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Philippines-Mindanao conflict BRI

Updated: Tue, 3 Jun 2014

In detailBack to top

Minority Muslim groups in the southern Philippines – indigenous ethnic people known collectively as Moros – have fought for self-determination for more than 40 years.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and, since 2000, displaced 3.5 million people, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

But, after 17 years of violence-interrupted talks, the Philippine government and the largest Muslim rebel group – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – agreed in October 2012 to end the conflict, and a final peace deal was signed in March 2014.

The two sides want to set up an autonomous region, to be known as "Bangsamoro", in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country before President Benigno Aquino steps down in 2016, giving the Muslim-dominated area greater political powers and more control over its resources.

Bangsamoro replaces the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – a region of about 4 million people created in 1989 with its own government.

Currency, postal services, defence and foreign policy will remain under the central government.

MILF's 10,000- to 15,000-strong army will be decommissioned.

A plebiscite by 2015 in Muslim-dominated areas in the south will determine the shape and size of the new Bangsamoro region, which is rich in minerals, oil and natural gas.

The agreement guarantees rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims, unlike a failed 2008 peace deal that was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Peace not yet guaranteedBack to top

The Mindanao region is a melting pot of breakaway rebel groups, pan-Asian militant Islamist groups and communist rebels rubbing shoulders with mercenary kidnap groups and clan militias.

A breakaway faction of MILF, called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), has vowed to continue fighting despite the peace deal.

There are also concerns that powerful clans who control some areas in the region could see the deal as a threat to their political influence.

The presence of the army and so many armed factions often fans the fires of traditional family feuds, leading to clan-based violence on Mindanao. Both the army and rebel groups have been drawn on several occasions into clan confrontations, which have displaced thousands.

Mindanao is also prey to groups known as "lost commands" - former military or insurgent units who are no longer under the control of their superiors and live off banditry and kidnapping. Two of the most notorious are the Pentagon Gang and Abu Sofia.

Regular eruptions of violence have forced hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes. Many return fairly quickly, only to be displaced again.

In total, the various conflicts in Mindanao have displaced millions of people since 1970. The numbers of displaced peaked in 2008, when an estimated 600,000 people were forced from their homes, making the Philippines the country with the highest number of newly displaced that year.

A long-running Maoist insurgency has also affected the entire country for more than 45 years.

Historical grievancesBack to top

Muslims arrived in the Philippines in the 13th century. Mindanao, the southernmost of the country's three regions, was ruled by sultanates well before Spanish Christians arrived in the second half of the 16th century.

This history drives the longstanding grievances of many Filipino Muslims, who want to re-establish a Muslim homeland and who comprise the Moro ethnic group.

When the Philippines passed from Spanish to American control at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, large areas of the Muslim south remained untouched.

A process of economic and political integration followed in the first decades of the 20th century, accelerating when the Philippines won independence in 1946. In the years that followed, the government encouraged Catholic settlers to move from the north to resource-rich Mindanao, displacing the comparatively poorer Muslim communities.

By the late 1960s, campaigners were demanding recognition of rights of Moros, who were angered by their increasing marginalisation. They argued that the influx of Christians had by this time reduced their presence to some 5 percent of the population.

Muslim insurgent groupsBack to top

Moro National Liberation Front

In 1972, a university professor called Nur Misuari reformed the Muslim advocacy group he headed as an armed rebel organisation, naming it the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Its stated aim was to fight oppression and create an independent Muslim state in the south.

Communal conflict erupted shortly afterwards when Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in response to the insurgency.

In the years that followed, the MNLF took control of large areas of Mindanao and the neighbouring Sulu archipelago.

The MNLF reached a peace agreement with the government in 1976, but fighting resumed after a failed referendum in the southern islands. A comprehensive peace agreement was not signed until 1996, under the presidency of Fidel Ramos.

The deal did not grant independence to the south, but led to the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), comprising the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, and the island provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan.

Misuari was elected governor of the ARMM, but his administration was widely criticised for incompetence and corruption. The ceasefire collapsed in 2001, when MNLF guerrillas loyal to him attacked an army base in Jolo, Sulu, killing 100 people and wounding scores.

The rebel leader fled to Malaysia, saying the attacks were justified because the government had reneged on the peace deal and abandoned southern regions to poverty. He was promptly captured and jailed for the attack.

Although many senior former rebels have worked within the ARMM structure, widespread disaffection persists among MNLF leaders who argue that the government has failed to promote economic development in the south.

The MNLF opposed the signing of the Bangsamoro agreement between the government and MILF, a breakaway faction of the MNLF. In August 2013, Misuari declared the independence of the “Bangsamoro Republik”, signaling that the rebel movement no longer considered itself bound by the 1996 peace agreement. A month later, fighting between MNLF and the armed forces erupted in the city of Zamboanga and spread quickly to Basilan province. The clashes caused widespread destruction in Zamboanga and forced around 120,000 people to flee their homes, according to IDMC.  

Despite its continuing influence, the MNLF has weakened and fractured over the years, giving rise to several splinter groups.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front

The failed 1976 accord led to a partial break-up of the MNLF membership. The group's second-in-command, Salamat Hashim, went on to found the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Although its aim of a fully independent state differed little from that of the MNLF, the group was more militant and put greater emphasis on traditional and scholarly interpretations of Islam.

By 1996 - the year full peace was reached with the MNLF - Hashim had amassed more than 12,000 MILF fighters in camps in Mindanao. Peace negotiations with the government got under way in 1997, and they agreed upon a ceasefire.

The truce collapsed in 2000, when then President Joseph Estrada declared war on the MILF and attacked its camps in Mindanao, leading to fighting that displaced nearly 1 million people.

The ceasefire was re-established in 2001 when Estrada's successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, came to power, but broke down yet again when government troops overran the MILF's headquarters in Buliok, Maguindanao. Up to half a million people were displaced.

Another ceasefire was agreed upon in July 2003, but negotiations stalled in 2006 because of differences over the size of the proposed ancestral homeland and the proportion of natural resources that should be allocated to its people.

After more than 10 years of stop-start talks, the government agreed to a deal with the MILF in July 2008, which would expand the existing Muslim region and give its future government wide political and economic powers. However, the Supreme Court halted the signing ceremony after Catholic politicians in the south said they hadn't been consulted.

The situation on the ground deteriorated rapidly. Disgruntled MILF field commanders attacked villages, prompting troops to launch an offensive that displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Manila called an end to peace talks with the MILF in September 2008 after deciding to scrap the deal altogether.

The upsurge in fighting had displaced up to a million people by July 2009, according to the IDMC, when another truce was agreed upon with the government.

In 2014, MILF signed another peace deal with the government.

It has between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters.

Abu Sayyaf

Abu Sayyaf - which translates as "Bearer of the Sword" - was formed in 1990-91 by MNLF members angered by Misuari's perceived moves towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Along with its desire to create an independent Islamic nation in the Philippines, the group has broader visions of a pan-Islamic super-state in Southeast Asia.

It is one of the smallest but deadliest Islamist militant groups in the Philippines. It has been linked to al Qaeda and to the regional militant network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which is believed to have been behind the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people. It is based on the Basilan and Jolo islands off the larger island of Mindanao.

Members of such groups are thought to have gone into hiding among Mindanao's myriad waterways and islands. Analysts say Indonesian militants belonging to JI have travelled virtually unchecked between Indonesia and the Philippines, using Mindanao as a training base and refuge.

Abu Sayyaf began with small attacks but soon graduated to large assaults as well as the kidnapping and murder of foreigners. The group's first large-scale action was a raid on the town of Ipil in Mindanao in April 1995. In 1997, the U.S. State Department designated Abu Sayyaf as a "foreign terrorist organization".

According to the U.S.-based National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, the group largely finances itself through ransom and extortion.

In August 2006, local officials said they had found a stockpile of bombs at an Abu Sayyaf hideout in Jolo that were very similar to bombs made by an engineer working in Indonesia for Jemaah Islamiah.

Since then, thousands of troops have been trying to flush the rebels out of Jolo, and many of the group's senior commanders have been captured or killed.

Because of traditional kinship and loyalty ties, many MNLF and MILF members maintain links with Abu Sayyaf. Ethnic and blood relations often transcend membership of any particular group.

Jemaah Islamiah

Founded around 1993, the goal of JI is the creation of an Islamic "super-state" spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, the southern Philippines, southern Thailand, Singapore and Brunei. Forging international links with groups such as al Qaeda, it carried out deadly attacks on Western targets in Indonesia, including the 2004 Australian embassy blast and the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people.

JI's structure and membership remain murky, but it is one of Southeast Asia's largest jihadist organisations. JI's mainstream appears to have backed away from violence, but some remain committed to attacks.

Communist insurgencyBack to top

Aside from the long-running conflict between the government and the Muslim minority in the south, more than 40,000 people have been killed in a communist rebellion across the Philippines that began more than 46 years ago.

The New People's Army (NPA) was formed in 1969 as the military wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines, Marxist-Leninist (CPP-ML).

The revolutionary Maoist group grew to number some 25,000 fighters in the mid-1980s, driven by a radical anti-U.S. and communist agenda, with the aim of liberating the working masses by overthrowing the government and redistributing wealth.

In 1992, the Philippine Congress repealed the 1957 Republic Act that had outlawed the CPP.

The NPA weakened amid purges towards the end of the 1990s.

The United States designated the NPA as a "foreign terrorist organization" in 2002.

The NPA's primary tactic is prolonged guerrilla warfare, combined with intimidation of foreign investors, extortion and targeted assassination of Filipino citizens who oppose the group.

Confrontations between the armed forces and the NPA periodically displace thousands of people.

Peace talks, brokered by Norway, stalled in 2004 when Manila refused to help persuade the United States and some Western European states to remove the NPA from terrorism blacklists.

The army said the number of NPA attacks in mining and logging areas on Mindanao rose after August 2008, when the government stepped up its fight against Muslim rebels in the same region.

The NPA and the Philippine government resumed peace talks in 2011, with Norway as mediator, but attacks continue.

Child soldiersBack to top

According to a 2008 report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, there were reports of children being used by NPA, MILF, Abu Sayyaf and MNLF, as well as government-linked paramilitaries. There were none reported in government forces.

The children recruited were mainly from impoverished, rural families.

In 2014, the military said three child soldiers recruited by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) had been killed in an offensive by government forces. The BIFF is a splinter faction of MILF.

U.S.-backed crackdownsBack to top

In 1992, the Philippines evicted U.S. forces from their biggest base in the Pacific. Two decades later, the Philippines and the United States are trying to expand the American military presence in the island nation.

Since 2002, an average of 600 U.S. special forces have been deployed almost permanently in Mindanao to help train and advise local soldiers fighting Islamic militants.

Another 4,000 U.S. soldiers take part in annual war games on the main island of Luzon. The frequency of U.S. warships making port calls has also increased since 2006.

After the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Arroyo became one of Asia's most vocal backers of former U.S. President George W. Bush's global "war on terror". In return, she received significant U.S. military support for her campaign against militants in Mindanao.

Reports of a leaked Pentagon document in 2003 pointed to a private agreement between the two governments, allowing U.S. special forces to engage in direct operations against Islamist groups on Basilan island.

Left-wing groups were outraged, given that the Philippine constitution forbids foreign troops from fighting on its soil.

In 2006, the United States and the Philippines agreed to forge a new security arrangement, setting up a joint panel called the Security Engagement Board. The accord expanded their security cooperation to cover piracy, terrorism, disasters and diseases.

Backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. funding, the Armed Forces of the Philippines launched large military crackdowns against Abu Sayyaf and other fugitive militants, employing aerial and artillery attacks.

The raids caused thousands to flee their homes and infuriated the MILF and MNLF. Clashes occurred between the government and both groups, as did fighting with the communist NPA.

DisplacementBack to top

Violence in Mindanao has displaced 3.5 million people since 2000, IDMC said. In 2013, more than 325,000 people were displaced by conflict and violence.

Natural disasters have also forced hundreds of thousands in Mindanao to leave their homes.

Severe flooding in 2011 displaced nearly 1 million people between June and September, half of them in Maguindanao province. A few months later in December, tropical storm Washi displaced 220,000 people in northern Mindanao. Some of those displaced by these natural disasters had already been displaced by conflict or clan violence, IDMC said.

In December 2012, Typhoon Bopha struck Mindanao, forcing more than a million of the 6.2 million people impacted to evacuate. The storm destroyed or damaged more than 235,000 homes, IDMC said.

Development challengesBack to top

Decades of under-investment, large-scale corruption and a constant cycle of violence have impoverished parts of Mindanao.

Poverty levels in its war-torn areas are much higher than the national average – even though the region is rich in minerals, oil and natural gas.

The Liguasan Marsh straddling Maguindanao and two other provinces is believed to hold natural gas reserves worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), set up in the late 1980s, has been a disaster, experts say. It is "a dysfunctional system of governance that empowers despotic warlords and permits criminals and extremists to wreak havoc in the Philippines and beyond," Bryony Lau, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote in October 2012.

Under the October 2012 peace deal, the ARMM structure is being dissolved and replaced by the autonomous Bangsamoro region with its own government. The peace deal also envisages a Bangsamoro police force, the reduction and control of firearms, and dismantling of private armies.

LinksBack to top

ReliefWeb provides aid agency assessments and maps.

The Human Security Gateway is a good place to browse for reports on the conflict and peace moves. Sources include think tanks, human rights groups, academics and campaign groups.

The United States Institute of Peace has interesting reports on peacebuilding initiatives.

Belgian-based think tank International Crisis Group also produces useful reports on the conflict.

Sources on human rights include the Asian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Mindanao has a couple of news sites of its own: Mindanews, which is published by a journalists' cooperative and has an archive including stories on fighting and displacement and the Mindanao Times.

The Mindanao Blog is run by an American who is married to a Filipino and lives in Mindanao.

National papers include the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Manila Times.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre offers general background as well as reports on the plight of people uprooted by the conflict and humanitarian access.

The International Committee of the Red Cross describes how it is helping people displaced by fighting. The Philippines Red Cross also runs operations for displaced people in Mindanao.

It's worth checking on USAID's projects in Mindanao.

To access local non governmental organisations try the Caucasus of Development NGO Networks, which keeps a contact list.

The Mindanao Development Authority outlines local development projects.

TimelineBack to top

13th century - Settlements of foreign Muslims and local Islamic communities flourish on Sulu island

1450 - First sultan of Sulu comes to power

1515 - Sharif Kabunsuan arrives in Mindanao and later founds Maguindanao sultanate

1565 - Arrival of General Legaspi marks the beginning of three centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines

1898 - Spain relinquishes the Philippines to the United States

1946 - Philippine independence

1965 - Ferdinand Marcos comes to power, winning a huge election victory over President Diosdado Macapagal

1968 - Political organisations wage campaigns for the recognition of the rights of Philippine Muslims, or Moros.

Late 1960s - Nur Misuari, a university professor, forms the Mindanao Independence Movement, a Muslim advocacy group

1969 - A military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Marxist-Leninist (CPP-ML) - the New People's Army - is formed, and starts fighting for a Marxist state

1972 - Misuari transforms his group into an armed rebel organisation, changing its name to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), to fight for an independent Muslim state in the south

Marcos declares martial law. Simmering communal conflict in the south becomes civil war

1974 - MNLF gains observer status at the Kuala Lumpur meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Malaysia allows the group to set up training sites in Sabah on Borneo's northern tip

1975 - OIC recognises the MNLF as the representative of Philippine Muslims. Marcos starts peace negotiations and lobbies OIC members

1976 - Government and MNLF sign Tripoli Agreement, calling for autonomy in 13 provinces and nine cities. After disagreements, Marcos unilaterally implements Tripoli Agreement, setting up two autonomous regions in south. MNLF refuses to recognise them

1978 - Senior MNLF member, Salamat Hashim, breaks away from Misuari, taking most of the Maguindanao-based MNLF with him

1984 - Hashim forms Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)


Feb - Marcos is removed by "people-power" revolution. Corazon Aquino, wife of an assassinated opposition senator, installed as president. Aquino launches "total war" against NPA, which lasts until 1991, displacing 1.2 million

Early 1990s - Emergence of Abu Sayyaf, another MNLF breakaway group, led by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. It says its aim of an independent religious Islamic state in the south can only be achieved through force

1991 - Abu Sayyaf begins four-year wave of small-scale bombings and kidnappings

1992 - Fidel Ramos, a former army chief-of-staff and national defence secretary, elected president

1995 - Abu Sayyaf's first big assault, in Ipil, a Christian town in Mindanao

1996 - Ramos and MNLF finally settle all questions about implementation of Tripoli Agreement. Ramos then begins talks with the MILF, which drops its demand for an autonomous state

1998 - Joseph Estrada elected president. Leader of Abu Sayyaf killed, and his younger brother succeeds him

Mar - Estrada declares "all-out war" policy aimed at dismantling MILF camps. Army overruns 47 camps. MILF declares jihad against government. Nearly 1 million people displaced

Abu Sayyaf kidnaps 58 people from a Basilan school and gains international attention by abducting a group including foreign tourists from a Malaysian diving resort in April


Jan - Estrada ousted in a "people's revolution" and replaced by his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal. She declares a unilateral ceasefire and initiates peace talks with MILF

May - Abu Sayyaf kidnaps three U.S. citizens and 17 Filipinos from resort in Palawan

July - 2001 Tripoli Agreement sets framework for negotiations

2002 - U.S. military starts deploying commando teams on Basilan and in Zamboanga to train local units fighting Abu Sayyaf


Feb - War breaks out as government troops take control of MILF headquarters in Buliok, Maguindanao, displacing up to half a million people

Mar-Apr - Bombings at Davao International Aiport and Sasa wharf kill 38

July - MILF leader Salamat Hashim dies and is succeeded by Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim. Peace is agreed. Most displaced return home


Feb - Abu Sayyaf claims responsibility for bombing the Superferry 14 in Manila Bay, which kills at least 100 passengers

Aug - Peace talks with NPA come to standstill after government refuses to help persuade U.S. and Europe to remove NPA from terrorism blacklists


Jan - Government launches months of attacks in MNLF territory in Mindanao, aimed at hunting down Abu Sayyaf. It also clashes with NPA, MNLF and MILF. 160,000 displaced

Feb - Abu Sayyaf kills 12 people in blasts in Manila's financial district and two cities in Mindanao. Government launches military crackdown in Sulu. Fighting between MNLF and government puts 1996 peace deal at risk. 85,000 people displaced

Sep - Government agrees to resume formal peace talks with NPA

Oct - NPA guerrilla activity increases

Nov - Government offensive in Sulu displaces 10,000


Jan - Clashes in Mamasapano, Manguindana, displace 32,000

April - NPA attacks an Australian-controlled copper and gold mining company in the north and raids two local firms in Mindanao

May - NPA vows to step up attacks on mining firms in northern Kalinga mountains

Aug - Troops launch attacks against Abu Sayyaf hideouts on Jolo island


Jan - Army kills senior Abu Sayyaf figure, Abu Sulaiman. Also confirms death of the chief of the rebel group, Khaddafy Janjalani, who had $5 mln U.S. bounty on his head

Feb - U.N. investigation says extra-judicial killings are distressingly high and military appears to be responsible for some of them

Mar - MILF chairman says government has offered Muslims in the south the right of self-determination

May - Government crackdown against MNLF uproots 40,000 civilians on Jolo. Parliamentary and local elections. Jailed MNLF leader Misuari loses bid for Sulu governorship

Jul - MILF kills 14 marines on Basilan island. Philippines asks Malaysia to investigate the attack, which threatens to break 2003 truce

Aug - Government crackdown against MILF uproots 7,000 civilians in Basilan

Nov - Government and MILF agree basis of what some see as landmark peace settlement

Dec - Talks with MILF end without agreement. MILF and MNLF sign cooperation agreement. Army launch fresh offensives against Abu Sayyaf in Basilan


Jan - NPA rejects government offer for ceasefire

Jul - Government says has reached agreement with MILF on expansion of Muslim autonomous region in the south

Aug - Supreme Court suspends signing of MILF peace deal following protests from southern Catholic politicians who say they weren't consulted. Fighting escalates between government forces and MILF. Manila scraps deal

Sep - Manila calls off talks with MILF

Nov - Malaysia pulls out its last peace monitors from south

Dec - Government peace talks with NPA break down


Jan - Abu Sayyaf faction kidnap three ICRC workers on Jolo island

Mar - Kidnappers demand withdrawal of troops from Jolo. Fighting between MILF and government forces continue in Mindanao

Apr - Two ICRC hostages freed unharmed

May - Local U.N. official says concerned about thousands of civilians forced to flee military offensive against MILF in Mindanao. Fighting between army and NPA continues, as do army clashes with Abu Sayyaf

Jul - Government and MILF sign a truce

Aug - Amnesty International report lists rights abuses by military and MILF, says over 200,000 displaced

Sep - MILF and government sign a framework agreement, appointing International Contact Group to moderate planned talks. Group includes the Organisation of Islamic Conference, EU, and NGOs

Oct - Clashes continue in Jolo between government and Abu Sayyaf and MNLF forces

Nov - A group of politicians, supporters and journalists massacred by gunmen in Maguindanao province, Mindanao

Dec - Formal peace talks with MILF resume for first time since Aug 2008


Feb - Abu Sayyaf leader Mujibar Alih Amon is captured

May - Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino wins presidential elections. MILF and MNLF sign agreement on closer coordination. Clashes with NPA escalate

Aug - Fighting between two MILF commanders displaces 5,000 people

Oct - Government appoints panel to negotiate with NPA, and say peace talks not conditional on rebels agreeing to ceasefire


Feb – Government and NPA hold first negotiations since 2004

Jun – Severe flooding between June and Sept displaces nearly 1 million people in Mindanao

Dec - Tropical storm Washi displaces 220,000 people in northern Mindanao


Oct – Government and MILF sign a peace deal, ending the 40-year conflict. The plan includes the establishment of autonomous Bangsamoro region to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao by 2016


Sep - About 75,000 people flee fighting between the army and MNLF rebels in southern city of Zamboanga

Nov - Typhoon Haiyan strikes central Philippines, affecting more than 4 million people


Mar - The government signs a peace deal with MILF, ending a decades-long conflict

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