Peace In Mindanao: An Elusive Dream?

by Joseph G. Lariosa

You do not fight fire with gasoline.”

— Author Unknown

CHICAGO (JGL) – Despite the hawkish advocacy of my friend, former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph E. Estrada, to go after the traitorous members of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) and BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) who could be accused of committing war crimes for taking no prisoners of the fallen 44 Special Action Forces members of the Philippine National Police, I would like to tell him to think ten, if not hundred times before the military should blow these rebels into pieces.

Rebels fighting for justice are like the mythical hydra, a nine-headed giant that whenever Hercules cuts off one head, two grew in its place.

Estrada might have succeeded in his “all-out-war” against the MILF and captured its headquarters and other camps during his short, uneventful stint as Commander-in-Chief but after his administration, the rebels made a comeback with vengeance.

Even his predecessor, former military General-turned President Fidel Ramos had publicly acknowledged that he was able to drive away the rebels during his six-year term that set the stage for the Tripoli peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front led by Nur Misuari, yet another new rebel group would later turn up in the guise of the MILF.

When President Noynoy Aquino took power, he would have wanted to sign peace agreements with the MILF, MNLF, the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) as his legacies.

Aquino smoked peace pipe with MILF in exchange of the passage of Bangsamoro Basic Law, which could give Muslim minorities some semblance of autonomy.


I totally support President Aquino on this initiative. But he must go back to history – Philippine history – which will explain why peace in Mindanao is an elusive dream.

History tells us that Muslim religion predates Christianity in the Philippines by nearly century and a half in 1380 to be exact when Karim ul’ Makhdum, the first Arabian trader reached the Sulu Archipelago and Jolo in the Philippines and through trade throughout the island established Islam in the country.

So, when the Spaniards tried to Christianize the Muslims in Mindanao, there was a resistance because it was like encroaching on its territory and natural resources.

When the Americans took over from Spain, the Americans formalized the colonization of Muslim Mindanao by introducing new laws on land ownership:

*  Public Act 718, issued on April 4, 1903, voided all property and acreage of Mindanao sultans unless these pieces of property had been recognized as the sultanates by the colonial government.

*   Public Act 926, issued on October 7, 1903, declared all unregistered land tracts as public domain and open for homestead. And

*   Public Land Act of 1919, appropriated a maximum of 10 hectares in homestead lots to Muslim Filipinos, and 24 hectares lots to non-Muslim Filipinos, who came from Luzon and Visayas.

No wonder conflicts and rebellion have continued in the Philippines from the pre-colonial period up to the present.

And one of the outstanding valid issues with the Moro secession is the territorial claim of Malaysia’s eastern Sabah by the Sultanate of Sulu.

Unless the land distribution of Muslim land is resolved and the Philippine government pledges to support the Sultanate of Sulu claim to Sabah before the United Nations, it will be very hard for peace to reign in Mindanao.

Because only a government has a legal standing in the UN if someone wants to file a claim, the Sultan of Sulu will only be voice in the wilderness in the UN if it does it alone.

It simply means that Palawan and other provinces abutting the Western Philippine Seas have no standing to oppose China’s claims to the nearby islands. These provinces will need the Philippine government to represent them before UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) as it is doing now.


The problem with President Aquino was his own undoing when he asked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak become a principal witness to the peace agreement between the Philippine government and MILF. Because Aquino had asked Razak to be part of the solution to troubled Mindanao, he will now be hamstrung in supporting the Sultan of Sulu to pursue the Sabah, which Razak is not going to easily give up.

Aquino should have instead asked the President of Indonesia as a principal witness in the peace agreement had he considered the pursuit of the Sabah claim in his decision  before inviting Razak. By getting a “non-interested” or “neutral party” in the President of Indonesia, Mr. Aquino would have still given himself a window of opportunity to claim Sabah and endear himself to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, who could be instrumental in finally bringing peace in Mindanao. MNLF’s Nur Misuari, who was accused of misuse of funds following the peace agreement, is in favor of the Sabah claim. Thus, giving Mr. Aquino an option to set his sights on CPP, NPA and NDF peace agreements if he had sewn up the peace agreements with MILF and MNLF.

The President of Indonesia would have been a perfect principal witness to the peace agreement because in 2002, Indonesia and Malaysia locked horns over ownership of the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan before the International Court of Justice. Malaysia won in the dispute although both parties (Indonesia and Malaysia) “have no ‘treaty-based title’” to the islands. The owner of the “treaty-based title”? The Sultan of Sulu, but of course!

Malaysia only won because of its “effectivities” occupation of the islands.

If and when the next President in 2016 pursues the Sabah claim, it will be a walk in the park for the Sultan of Sulu claimants because the British government has no basis to its claim to Sabah or North Borneo.

All the Philippines has to do is to use the evidence presented by Malaysian in its claim over the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan – the copies of the Lease Agreement of the Sultan of Sulu with Overbeck and the 1907 Exchange of Notes and the Jan. 2, 1930 Convention that ICJ had already ruled did not cause the transfer of sovereign rights from Spain to Great Britain. Malaysia would have the burden of overturning this set of evidence.

The only remaining issue that would be left? Who are the legitimate heirs to the Sultan of Sulu!


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