In December 2006 I had the chance to visit the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines. Mindanao and the surrounding islands rarely make the headlines except when some Western tourists are kidnapped. But Mindanao has been the scene of an ongoing conflict that has now lasted for more than 35 years, as the Muslim Bangsa Moro people have fought for self-determination. To date the conflict has claimed 120,000 lives, many of them civilians. More than a million people have been made homeless and destitute. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 refugees have taken refuge in neighbouring Sabah, Malaysia and many other have moved to Manila or other parts of the Philippines in search of security.
Independence fighters in Mindanao
The origins of the conflict go back a long way. The islands we now call the Philippines were colonized by Spain in the 16th century. But in fact the Spaniards just captured Manila and gradually extended their control over the northern island of Luzon. Over the next three hundred years they moved southwards, not without meeting considerable resistance: there were over 200 recorded uprisings during the Spanish colonial period. But they never conquered Mindanao beyond a few coastal settlements. The western part of Mindanao and the neighbouring islands were ruled by the Muslim sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao, the people being known as Moros. The rest of the island was inhabited by indigenous tribes. In 1896 the Philippines’ war of independence from Spain began. But it was impacted by the Spanish-American War of 1898. Initially presenting themselves as friends of the Filipinos, the Americans ended up by ‘buying” the Philippines from Spain for 20 million dollars, by the terms of the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. The resulting resistance by the Filipinos in Luzon was subdued at the cost of 600,000 dead, about a sixth of the population. The conquest of the other islands led to a similar proportion of casualties. No accurate count has ever been made, but it is reasonable to say that at least a million (out of a population of seven million at the time) Filipinos died in the course of the American conquest. The American General "Jake" Smith made no bones about what he wanted from his soldiers: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you burn and kill the better it will please me”. His colleague General Shafter expressed the same idea in a more philosophical vein: “It will perhaps be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order to enable the other half to attain a level of existence superior to their present semi-barbarous state”. If the Spanish had no right to sell the Philippines and the Americans no right to buy them, they had even less right as far as Mindanao was concerned, since Spain had never conquered it. In the whole of the Philippines resistance to the American occupation lasted for years after the upper-class leaders of the movement had sold out and made their peace with Uncle Joe. In Mindanao it lasted even longer, up until 1914. A high point of the American civilizing mission was reached in March 2 1906 with what is variously known as the First Battle of Bud Dajo or more accurately as the Moro Crater Massacre. Between 800 and 1000 Moros, armed with spears and swords, including many women and children, retreated into a volcanic crater on the island of Jolo, where they were attacked with modern weapons and artillery. When the battle was over there were only six survivors among the Moros. About twenty Americans died, out of a force of several hundred. By such methods were the Moros brought into the Philippine state - an American colony till 1946, then formally independent. They continued to be oppressed and discriminated against politically, economically and culturally. It is easy to understand that they fiercely maintained their own identity and their desire for freedom and it was only a question of time before this broke out...