The Islamic Insurgency in the Philippines Part 1
The story of the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines is the story of the gradual and partial reversion of Philippine territory, originally incorporated by the American wars against the Moros in the early 20th century, to its former state. Prior to the US pacification campaign against the Moros between 1899 and 1913 the Sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao and Buayan -- Muslim Mindanao -- were effectively independent from Spain. Although the Spaniards nominally claimed the entire extent of what is now called Palawan, Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, they did not exert effective control over it, anc could not have bequeathed it to a successor Filipino state. It was the Americans who accomplished that.
For the most part of the Philippines' history, the region and most of Mindanao has been a separate territory, which enabled it to develop its own culture and identity. The region has been the traditional homeland of Muslim Filipinos since the 15th century, even before the arrival of the Spanish who colonized most of the Philippines beginning 1565. Arab missionaries arrived in Tawi-Tawi in 1380 and started the conversion of the native population into Islam. In 1457, the Sultanate of Sulu was founded and not long after were the sultanates of Maguindanao and Buayan established. At the time when most of the Philippines was under Spanish rule, these sultanates maintained their independence and regularly challenged Spanish domination of the Philippines by conducting raids on Spanish coastal towns in the north and repulsing repeated Spanish incursions in their territory. It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century was Spanish sovereignty formally recognized by the Sultan of Sulu, however these areas remained loosely controlled by the Spanish as sovereignty was only limited to military stations and garrisons and pockets of civilian settlements in Zamboanga and Cotabato, until they had to abandon the region as a consequence of their defeat in the Spanish-American War.
However, the Spanish defeat at the hands of a America brought the Moros into contact with a new foe, one with vastly greater combat power than Spain. Charles Byer, writing in Military Review, takes up the story of how the United States gradually came into conflict with the southern Sultanates.
U.S. involvement in the region began shortly after the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain following the Spanish-American War. When U.S. soldiers first arrived in 1899, they began a period of military rule over a people few Americans knew much about. The Moros made up most of the population of the Sulu Archipelago and the southern half of the large island of Mindanao. ... Although the Moros belonged to 13 culturallinguistic groups, Islam gave them a sense of common identity and often set them at odds with their Christian Filipino neighbors. The Moros’ reputation as fierce fighters was well established before the U.S. Army’s arrival. Moro culture encouraged young men to be courageous, to develop their skills as warriors, and to defend their honor to the death. The Spanish had never achieved much more than nominal control over them, and Spanish soldiers had rarely ventured far from fortified seacoast towns.
Unlike American policymakers a hundred years later, the US colonial authorities had no intention of bringing self-rule or democracy to the Moros. With abundant models of European colonialism available for emulation, their goals were simple: divide and rule while standing off. Ironically this traditional colonial approach would come to be called "realism" in the early 21st century.
Preoccupied with defeating Filipino nationalists in the northern islands, the U.S. initially avoided any assertion of authority over the Moros that might spark resistance. Most of the functions of government continued to be carried out by the datus (local leaders), and traditional Moro laws remained in force. The Bates Agreement of 1899 gave the Sultan of Sulu governing authority in the Sulu Islands in exchange for his recognition of U.S. sovereignty. 3 The system of indirect American rule, modeled in part on the British experience in their Asian colonies, proved satisfactory in some respects. Fighting between the Moros and U.S. forces was rare. Over time, however, the colonizers became increasingly dissatisfied with the arrangement. The Moros continued to conduct raids against each other and against Christian Filipinos and, occasionally, attacked American surveying and road-building crews.
But the differences between the culture of Muslims and Christian indigenes soon gave rise to trouble. Of particular concern to Americans now aware of events in their new colony was the Muslim practice of catching slaves -- a subject that was still raw in an America not yet two generations from the Civil War. The stage was set for the open conflict between the US colonial authorities and the Moros. In the end the Moros would be defeated and their territory would be effectively incorporated in what later became the Republic of the Philippines. But after the Americans had gone with Philippine independence, the Moros would remember their lost sultanates and note, with a growing sense of opportunity, that the United States army had gone.
The practice of slavery among the Moros drew condemnation from critics in the United States, who denounced the Bates Agreement for permitting its continuation. American officers serving in the southern Philippines grew frustrated with the Sultan of Sulu and other Moro leaders and began agitating for direct U.S. rule. Determined to modernize the Philippines, these officers saw Moro leaders as hostile to the values Americans hoped to nurture and as being incapable of maintaining order. By 1903 the U.S. Government decided to bring the Moros under direct rule. The end of major fighting between the U.S. Army and Filipino nationalists meant more troops were available for the effort.
The US Army, drawing lessons from its Luzon campaign, was at first determined to win the hearts and minds of the Moros. They categorically told the Muslim elders that no attempts would be made to convert them to Christianity; that their customs would be respected. Local government was exercised through the Muslim elders, the "datus". William McKinley announced a policy of "benevolent assimilation" aimed at demonstrating it was the in the Moros self-interest to accept the new order. Roads, public markets and schools were established. Innoculations against disease were widely administered. An show of respect for Islam was emphasized. But despite these attempts, the conflict between America and the Moros was not long in coming.
Advocates of a harder line against the Moros gained a sympathetic ear when the first governor of Moro Province, Major General Leonard Wood, arrived in the Philippines. A close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and a former military governor of U.S.-occupied Cuba, Wood was a reformer by nature, and he soon decided there was much about the Moros that required reform. Under his direction, the province’s legislative council voted to abolish slavery, replace the Moro legal code with one closer to the U.S. model, and restore a Spanish-era tax known as the cedula on every adult male. Above all, Wood wanted to impose order on a Moro society he saw as lawless and chaotic.
For many inhabitants of the Visayas and Luzon, the words 'lawless' and 'chaos' were an understatement. The word was predatory. When the Spaniards arrived they found that the Visayan and Luzon coasts had long been harvested by Muslim pirates for slaves. In a book entitled Fortresses of Empire, a lavishly illustrated book showing the string of fortifications that dotted the Philippine coast, Jesuit Rene Javellana visualized a typical raid during the Spanish colonial era in dramatic terms.
A stiff southwesterly filled the sails of the garay, the Samal Balangingi warship. Sixty oars hit the waters in thym, manned by Visayan slaves bound by ropes to projecting platforms built on either side of the vessel. On board, warriors were armed to the teeth. The vessel was cutting ten knots, heading in a bee line for the Visayan coasts. Behind were smaller and lighter crafts, the salisipan. The flotilla was cruising in the pre-dawn darkness, ready to pounce on unsuspecting fishing communities along the rugged shores. The scene was no nightmare spawned in the dead of night but a real danger ...
The raiders were out of the Muslim south. "They were not one people but many peoples known in the historical records by different names: Balangingi, Camucones, Tausog, Samal, Maguindanao, Iranun, Maranao." For long years they had been gradually spreading over the region. "Tradition has it that the Maguindanao are ethnically related to the Manobo [upland tribesmen in the Mindanao] but were converted to Islam. Those who refused Islam moved to the mountains and became the mountain people we call today Manobo." There was a raiding track and season established, in part, by the prevailing winds, known as the amihan and the habagat. For example, "raids which originated from the Sultanate of Cotabato between 1755 and 1775 sailed west hugging the Zamboanga coast, passed by northern Mindanao and veered south to Caraga on the eastern coast before proceeding north to the Visayas, hitting the Islands of Leyte and Samar first." When the slavers struck they took the able bodied, leaving the old and infirm to shift for themselves. "The able bodied were brought to the slavers' lairs where captives from other settlements awaiting the long journey south whilethose who attempted to flee were clubbed and even killed if they resisted vigorously. Women and children were preferred because they commanded a higher price in the market. ... Stripped naked, a rattan collar was fastened around their necks ... the captives were forced to row the vessels. Anyone who died of exhaustion from the trip were summarily cast overboard." Slaves who proved their loyalty and converted to Islam were raised in status, often becoming raiders themselves.
The Spaniards of the day were psychologically and physically well adapted to resist. By a strange irony of history, the descendants of the Reconquistadores had sailed round the world to encounter the same Islamic enemy on the far side of the planet. Enterprising churchmen built watchtowers which they named after saints; they issued gunpowder and shot to their parishoners. They built forts and redoubts. Fortresses of Empire covers every type of military fortification and provides the photographs of their ruins today. One redoubtable friar went beyond defensive measures organized his own private navy and fought and won his own naval engagements; and one can only surmise how different the parish meetings of those muscular padres were to those we know today. Yet for all of their efforts, the Spanish efforts were largely defensive. But when America had finally turned its attention to Mindanao, the situation was different. Where Spain had a handful -- but a handful of iron men -- the United States had an Army. And the liberals at home provided the outrage to use it. The issue of slavery began to push America into confrontation with the Moros. Not for the last time would domestic political concerns force the US Army to intervene where it would not. If the Philippines was the precursor to Iraq, Mindanao was the precursor the Darfur. The US acted to stop the pirates and the match was lit. Byer continues.
Not surprisingly, Wood’s policies met with increased opposition. The elimination of slavery and the traditional legal code struck directly at the power of the datus, and some of them decided to take up arms against the Americans. Other Moros chose to resist for religious reasons. Despite assurances, they feared the Americans would eventually demand that they convert to Christianity. The cedula also created intense resentment among many Moros who saw compliance as a form of tribute to a non-Islamic government.
From a quiet beginning, an insurgency began to take shape. It included ambushes, raids and worst of all, suicide attacks.
The Moros’ armed resistance took several forms. Some Moros, especially on heavily forested Mindanao, practiced guerrilla warfare, raiding U.S. encampments for weapons and setting ambushes on jungle trails. The most unnerving form of Moro resistance was the juramentado, or suicide attack. A juramentado attacker would seek to reach paradise by slaying as many nonbelievers as possible before being killed himself. Such attacks were not common, but they occurred often enough to keep the Americans on edge.
But in an era that was far less politically correct, Leonard Wood's response to the Moro attacks was simply to call and raise. He smashed everyone who resisted and rewarded everyone who submitted. US forces "killed hundreds of Moros and burned their houses and crops. ... He and other officers expressed satisfaction with the results of these devastating campaigns. As a result of punishing one group of Moros, other groups that had been 'lukewarm and hostile' were inclined to submit to the Americans. Wood’s campaign effectively ended large-scale resistance by the Moros on Mindanao." A pacification campaign that began with "softly, softly" in the best British traditions; that emphasized "benevolent assimilation"; that gave the Moros local control became in the end a purely military operation of unrelenting savagery. Now on the run, the remaining Datus gathered their brave but desperate remnants at Bud Dajo volcano on the Island of Sulu. To Wood it simply made a lucrative target. At a cost of 15 KIA, he smashed them, killing 600 Moros, many of them women and children.
The ferocity of Army operations began to arouse opposition in the civil administration. Wood was replaced by Brigadier General Tasker Bliss who decided the policies of his predecessor had gone too far. He implemented the policy of raising indigenous military units, such as the Philippine Scouts and Philippine Constabulary in which Moros, as well as indigenous Christians were recruited. (If you want to see Gary Cooper and David Niven portraying US officers embedded with the Philippine Constabulary fighting the Juramentados, buy classic movie The Real Glory from your favorite video store) Fighting between US forces and the Moros gradually diminished, though it was acknowledged that much was due to the sheer military and terror effect of Wood's earlier campaigns. Then Bliss moved was replaced by the man history remembers as having broken the Moros: John J. Pershing. Ironically, Pershing began his tour of duty believing that Bliss had not been conciliatory enough, but Pershing also felt his predecessor had become to passive in his military posture, keeping the troops in garrison while leaving the outlands to the Moros. Pershing wanted to combine the hard and soft approaches: to foster a more positive attitude towards Americans while coming down hard on the bandidos, insurgents and desperados. "'We must branch out and let all the people in the Moro Province know there is a government which is looking after them and which proposes and intends to encourage and protect them.' To make the government’s presence more visible, Pershing divided his forces into smaller units and distributed them around the province." (Doesn't this sound like the "surge" security strategy for Iraq?) Pershing's first move was to implement a security plan for Mindanao by rounding up loose firearms. Other American commanders had feared to start this process, worried that it would touch off resistance. But Perhsing felt he could pull it off. He was wrong. It would be the match to set the situation ablaze. The fighting began and Pershing negotiated capitulation where he could.
In 1911, Pershing won that approval and announced a new law requiring Moros to surrender their firearms and forbidding them to carry edged weapons. Many Moros, for whom weapons were precious possessions, refused to give them up, and fighting broke out between them and the troops sent to enforce the order. In late 1911 about 800 Moros fled to the old battleground of Bud Dajo to make a stand. Pershing’s response to this development provides an illuminating contrast with that of Wood in the earlier episode on the mountain. The matter could be ended without bloodshed, Pershing maintained, if Americans were patient. He wrote, “It is not my purpose to make any grandstand play here and get a lot of soldiers killed and massacre a lot of Moros, including women and children.”21 Pershing succeeded in dispersing the Moros on Bud Dajo with few casualties. Acting swiftly before the Moros could gather provisions or construct cottas, his soldiers surrounded the mountain to cut the Moros off from their sources of supply. Cooperative Moro leaders convinced most of the people to leave the mountain and surrender their weapons. Only 12 Moros were killed—far fewer than the 600 lost 5 years previously.22
But to those who resisted, John J. Pershing proved he was every bit as ruthless as Leonard Wood. The name Bud Bagsak is still remembered today. If you did not surrender, you died.
Pershing’s handling of another case of strong resistance resulted in much more bloodshed, however. In 1913 thousands of Moros moved to the fortified crater of Bud Bagsak in eastern Jolo to defy the disarmament policy. Pershing worked diligently to negotiate the Moros’ departure, and many eventually left the mountain. However, a group of around 500 remained in their stronghold and refused to surrender their weapons. Unwilling to accept such open defiance and under pressure to end the insurgency, Pershing ordered an attack on Bud Bagsak that resulted in the deaths of almost all the Moros who were there, including as many as 50 women and children. The battle of Bud Bagsak was the last major case of Moro resistance to U.S. control. After 1913, civilians replaced Army officers in positions in the provincial government, and most U.S. soldiers withdrew. Fighting between Moros and government forces virtually ceased, in part because the disarmament policy had removed thousands of weapons from the province. Perhaps more important, the Moros became more supportive of U.S. rule as the prospects for independence for the Philippines increased; they realized that independence would probably mean their lands would fall under the control of the hated Christian Filipinos.
The crushing of the Sultans had created a vacuum in Mindanao. Not only did they lose its power to raid, the Moros lost the ability to keep the Christian indigenes out. In the aftermath of military defeat the Moros feared for their lands. And that fear was not misplaced. Into the newly pacified spaces of Mindanao poured a flood of settlers from Luzon and the Visayas. By the 1960s, most of "Muslim Mindanao" was no more. This map shows the extent of that loss; showing what the Sultanates had historically claimed (light yellow) compared to areas (red) in which they are a majority today.
From the Moro point of view, the events of 1899 and 1913 represented the end of their world. Into their former realm, in the wake of the Americanos, came the weak and despised inhabitants of Luzon and the Visayas to steal their land and destroy their culture.
After gaining political control, the American colonial government declared the entire archipelago as public land, including those considered by the Bangsa Moro as their ancestral homeland. They established foreign education, put up foreign government, brought in settlers from the North and started the exploitation of Mindanao's rich resources. Thus the beginning of the minoritization and marginalization of the Bangsa Moro. The impact of such colonial machination is still very much felt today.
Legally, the Bangsa Moro lost their lands because of the Torrens land titling system. They became acculturated due to the public school system which is foreign to their culture. The indigenous political system was replaced with a new system. Today, many of their territories are either controlled by elite settlers or by foreign multinational corporations.
After ensuring its continuous political control and economic interest in the Philippines, the Americans granted independence to the Philippines. Despite protest from the Moro leaders, Mindanao was annexed to the soon-to-be-independent Philippines. Thus, the most awaited transfer of power and reins of government to the Filipino elite.
While the Filipino elites of Luzon and Visayas joyfully celebrated what they considered to be the beginning of their freedom and independence and the birth of a new nation, the Bangsa Moro considered the event as the death of their own freedom, independence and long-held sovereignty.
The succeeding presidents of the Republic pursued the task of nation-building that integrated the non-Christians to the mainstream of Filipino culture. In so doing, they used the carrot-and-stick approach against the resisting indigenous people. They continued the scholarship program, the Torrens system, co-opted traditional leaders and brought in more settlers.
Historian Father Rene Javellana, SJ, writing in Mindanao, published by Bookmark Philippines (which is not available except in print) vividly describes the devastating effect of the American educational policy, legal reform and economic policy on the Moro nation. All these elements of national power, not simply military power, combined to shake the Moros to their roots.
With the establishment of the public school system in 1901, the American colonial government assigned to Cotabato not just the Thomasites but also Ilocano teachers trained in the Normal School in Manila. There in Cotabato many Ilocanos opted to stay after their tour of duty. These hardy teachers cleared the land, built irrgations and rice paddies and named their new settlements after familiar places: Aringay, New Abra, La Union, and even after a popular a popular magazine, Banawag ... But system migration did not occur until 1915 when great numbers migrated to Cotabato and Lanao del Sur under a government sponsored program ...
In the 1930s, during the incumbency of President Manuel Quezon ... Mindanao was the Philippine version of the frontier; the New World ...There in Mindanao (where square kilometers of land were classified as public domain, since the American colonial government established the Torrens Title in 1903) reformed members of the Communist Hukbalahap could find new life; each family with its own homestead to till and plant.
Historically, the modern Islamic insurgency in the Philippines can be understood as a reversion to a lower energy state by the Philippine Republic. It is the consequence of the gradual inability of the Philippine elite to keep hold of the territory that Wood, Bliss and Pershing had acquired on the Republic's behalf. The elites did not lack for avarice but they lacked in capability. Ruling class corruption and sheer incompetence had, by the 1970s made the Armed Forces of the Philippines vulnerable to challenge by the Moros once again. The legacy of the US Army and the memory of its force had finally faded. A young rebel Nur Misuari knew the time had come to strike and take back from Manila what his forbears had lost to Pershing; and his establishment of the Moro National Liberation Front customarily marks the start of the modern Islamic insurgency.
The mismatch between the ambitions of the Manila elite and their unwillingness to attain it through effort is at the heart of the current and stormy relationship between America and the Government of the Philippines. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo needs the 'descendants' of Pershing to help keep parts of her territory from gradually drifting away to the Moro nation. As such America is both needed and resented. Rather than meet the Moro challenge with through the path of reform and self-reliant military strength -- which would require giving up corruption and patronage -- the Philippine political system requires a source of help that does not require them to clean up their act. And the obvious source of that help was the superpower with which it had a one-time colonial relationship. The visiting forces agreement which permits American forces to provide combat support is an expedient to square the circle; an attempt by local politicians to obtain military effectiveness from external help instead of paying for it by clamping down on their own rackets. And with it comes the ultimate dilemma of "nationalists" without the means to sustain their nationalism; that the maintenance of sovereignty requires giving some of it up.
A reader writes to correct me on the proper use of "visiting forces agreement" versus "status of forces agreement", and I stand corrected and have changed the text to match above. The quotable part of the email is below.
In our post on GMA and LCPL Smith, you tended to use Status of Forces (SOFA) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) interchangeably. They are 2 completely separate animals. SOFA are in place between the US and the host nation when US forces are home based on foreign territory. We have SOFA with ROK, Japan, Germany, England, etc. The US and RP had a SOFA up until the bases at Subic and Clark were closed in the early 90s. The VFA is a relatively recent addition for protection of US forces not permanently stationed. In broad term, a SOFA offers US forces much greater latitude and protection from host nation prosecution (think recent rape case in Japan where the US actually had first right of refusal to prosecute the accused Marine but gave it to the GOJ). Under the VFA, the RP had the right of prosecution all along.