New chance to end Mindanao’s religious divisions

New chance to end Mindanao’s religious divisions

The Philippine government has an opportunity to rethink its approach before general elections in May to ending long-standing divisions on the southern island of Mindanao

Aboriginality on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao is distinguished between Lumad, a local dialect term meaning native or indigenous, and Moro, derived from the English word Moor and used by the Spanish during their colonial reign to refer disparagingly and collectively to Muslim natives.

From this polarisation has arisen the tri-people approach, which emphasises the existence of the three peoples—Christian, Moro and Lumad—which ‘have to share Mindanao, the ideal of their equality and unity, and Mindanao itself as the basis of a new or additional identity as Mindanaoan or Mindanawon’.

Mindanao’s present population comprises a Christian majority (about 72 per cent) descended from migrant settlers from Luzon and the Visayas; the Moro or Muslim minority (20 per cent) comprising 13 ethnolinguistic subgroups; and the Lumad minority (5 per cent) covering about 18 ethnic tribes.

Although this contemporary categorisation echoes the Spanish colonial classification of Mindanao natives into Christian, Moro and non-Christian (Lumads), the preservation of this archaic grouping remains the dominant issue of debate on the island.

Since 1989, a southern part of the island has been sectioned off as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, where Muslim Filipinos exercise their right to self-determination and an elected regional government enjoys limited political and administrative autonomy.

Peace accord

Last year, after years of negotiation to end armed rebellion in southern Mindanao, the Philippine government signed a peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The agreement seeks to supplant Mindanao’s existing regional framework through the enactment of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would endow a reorganised regional government with more powers and expand the borders of the segregated Moro territory.

Non-Muslim ethnic tribes in Mindanao, however, have expressed trepidation at being part of an expanded Moro territory and are now loudly demanding government response to their own issues such as the encroachment of mining companies on their traditional lands and the disruption of their way of life due to the militarisation of their communities. The reality is that Lumads still suffer on the fringes when it comes to development because state attention and resources seem to be directed primarily to the segregated Muslim area.

The fate of the legislation will now depend on who wins the presidential election in May and their influence over lawmakers when the new legislative session opens

The Bangsamoro campaign, fuelled by insistence on preserving the tri-people concept, has inadvertently promoted this divisive economic development strategy, which has failed to deliver the desired results for the Philippines’ poorest region. Mindanao’s biggest problem right now—power outages—does not discriminate among residents.

However, the Philippine Congress recently adjourned without passing the BBL. The fate of the legislation will now depend on who wins the presidential election in May and their influence over lawmakers when the new legislative session opens.

The adjournment of the Congress provides an opportunity to revisit the Mindanao development project, whose primary objective is still to bring economic progress to the region without excluding some sectors of the community.

A more direct path towards the achievement of this goal could begin by setting aside the tri-people concept—a course advocated in the Mindanao 2020 Peace and Development Framework Plan (2011–2030):

… the desired outcomes for Mindanao will not come from without—particularly not from the central government, the national capital nor the rest of the country—but will be achieved through the collective efforts of Mindanawons themselves, acting in unity and harmony.

This picture sees Mindanao both as a territory and a community of Filipinos, and better places planners to develop a comprehensive and coordinated economic development strategy that could help overcome the prevailing ‘us against them’ attitudes that have long fuelled the Muslim insurgency on Mindanao. It could also provide a more conducive atmosphere for reaching a settlement that is amenable to all parties. Mindanao would be treated simply as an island amalgamation of different ethnic groups, with aboriginality based strictly on indigeneity and without reference to any religious faith.

Religious freedom

Such an approach is also more consistent with the secular regime of the Philippines, which guarantees all religions the right to express their faith provided they do not violate state law and the constitution. More importantly, it emphasises that the state is not an arena for religions to compete for control, but is neutral ground where any faith can lay claim to its own space. Problems over the right to practise one’s religion automatically become a constitutional issue, with recourse through the courts.

With peace talks between the national government and the MILF being effectively reset in light of the fate of the BBL, public discussion on Mindanao’s development could be reopened through the initiative of the Mindanao Development Authority. Perhaps, this time, Mindanao’s political stakeholders could be steered away from the notion that the only viable option for peace and development is through geographical fragmentation along religious lines.

Although the Philippine Constitution calls for the creation of an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao, Filipino Muslims are not automatically bound by this local arrangement. This leaves open the opportunity to explore other political and governance measures that are more consistent with the goal of fostering unity and harmony among all of Mindanao’s inhabitants.

Circle of colour in Mindanao: fostering unity and harmony among all of Mindanao’s inhabitants. Flickr CC BY-NC-DC 2.0

Michael Henry Yusingco is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Metro Manila and a Fellow at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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