MANILA, Philippines — On 27 March 2014, the government of the Philippines concluded a historic peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) separatist insurgency in the southern island of Mindanao. The island has seen one of the longest-running armed conflicts in Southeast Asia. Since the Spanish colonial era, the south Philippines has been recalcitrant towards the central power.
The Muslims of Mindanao are referred to as the “Bangsamoro” (bangsa meaning people/nation in Melayu, and moro meaning “moorish”), an exogenous label given to them by the colonizers. The group is in fact a collection of 13 or so ethnolinguistic groups inhabiting the island of Mindanao. Once the dominant religion on the island, centuries of Christianization, Hispanization, Americanization and finally centralization—aggressively carried out under Ferdinand Marcos—have decreased their presence to merely 25 percent of the island’s population.
Marginalized and dispossessed, it comes as hardly a surprise that five of the Philippines’ 13 poorest provinces are populated by Moros despite Muslims only making up 5 percent of the country’s population. In the Philippines, the overall percentage of families living in poverty sits at around 20 percent. However, in regions located within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) such as Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, the percentages go up to above 50 percent. It is thus inferable that the country’s Muslim minorities disproportionately bear the brunt of poverty.
The centuries-old conflict has also further engendered poverty. With destabilizing outbreaks of violence and displacement, Mindanao’s tattered economy is left teetering on the brink of an abyss. Violence and instability have brought Mindanao’s economy to its knees and have been warding off investments as the island remains underdeveloped. Many Moros make their living in the agricultural sector; many men become seasonally employed farm laborers and many Moros move to the Middle East in search of manual and domestic jobs.
The social impact of the urban and transnational migrations cannot be ignored. As parents and young adults move to the cities and to other countries, small children and the elderly are left in the villages. Malnourishment and child mortality in this part of the country is worryingly high. This figure is also concerning considering a 2008 report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers which states that many insurgent paramilitary groups are now deploying children from impoverished rural families. Furthermore, the climate of violence in general is harming the region’s children both physically and mentally.
Under the administration of President Fernando Marcos, which lasted from the mid 60s to the mid 80s, the tension between different Moro insurgency groups and Manila in Mindanao was at its fiercest. In recorded history, this conflict has killed about 150,000 people. Since 2000, more than 3 million people on the world’s eighth most populated island have been displaced. Any negotiation between Manila and the breakaway groups is made more difficult by the plurality of the latter. Furthermore, inter-clan conflicts known as “ridos” also create more displaced people and internal refugees. Over the past thee decades clan feuds have been the cause of more than 5,500 deaths.
Thus, with the signing of the peace agreement between Manila and MILF, many are hopeful that this pact will bring down violence and instability in Mindanao. However, there have been peace agreements before and many Moros still face violence on a regular basis and poverty remains rampant. The case of the Moro people of the Philippines is an archetypal example of a vicious cycle of poverty and violence. While poverty—although perhaps not exclusively so—increases the tendency in which people may gravitate towards the use of violence, the presence of violence itself also exacerbates poverty. Nevertheless, there are speculations that this time around things might be different; even prior to the signing of the peace agreement, companies are already trickling into ARMM.
Sources: Asian Correspondent, Seasite.niu, BusinessWorld, Philippines Department of Health, Index Mundi, Inquirer Mindanao, IRIN News, Philippines Statistics Authority, Thomas Reuters Foundation
Photo: The Feed