Convention held in Manila in 1934, not a single Moro was represented in this meeting. Instead, they had a Manila delegate represent the province of Davao.

Fearing a potentially volatile peasant uprising in the north, the government resettled a large number of landless peasants to Mindanao. By the mid-1940s, the communist Huk rebellion was underway. They had 15,000 armed fighters and about half-a-million supporters. The influx of Christians did not spark immediate rebellion. But the conflict over land has been simmering. Settlers were given preferential treatment. For example, in 1913 northerners resettled in Agricultural Colony No. 2 in the Maguindanao region were allocated 16 hectares each while their Moro counterpart only 8 hectares. Public Land Act No. 2874, enacted in November 1919, allowed Christians to apply for up to 24 hectares of land while non-Christians were limited to not more than 10 hectares.

The introduction of a Torrens land title registration system compounded the problem and rendered the traditional communal land system inoperable. Many were unaware of the new system;others did not have enough information to realize the implications it would have on their family plots. This put the Moro in a great disadvantage and many were displaced from their own land, leading Governor Dwight Davis to comment in 1935 that Moros were not being treated well "as in many places their lands are being taken away from them because they do not understand the legal procedures necessary to acquire title."

As early as 1935, Salipada Pentadun, a Cotabato Muslim who would later become a congressman, warned that the inequities created by the colonial government would render the "non-Christians strangers in their own communities ... This consequently creates restlessness among the natives that will finally give in to violence in internecine wranglings."

Sporadic Moro uprisings broke out intermittently against the Manila government in what the Moro perceived as injustices against them. Two large scale uprisings are of note: the Alangkat uprising led by Datu Maporo, a Manobo, against the imposition of personal tax and imprisonment for non-payment of it spread through upper Cotabato Valley to Awang and Upi in 1926 and the Kamlon rebellion on the island of Jolo in the 1950s.

Kamlon became the biggest threat to national security and the Philippine military concentrated its forces in Jolo to capture him. He was a bandit to be feared but to the Tausug, Kamlon was a folkhero, a local Robin Hood. Even with their heavy army tanks which rolled into the heart of the city daily, the military was still outdone by Kamlon, who had the support of the local population. Kamlon, eventually surrendered when the government promised economic and social improvements would come to Jolo. For the next decade, there was relative peace in Jolo.

Land conflicts escalated on mainland Mindanao taking on a deeper religious overtone as Christian vigilantes began to terrorize the Moro population. The social conflict has been skillfully depicted as a religious one masking Manila’s discriminatory treatment of the Moros. Grievances piled up against the Manila government that by the time Marcos declared martial law in 1972, even the traditional Moro datus and politicians joined ranks with those seriously calling for a separate state under the leadership of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In due time, the MNLF dropped its demand to a mere autonomy. During this period, however, the Moro struggle was blurred and eventually subsumed in the national effort to oust the Marcos dictatorship.

The MNLF miltary offensive inthe 1970s laid the groundwork for the eventual overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. By dealing heavy blows to the cornerstone of Marcos’ power, the military, causing the demoralization among rank-and-file soldiers that put pressure on the top echelon of the military to eventually link arms with democratic forces in the February 1986 People Power. Without a demoralized military, Marcos could have remained in power with U.S. military support.

At the time of Marcos’ overthrow, the MNLF was weakened both politically and militarily by years of fighting. They opted for a truce during the Aquino and Ramos administrations. Many of their cadres were weary and wanted a respite from their long years of fighting and living the harsh and cruel lives of guerrillas. They wanted a return to normalcy. It was not a surprise then that the MNLF finally signed a peace pact with the Ramos Administration in 1996.

The 1996 Peace Accord’s failure to uplift people’s economic security has renewed animosities towards the Manila government. This region has long suffered impoverishment with an average income of only a fifth of the national average. In northern and central Mindanao, Muslims are now outnumbered by Christians 9 to 1. In 1913, they made up 98% of the population; by 1972, the percentage had fallen to 40. Only 15% of the land are still in Moro hands today. To make things worse, most of the lands owned by Moros are in remote and infertile mountain areas.

In Jolo, the town where I grew up, communal warfare has characterized the town's existence since the end of martial rule. Random kidnappings, extortion, and murders have become daily occurrences since the mid-1980s. Thirteen years after my last visit to Jolo in 1987, Simon Ingram of the British Broadcasting Communications would report that "fear and insecurity are never far below the surface here ... It’s the perfect breeding ground for crime, rebellion and antagonism towards the Manila government ..."

Close to two thirds of the town's residents are now refugees in Philippine cities such as Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, and Manila or in and around the Malaysian state of Sabah. Some like my parents, who fled during the 1974 bombing of Jolo, never returned. Others who returned to rebuild their lives fled again after falling victims to violent crimes. One should ask why, after all this time, the Philippine government has been unable to restore law and order.

Mindanao produces almost 100% of bananas and pineapple for export, 50% of all corn and coconut in the country, 20% of all rice, 50% of fish, 40% of cattle, 89% of nickel and cobalt, 90% of iron ore, 62% of limestone and almost 100% of aluminum yet receive only less than 50% of the national revenue.

The abduction of foreign tourists broke the silence on the emerging civil war and the plight of the Moro. The last time was in 1974, when the MNLF battled the Philippine military as it attempted to regain Jolo City after rebel forces had occupied it for a few days.

To prevent further escalation of the civil war in Mindanao, the Estrada administration should seize this opportunity to pay attention to economic development in the region as a way of resolving this ancient conflict, instead of resorting to an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which could only cause a drain on the national budget and create havoc on the lives of the people in the area.

The MILF, with an estimated 35,000 fighters, is a force to reckon with. Its alliance with other rebel groups could be deadly for the Philippine military, which is not as ideologically determined as these Moro fighters.

If the Estrada administration wants to keep the republic intact, it should learn from history that the Moro cannot be subdued by military means. The Spaniards did not succeed even after 300 years. The Americans even with their superior firepower faced an insurmountable hurdle. And, in the decades following independence, to the young Philippine army recruits, Jolo meant assignment in hell. Close to 75% of Marcos’s 250,000 military troops was tied down in the south during the height of the war in 1975.

During the Marcos years, the annual military budget grew from $518 million in 1972 to $3.5 billion in 1976. Fighting the MILF is already taking its toll on the military with 60% of its 130,000 troops stationed in Mindanao. More than two million refugees were created during the Marcos years. The government’s own Social Welfare Department had a higher figure: 1 out of 3 muslim became homeless even before the war reached its peak in 1974-75. Already, in less than a year, over a half-million people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the intensified fighting in the south.

The MILF may yet succeed in what Nur Misuari and the Moro National Liberation Front failed to accomplish in 24 years: a truly independent 13 provinces of Mindanao and Sulu.

(Madge Kho is a native of Jolo and presently resides in Boston, Massachusetts where she is co-chair of the Friends of the Filipino People, an organization founded in 1973 to oppose U.S. support for the Marcos dictatorship. Madge is also a director of the Jolo Culture and Historical Society. She has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.)



Vic Hurley, Swish of the Kris, E .F. Dutton, 1936.

Mark Twain, "Comments on the Moro Massacre, March 12 & 14, 1906, " in Jim Zwick’s Mark Twain’s Weapon’s of Satire. Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War, Syracuse University Press, 1992, pp.168-178.

Moorfield Storey, The Moro Massacre, 1906.

Frank Carpenter, "Report of the Governor of the Dept. of Mindanao and Sulu Frank Carpenter, January 1-December 31, 1914" in Report of the Philippine Commission, 1914, pp. 325-407 inclusive, Bureau of Consular Affairs, War Dept., Government Printing Office (Washington, D.C., 1916).

Report of the Governor of the Dept. of Mindanao and Sulu, January 1-December 31, 1914, U.S. Gov’t Printing Office, December 1916.

Hunter Miller, ed, Treaties and Other International Acts of the U.S.A., Volume 4, 1836-1846, U.S. Government Printing Office, (Washington, D.C., 1934).

Peter Gowing, Mandate in Moroland, 1983, New Day Publishers, pp. 251-252. Congressional Record, 69th Congress, lst Session, Vol. 67, No. 164, June 24, 1926, pp. 11956-11964.

Aijaz Ahmed, "400 Year War: Moro Struggle in the Philippines," in Southeast Asia Chronicle, Issue No. 82, February 1982, pp, 14-15.

Lo Shih-Fu, "The Moro Rebellion: Its History and Background" in Issues and Studies, Volume X, pp. 41-51, October 1973.

David Joel Steinberg, The Philippines. A Singular and Plural Society, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1990, pp.

Simeon Millan, ed, Cotabato 1952 Guidebook, Goodwill Press, (Cotabato, Philippines, 1952), p. 8 as cited in Two Hills of the Same Land by Rad D. Silva, Mindanao-Sulu Critical Studies and Research Group (Philippines, 1979), p.41.

Rad Silva, Two Hills of the Same Land, Mindanao-Sulu Critical Studies and Research Group(Philippines, 1979), p. 67.

Ralph Benjamin, Muslims but Filipinos: The Integration of Muslims, 1917-1941, University of PA unpublished dissertation, p. 152 as cited in page 67 of Rad Silva’s Two Hills of the Same Land.

Ralph Benjamin, Muslims but Filipinos: The Integration of Muslims, 1917-1941, University of PA unpublished dissertation, p. 265-266 as cited in page 67 of Rad Silva’s Two Hills of the Same Land.

Juan Sabares, "The Conquest of Mindanao," The Commonwealth, March 1927, as cited in Two Hills of the Same Land by Rad D. Silva, Mindanao-Sulu Critical Studies and Research Group (Philippines, 1979), p.43

Jacques Bertrand, "Peace and Conflict in the Southern Philippines: Why the 1996 Peace Agreement is Fragile," in Pacific Affairs, Spring 2000, pp. 37-54.

Jacques Bertrand, "Peace and Conflict in the Southern Philippines: Why the 1996 Peace Agreement is Fragile," in Pacific Affairs, Spring 2000, pp. 37-54;

Charles Radin, "Filipino Muslim revolt linked to ancient conflict," Boston Globe, May 6, 2000.

Simon Ingram, "Neglect fuels Philippines conflict," British Broadcasting Communications, May 16, 2000.

Rigoberto Tiglao, "Holy War. MILF boasts of bigger army," Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 9, 2000. Philippine Government places MILF strength at only 15,000 while the MILF boasts of a total combat strength of 120,000 men. U.S. intelligence source puts MILF strength at 35,000-40,000 fighters.

Carlito Pablo, "Military prepared to fight MNLF too," Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 2, 2000.

"Thousands of families need your help," a Tabang Mindanao appeal in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 13, 2000.