Friday, September 28, 2007

Understanding the Mindanao Conflict (A Kasarinlan Review)

Patricio P. Diaz. Understanding the Mindanao Conflict. Davao City: MindaNews Publications, 2003. 383pp.

First published in Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies 19, 1 (2004): 246-249.

Optimism created by the signing of the peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996 appears to have been dissipated by the all-out-war policy of succeeding governments after the Ramos administration. Thus leading scholars conclude that “despite gains made in 1996, the situation in southern Philippines remains unstable” (May 2001). Peace remains elusive in the South, exemplified by the Camp Abubakar military offensives in 2000 and Pikit war in 2003, and the continued lack of breakthrough in peace negotiations beyond ceasefire. Despite the many agreements signed between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from 2001 to 2003, war remains an option.

The above developments serve as the backdrop of Patricio Diaz’s Understanding the Mindanao Conflict. Devoid of any academic jargons, the book chronicles the author’s critical assessment of the Mindanao conflict as a journalist and as a Mindanao settler since the last years of the American colonial era. The author acknowledges that it is not a scholarly work. It only analyzes the root causes of the continuing Mindanao problem which escalated due to the failure of institutions and actors concerned.

Major texts of the book come from the written commentaries of the Diaz from 2000 to 2003 on topics such as the peace negotiations, issues of autonomy, the Buliok offensive in Pikit, the military, and various policies of government. Also included in the book are the author’s editorials from the Mindanao Cross and various speeches of Muslim leaders since the 1960s, explaining how the problem grew into a crisis in the 1970s. By taking the readers back where the problem started, these writings provide readers better understanding and perspective of events. There is an attempt to elucidate the essence of the Mindanao problem in a simple and easily-understood manner.

Diaz argued that even with the establishment of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), the problem degenerated into its present form because of the key actors’ failure to grasp the problem. Recurring ignorance, lack of sincerity, lost opportunities, squandered gains, and, most of all, lack of trust, goodwill and confidence between the government and the MILF caused the problem. For Diaz, the only path toward peace is for the government to pursue the road of reconciliation.

In Part I of the book, Diaz argued that the Muslim problem is just a part of the Mindanao problem—the former is sociocultural and the latter economic and political in nature. The Muslim problem stems from internal and external factors. Internal factors include social structure, culture, tradition and social inequity. Crucial to these is the poor leadership of the Muslim datus. External factors emanate from government policies and programs that contribute to the Muslims’ socioeconomic exclusion. The Mindanao problem is largely ascribed to biased national policies—settlement program leading to Muslims’ landlessness, SPCPD’s biases towards the rebels, and the lack of attention regarding the needs and demands of Muslim communities.

Both internal and external sources of agitation should be addressed not just by government, but also by Muslim leaders. Diaz does not attribute the problem solely to policy failure but also to the poor involvement of other actors. Ordinary Muslims are unable to cope with changes while their leaders fall into the patronage and appeasement traps. This is exacerbated by the absence of proper comprehension of the problem pointing out the tendency of many to see it as a sociocultural difference between Christians and Muslims. Thus, Part II of the book is devoted to quashing this myth, contending that the misunderstanding is between the Manila government and the Muslim leaders, and between Muslim leaders and the Muslim-Christian leaders.

The author then proceeded to criticize the lack of consistent government policies, resulting in their failure to address the root cause of the problem. Although the author commends Aquino and Ramos for their reconciliatory approach, Diaz criticized the Estrada and Arroyo governments for adopting an all-out-war policy. The policy resulted in hostilities in 1999, which was a clear violation of the 1997 ceasefire agreement; in the 2000 military offensive in MILF camps; and in the 2003 Pikit war. The section brings to the readers’ attention the need for an effective civilian control over the military. Yet Diaz repeatedly states that the root of the problem is landlessness.

Part III reiterates the neglect in the policies of the government from 2000 to 2003 contained in the author’s chronologically arranged commentaries. Diaz considers the events in 2000 and 2003 as mistakes committed by Estrada and Arroyo and only goes to show “how the Mindanao conflict has been misunderstood” by our leaders.

To illustrate the train of faulty steps made by government that took the issue to a crisis, Part IV contained editorial pieces of The Mindanao Cross and speeches containing anecdotes of Muslim leaders on certain events that led to the crisis in the 1970s. One would surmise that the author’s purpose in this part is to make the readers see for themselves what went wrong in the past. The story of the Muslims ended in tragedy because of neglect and misinterpretation of the root cause of the problem, which in turn led to continued socioeconomic, cultural, and political alienation of the Muslims. This part makes one relive the past while reading through the speeches of Muslim leaders that mirrored their sentiments—their continued landlessness and fear of displacement.

The transformation of the plea for reforms into calls for self-determination through armed struggle could have been prevented had the government made sincere efforts to address the Muslims’ grievances. The chapter also implicitly states that the Mindanao problem was not high in the agenda of past leaders until it became a thorn that refuses to be pulled out.

The last part reiterates what has been said in the first chapter but focuses on developments that took place in 2002. Here, Diaz shows how the government and the MILF lost confidence in each other, as each “engages in double talk” thereby putting “peace in Mindanao in a precarious balance.”

The author, while successful in his aim, failed to cite that a better understanding of the issue also needs better understanding of the politics in Manila. To some extent, policies in Mindanao seem to be driven by Manila politics—sometimes used as pawn for political ends. A beleaguered Estrada used the Camp Abubakar offensive in 2000 to improve his waning performance rating. Moreover, the problem in Mindanao is reminiscent of the peasant struggle for land and patrimony taken away during the colonial years, so persistent that it produced feelings of vulnerability that the only recourse is rebellion.

The author devoted a large part of the book to commentaries that appeared in MindaNews. Although the author acknowledges, in the first part, that the book is not academic, it creates the contrary impression by citing works of various scholars who have studied Mindanao. But in most parts, it is like reading a newspaper on a day-to-day basis, although the focus is on Mindanao. Most of the commentaries of the author touched on many crucial issues that could impinge on the peace negotiations (e.g., the development of the MILF camps in Liguasan Marsh, the MILF’s alleged terrorist links, among others). If not properly handled, these could potentially become sources of discontent and could even erode the road to peace in Mindanao.

The book is a testimony of the zenith of political frustration on how things in Mindanao have turned out with its author hinting great dissatisfaction. Anyone interested in the Mindanao problem should read this book. Its twin effect however is frustration on one hand, and greater appreciation of the plight of the Muslims, on the other.
—Maria Rowena Luz Layador, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines-Diliman.


May, RJ. 2001. Muslim Mindanao: Four years after the peace agreement. In Southeast Asian Affairs 2001, eds. Daljit Singh and Anthony L. Smith, 263-275. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


  1. the book is really good. we use it in our class. i study in UP Mindanao. after reading the book i reflected for a while and I realized that the book is true though some parts are biased for us Christians. but two thumbs up for the book. i think i'm just ethnocentric to think that the book is bias. Maybe, the truth really hurts.

  2. Bangsamoro juridical entity, anyone?

    Events in Mindanao indicate that the problem of peace in general has not been approached with a studied plan in mind – no ‘cognitive map’, no ‘blueprint’, no ‘frame of reference’. There continues to be a tug-of-war between the AFP/PNP and the MILF/MNLF to the extent that the future of the whole Mindanao hangs in the balance. Peace is presented to the viewing screen as being resolved by simple arithmetical solution. This means that the AFP/PNP, when it experienced heavy casualties, will just send additional contingent to Mindanao – more casualties, more troops.

    Fact is, the government has commercialized its exclusive, bounden, constitutional duty to protect the State against its enemies – by ‘subcontracting’ the entire job of running after Commander Umbra Kato and Commander Bravo via a P5 million reward for each of the top leaders of the apparently dreaded MILF. If we go by the more official pronouncement from the defense or military establishment, it is as if, the MILF leaders are ordinarily categorized as criminals with their crimes spelled out as murder, robbery, arson, et cetera. If they were so, why is it so hard for the government to bring them to the bar of justice?

    It is clear that Kato and Bravo are not your ordinary criminals or terrorists as our Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff want us believe. Thus, for bureaucrats to make a swelling understatement, oversimplification, or resort to this rather vicious reductionist arrogance – in the end – simply cannot provide soothing comfort to our people who become part of the collateral damage of this unstudied joint military and police action against the MILF. How many more innocent lives will be caught in the crossfire – Muslims and Christians alike? How many more lives – on both warring camps – will be expended for fighting an armed battle where not one single camp really wins?

    If the Supreme Court did not as much as issue a temporary restraining order to the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain forged between the GRP and the MILF in uncharacteristic secrecy that could have been paved the way for a Bangsamoro State, could events have followed a different configuration? If there had not been any sort of opposition to a so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity – under the ‘terms of reference’ set forth in the MOA – could the armed conflict – have scaled down to zero? There were to be two scenarios that never have to take place. The contemporary mood is against two apparent states in a deceivingly peaceful co-existence and it remains to be the only constitutional barrier against any attempt to a secession or dismemberment. By whatever political gameplan this attempt at an independent Mindanao must have been drawn, in the final analysis, the government failed to cut clean.

    Serious observers have taken an entirely different view on the matter. There is more than meets the eyes on this sad comeuppance in Mindanao – Lanao, Cotabato, Sarangani, wherever. There is a school of thought that says the whole scenario is part of a US plan in Southeast Asia to position itself against a possible increasing regional or global role of another country in that part of the geographical grid. True enough, US is always the world policeman that is willing to pay the price to set up strategic defense posts in every part of the globe as is euphemistically called – US military presence.

    On another, there is a prevailing worldview that this has been borne out of fear of the US against a JI-led pan-Islamic state spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines that is perceived to become a choke point through which oil imports from China, Hongkong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan will pass. Has if then become logical that US is taking a pre-emptive move if indeed this is part of a JI (Jemaah Islamiyah) plan especially so where it is said that this area contains some of the richest petroleum and mineral deposits in the world? If there is reason for US, as a major importer, to be threatened in the future of an oil embargo, then this kind of theory holds water.

    What probably adds insult to injury is the observation that the Chinese have strategic interests in the Spratlys that would make US jealous. After all, China is US’ next strategic enemy in the higher scheme of things. Where the Philippines will favor a China than a US, a lot of things can result in the diplomatic landscape that probably bears watching. There are indications that a China-RP trade relationship is being strengthened with new contracts with the Chinese. Be that as it may, this can have certain political implications in the future. In the meantime, PGMA remains a nut hard enough to crack as one historian says.

    Is there really an oil game beyond the peripheral peace problem in Mindanao? Who stands to benefit in a given constitutional order legalizing a Bangsamoro state or that a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity finally secedes itself from the sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines? There appears to be a larger picture beyond what are presented as though isolated pockets of rebellion throughout the Mindanao peninsula. There seems to be a grand scheme of things thought out by the stronger societies in the international realm.

    Can RP just play pony to a Trojan Horse? What really is this war in Mindanao as it is happening now? Who amongst us are actually selling our sovereignty by a dubious independent Bangsamoro state? We hope the problem settles down soon with us better enlightened than what we just hear over radio, view from the TV, read from newspapers. The war in Mindanao is being made a convenient smokescreen for the real motives of either a China or a US over our territorial sovereignty. In the end, RP is under siege in the guise of a theatrical war game of sorts.

    UP Diliman, Quezon City Email:

  3. Anonymous5:12 PM

    where can you buy this book?

  4. As this book may not be available anymore in the usual commercial outlets, we can help you get in touch with the author himself. Email us at