Muslims versus Roman Catholics

In this predominately Roman Catholic country of 76 million people, an Islamic insurgency has been taking place for more than a quarter of a century. The Muslim rebels in the island of Mindanao have been calling for the creation of an Independent Islamic state – a demand which the Philippine government has repeatedly rejected.

During the early 16th century, Mindanao was part of the Sultan of Sulu’s domain.  The native Filipino Muslims, who had been converted to the Islamic religion many years before, were under the rule of the Sultan and were a proud part of a kingdom which extended as far away as Manila and Pampanga on Luzon island more than 600 miles to the north.  When the Spaniards arrived in the mid 1500s, they attempted to colonize the native Filipinos (called Moros) and convert them to Christianity.  The Moros, however, fiercely resisted. Later in the 19th century with the demise of Spanish rule, the Americans arrived, again trying to enforce a way of life contrary to Filipino customs.  Finally, in 1945, the Philippine Islands became independent, and the island of Mindinao and its Muslim inhabitants became a part of the Republic of the Philippines along with the other 7099 scattered islands.  Muslims and Catholics co-existed more or less peacefully until the 1970s when an awakened Muslim minority in Mindinao led by a former professor, formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and begun to wage war against the government for what they called their “economic survival and their own rights”.

In the year 2000 alone, more than 250,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao have been displaced, when the government army attacked a 10 mile (6 kilometer) stretch of highway held by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which is the larger and more moderate of two rebel groups.  Additionally, at least 113 government soldiers have been killed and more than 470 others wounded during its latest offensive against the Muslim rebels.

As a consequence of this religious-based conflict and its resulting unstable political climate, the Philippines no longer ranks as a favorite investment area. Due to this unrest, investors who were seen as a boon to the economy, have been scared away.  Moreover, the hostage crisis in 2000/2001 in the southern islands where 20 hostages were taken by the Islamic rebel group, Abu Sayyef which reportedly has links to Usama bin Laden, has eroded the confidence of many tourists, and adversely affected the local stock market and peso/dollar exchange rates.  The Philippine President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered “all-out war” on Abu Sayyef in April of 2001.

It is estimated that the Philippine government spent nearly 30 million pesos a day (US$700,000) to carry on this war, which involved more than 80,000 troops.  In a country where one M-16 bullet costs as much as a kilo of rice, the cost of the conflict is felt deeply.

In early 2002, in the southern island of Jolo, a mostly Muslim area of about 500,000, which has long been the center of Muslim opposition to Manilla, being the base of both Abu Sayyaf and the MNLF, fighting between the Muslims and the Christian government forces continued with loss of life on both sides.

In April, 2002, the president of the Philippines ordered a state of emergency for the southern city of General Santos after it was devastated by a wave of bombings blamed on Abu Sayyaf where the worst of the blasts killed at least 14 people while 69 others were injured.  The scene was reminiscent of bombings in Manila 16 months earlier that killed 22 people.  Concurrently, in an action similar to that in Afghanistan, the US added about 1,000 more troops to its already bulging military there to train the Philippine military in counter terrorism tactics.

The Philippine government signed a peace agreement with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group in late March, 2014.

That agreement hopes to bring an end to 40 years of armed conflict in Mindanao that has killed at least 120,000 people and displaced more than two million.  Many who have died were considered the elite, the cream of the crop of the nation.

The agreement grants largely Muslim areas of the southern Mindanao region greater political autonomy in exchange for an end to armed rebellion, but it will not end all violence in a part of a country long plagued by lawlessness, poverty and Islamist insurgency.  Other insurgent groups have vowed to keep fighting against the Christian regime.  The region is also home to the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist network with international links that the Philippine army is fighting along with American support.  To date this agreement has not worked.

In fact experts believe the Islamic State is poised to attempt to create a caliphate in Southeast Asia.  For instance in the Philippine region of Mindanao, especially the city of Marawi, the Maute group, which stems from a violent Islamist movement called the Moro National Liberation Front had been quite active recently though recent, unconfirmed reports contend it has been, at least temporarily, neutralized in that area.

In fact, we have learned that as many as half of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants had fled because of the  violence imposed by this group.  The Moro Front have sought independence for decades with the hope of creating an independent Islamic state.  And, this group has pledged allegiance to ISIS.  Although the Philippines is a majority-Christian country, the region of Mindanao, where Marawi is situated, has a strong Muslim presence and has long been home to violent Islamist groups seeking to create an independent Islamic state.

We finally note that the influence of ISIS has spread throughout Southeast Asia in recent years, with more than 60 groups in the region pledging allegiance to the self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

We shall continue to watch these developments closely.

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