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By Lisa Navarrette

The Philippines is comprised of over 7,000 islands, making governance a challenge. The Filipino people hail from hundreds of different tribes, each with unique languages, customs, and religions. The peoples are divided and collectively known as Christians, Muslims, or Lumads (indigenous tribes with their own religions).

Historical records show that Islam entered the lower islands during the 13th century. These areas were self-governed as sultanates, with Islamic ideals and indigenous statecraft being well established.[1] Spain, seeking riches in the wealthy epicenter of the southeast spice trade, took control of the islands as a colony in the 16th century. They took not only governmental control but also religious control. They converted the population to Roman Catholicism, as they had in Latin America. However, the sultanates were well established with wealth and weaponry and fiercely opposed the Spanish military forces for the entirety of the Spanish colonization period of 300 years.

When the United States acquired the country from Spain in 1898 under the Treaty of Paris. The sultanates opposed were included in the treaty as they viewed themselves as autonomous governments. Fighting ensued. In 1913, the U.S. succeeded in bringing Mindanao and Sulu in as part of the American-Philippine colony. The American government created a homestead policy that encouraged northern Christian land tenants and sharecroppers to move south to Mindanao. This, they hoped, would solve two problems: 1) make the southern country more diverse and 2) curb the communist insurgency that the poverty of the north was fueling. The policy failed because the Muslim southerners reacted with violence against both the government and their Christian neighbors. It also failed to halt the communist insurgency.

Disgruntled Muslim residents formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In the 1960s, they rebelled against the American government. The fighting continued after the end of American colonization. Thousands of Christians were displaced and murdered in the rebellion. Like many rebellions, the MNLF sought equality. They cited grievances of inequality between Muslims and Christians, with Christians being favored. They wanted more access and control over economic development and resources on the island and the return of lands from those moving from the north.

When innocent lives are taken, it is the government’s job to protect the people. President Marcos met the rebels with a heavy-handed military response. This inadvertently strengthened the MNLF’s membership numbers and resolve. The pervasive belief of both politicians and scholars was that the Muslim rebels only wished to reclaim their autonomy and ancestral lands. With these, they thought, the violence would end.

In 1976, Libya intervened, and the Tripoli Agreement between the Philippine Government and the MNLF was established. It gave political autonomy to four provinces of the southern region. However, these new governments were weak. Many Muslim rebels did not agree with the terms of the new agreement. They rejected the original MNLF and created factions. The newly established Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the MNLF Reformists began to target their former members. For the first time, the violence was not only against non-Muslim residents and the government but now included Muslim-on-Muslim violence. Again, the Tripoli Agreement failed to meet its objectives, and the violence continued.

In 1986, seeing that the Tripoli Agreement was not enough to end the violence, the country adopted a new Constitution recognizing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The four included provinces established weak and ill-founded governments which were no match for the violence. In 1992 and 1996, new agreements under President Ramos were reached to establish zones of peace and development. It allowed MNLF fighters to join the Philippine Army and police or receive provisions for socio-economic, cultural, and educational assistance. The national government helped to establish a functioning government with a legislative assembly and administration to oversee the provinces. It allowed for Sharia law and representation in the national government. Muslim schools were established in accordance with Islamic tradition. Politicians and scholars hailed this agreement as being a champion of culture and inclusion. Everyone agreed that, finally, the violence would end. Then the long-standing leader of the MNLF attacked the national army after he failed to be re-elected. The fighting resumed once again.

With each subsequent President, new treaties, agreements, and concessions were given to the southern provinces, and still, the violence ensued. In 2014, a “final” peace agreement was reached, which was supposed to end the violence once and for all. As recent events show, violence still rages on the island today, and Christians are often the targets.

The Islamic State entered the Philippines in 2014, and now these Muslim Filipino terrorists are connected to ISIS, ISIL, and the Abu Shayyaf Group. These international terror networks provide funding and training. The Philippines has been called a terrorist breeding ground by the National Security Agency because of the enormous numbers of “home-grown” terrorists it has produced.  They attack not only the Philippines but surrounding Southeast Asian countries as well. The government has an ongoing struggle to maintain order against terrorist groups. “The Philippines is not a safe haven of terrorists. We do not breed terrorists. Rather we protect our citizens from them in order for our citizens to live in a peaceful and orderly society,” said armed forces spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar in a recent interview.”[2]

Filipino are not the only ones at risk. Anyone visiting the Philippines, including Americans, is at risk for kidnapping, rape, forced conversion, and even death, as seen in the 2000 kidnappings at Dos Palmas. Terrorists seized Marawi city in 2017. The siege took five months for the Philippine army to put down. This one event displaced 400,000 people.[3]

The centuries-long struggle against colonial rule has morphed into terrorism. The initial reasons for resistance are barely recognizable in today’s Mindanao. The struggle is no longer about ancestral lands and cultural identity but as a means for extremists to terrorize peaceful people.


Lisa Navarrette has studied at both Roosevelt and Harvard Universities and is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Law & Policy at Liberty University. She writes for several human rights organizations and hopes her writing will have an impact on securing justice and human rights for all people.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.


[1] https://www.niu.edu/clas/cseas/_pdf/lesson-plans/topical-overviews/mindanao-peace.pdf

[2] https://www.ucanews.com/news/hundreds-flee-as-philippine-army-fights-communists/99023

[3] https://www.acaps.org/country/philippines/crisis/mindanao-conflict