Illuminating Bangsamoro—Conflict in Mindanao and the Ongoing Peace Process

Security Politics Society

By the 19th century, the Moros had already established their own unique identity, viewing themselves as an independent nation-state distinct from the Christian Spanish and Filipinos up north.

By Uriel N. Galace

Mindanao is an island group located in the south of the Philippines. It is the country’s second biggest island, with a population of 24.1 million people.1 According to the official 2000 census, approximately 20.44% of the total population of Mindanao adheres to the religion of Islam, making it the only island in the predominantly Catholic country with a significant Muslim populace.A more recent estimate from a 2011 survey by the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos indicates that there are as many as 10.3 million Muslims in the country, comprising 11% of the total population.On the whole, 94% of the country’s Muslims live in Mindanao.4

Indigenous tribes occupied Mindanao long before any settlers arrived there. Historians believe that the Subanon people, an ethnic group native to the Zamboanga peninsula area, were already living on the island as early as 500 BC.In the 14th century, missionaries from Malaya and Borneo, islands comprising the modern state of Malaysia, arrived on the Simunul island of Tawi-Tawi and brought Islam to the region. The long histories of the Rajahnate of Butuan, Sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao, and Lanao, and lumad of the area distinguish this region historically, culturally, and technologically. When Spanish colonists later arrived in the northern part of the Philippine islands in the 16th century, they sought to extend their sovereignty to the country’s southern region; in doing so, they triggered a series of inter-religious conflicts as they attempted to Christianize a region where Islam had already established a foothold. The Spanish referred to the inhabitants of Mindanao as “Moros” (after the Moors that they had defeated in Spain) and constantly attempted to conquer them, though they never truly succeeded. By the 19th century, the Moros had already established their own unique identity, viewing themselves as an independent nation-state distinct from the Christian Spanish and Filipinos up north.6

Historians believe that the Subanon people, an ethnic group native to the Zamboanga peninsula area, were already living on the island as early as 500 BC...The long histories of the Rajahnate of Butuan, Sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao, and Lanao, and lumad of the area distinguish this region historically, culturally, and technologically.

Economically, Mindanao contributed 14.4% of the country’s GDP in 2014, outpacing even the Visayas’ 12.4%.Possessing "favorable agro-climatic conditions, fertile soils, large tracts of agricultural land, and extensive river systems, [t]he region contributes about 38% of the country’s farms and 60% of the country’s total agricultural exports,” according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).8All in all, Mindanao supplied 40% of the country’s total food requirements.Thus, it is widely regarded as the “food basket” of the Philippines.

Unfortunately, despite possessing an abundance of natural resources, Mindanao is plagued by rampant poverty and poor health. Around half of all Mindanaoans live below the official poverty line,10 and life expectancy is only 65 years (5 years shorter than the national average).11 The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), in particular, suffers from massive developmental issues, with only 30% of its population having access to clean water and 39% to sanitation.12 

The island suffers from poor educational attainment, with six out of ten provinces in Mindanao having the lowest high school completion rate in the country.13 As a result, with the exception of Basilan14, all of its provinces are in the bottom 10 of our country in the Human Development Index (HDI rankings), with a status similar to that of states in sub-Saharan Africa.15 Furthermore, these areas are plagued by recurrent humanitarian crises, with an estimated 220,000 people in Mindanao being displaced due to conflict since January 2015, nearly double the number from the previous year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).16 In total, 3.5 million people have been displaced since 2000, while tens of thousands of people have been killed.17

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)

The ARMM is the predecessor of the proposed Bangsamoro political entity. It was created on August 1, 1989 via Republic Act No. 6734 (known as the Organic Act) in compliance with a constitutional mandate to establish an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. Legally, this means that the regional government will be a first-class administrative division with the power to control the region’s culture and economy.18 The ARMM is composed of five majority Muslim provinces:

  1. Basilan (except Isabela City, which administratively belongs to the Zamboanga Peninsula region)
  2. Lanao del Sur
  3. Maguindanao
  4. Sulu
  5. Tawi-Tawi 

As an autonomous political entity, it is the only region in the Philippines that has its own government. Its capital is Cotabato City.

As of 2015, the ARMM has a population of 3,781,1387.19 Of this, Basilan’s population constitutes 9.16% with 346,579 people, Lanao del Sur 27.64% with 1,045,429 people, Maguindanao 31.04% with 1,173,933 people, Sulu 21.81% with 824,731 people, and Tawi-Tawi 10.33% with 390,715 people.20

The region is one of the most impoverished areas in the country. It had a real per capita GDP of only Php 14,607 in 2014 compared with Php 71,726 for the entire country, 79.6% lower than the national average.21 It also has the lowest real per capita GDP among all 17 of the country’s regions, with the 2nd poorest region, CARAGA, having more than double its total.22 As of the first semester of 2015, poverty incidence in the region was recorded as high as 59%, almost double the national average of 26.3%.23

Provided below is the breakdown of the poverty incidence by province (as of 2015):24



Magnitude of Poor Families




Lanao del Sur












Plagued by rampant poverty, poor health and education, intermittent conflict, and a widespread displacement of its population, the ARMM has been dubbed by Malacañang as a “failed experiment.”25

Ongoing peace process

The armed conflict in Mindanao, which has spanned 47 years, has been marked by an ongoing struggle between the national government and minority Muslim groups—indigenous, ethnic people collectively known as Moros.26 The latter seek self-determination and autonomy, while the former seeks to maintain its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This conflict has been exacerbated by the presence of break-away rebel groups, armed communist rebels, pan-Asian militant Islamist groups, mercenary kidnap groups, and clan militias.27 A partial list of the main groups involved in this conflict can be found at the end of this article.

According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this conflict is characterized by disputes “about land, marginalization, historical injustice, and [the] deterioration of living conditions.”28 These problems were fuelled by active insurgencies, first under the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), then later under the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke away from the former in 1984 when the signing of the 1976 MNFL-GRPH Tripoli Agreement created internal fissures within the MNLF leadership. Since then, peace negotiations between the government and the MILF have been marred by periods of intense conflict.

The government and separatist Muslim groups had agreed to peace agreements various times in the past, only for these to break down and for fighting to resume. However, with the ascendancy of Benigno Aquino III to the presidency, there was a renewed optimism that a lasting peace agreement would finally be achieved. With the signing of the landmark Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) on October 15, 2012, a path had been paved towards ending the nearly five-decade conflict in Mindanao. Under this framework agreement, a new political entity named Bangsamoro would be established to supersede the ARMM and govern the predominantly Muslim areas of Mindanao. In addition, this agreement “contained provisions on natural resource extraction and wealth sharing, fiscal autonomy, normalization, the deployment of a local police force, and the administration of Shari’ah law for Muslims,” according to Dean Tony La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government.29 However, defense, foreign policy, currency, and postal services are to remain under the jurisdiction of the central government in Manila.30

Despite the peace deal, a splinter group of the MILF known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM) has insisted that it will keep on fighting. Moreover, the peace agreement could also be compromised by traditional political clans—among whom are the Diamporos of Lanao del Norte and the Plazas of Agusan del Sur, who have ruled their respective areas since the 1950s—who see it as a danger to their hold over power.31 In fact, many of the recorded clashes in the region have occurred due to inter-clan rivalries between warring families. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “the presence of the army and so many armed factions often fans the fires of traditional family feuds, leading to clan-based violence in Mindanao. Both the army and rebel groups have been drawn on several occasions into clan confrontations.”32

Additionally, Mindanao is plagued by the presence of gangs known as "lost commands."33 These are former rebels who have broken away from their leaders to “exploit the lawless conditions in the Sulu Archipelago” by engaging in “kidnapping, extortion and the smuggling of arms and drugs,” according to Raymond Rañeses, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University.34 Two of the most notorious of these gangs are the Pentagon Gang and Abu Sofia.35

On March 27, 2014, the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) was signed, which explicated in greater detail the points agreed to in the FAB. This agreement, in addition to granting autonomy to the Bangsamoro region, also incorporates a wealth-sharing mechanism, wherein 75% of tax revenues from metals and 50% of revenues from gas and oil would go to the government in Bangsamoro, while the rest goes to the central government in Manila.36 In turn, the MILF would work to disarm other rebel groups like the Abu Sayyaf, which is against the peace deal, and merge its militia of 11,000 soldiers into the Philippine Army.37

Unfortunately, the implementation of the CAB has been delayed. Contentious attacks by politicians vehemently opposed to the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) have forestalled its passage in Congress. This polemical rhetoric was only exacerbated on January 25, 2015, when a violent clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao between the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP), the BIFM and the MILF, led to the deaths of 44 members of the SAF, 18 MILF, and 5 BIFF. This clash ignited a firestorm of negative sentiment towards the peace deal, prompting a number of high-profile lawmakers, including Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, to withdraw their support for the bill.

Where we are today

While the bill is a priority for the incoming Duterte administration, a number of congressmen have raised concerns regarding the constitutionality of certain provisions of the law. Moreover, a Pulse Asia survey conducted in March 2015 showed that 44% of Filipinos opposed the passage of the BBL, with only 21% supporting it.38 The remaining respondents were undecided. Notably, 62% of Mindanao residents in the same survey indicated their opposition to the bill.39 As it stands, it is unclear whether the BBL will ultimately be passed.

Should Congress approve the law, various steps will follow towards the creation of the Bangsamoro political entity, according to the Office of the Presidential Adviser to the Peace Process.40 First, a referendum will be held, which will determine the geographical scope of the Bangsamoro. Once the BBL has been ratified, the ARMM will be deemed abolished, and a Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA)—a de facto interim government—will be established to oversee the region’s transition to a new government. This regional government, unlike that of the national government, will adhere to a parliamentary system. Registered voters in the Bangsamoro parliamentary districts will vote for district and party representatives, who—along with members of indigenous groups with reserved and sectoral seats—will in turn select from among them a Chief Minister to head the government of Bangsamoro. A Wali, the Titular Head of the Bangsamoro,will also be chosen by the parliament, but will only take on ceremonial functions. The President of the Philippines will continue to exercise general supervision over the Bangsamoro government.

Key statistics

  • Mindanao population: 24.1 million
  • 20.44% or 4.39 million of Mindanaoans are Muslim
  • Muslim Filipinos number 10.3 million in total, comprising 11% of the total population
  • Mindanao contributed to 14.4% of the country’s GDP in 2014
  • Mindanao contributes 38% of the country’s farms and 60% of its total agricultural exports
  • Only 30% of the ARMM population has access to clean water and 39% to sanitation
  • 4 of 5 ARMM provinces are in the bottom 10 in the country in HDI
  • The life expectancy in Mindanao is only 60, 5 years below the national average
  • Total number of people displaced due to conflict since 2000: 3,500,000
  • ARMM population:  3,781,1387
  • ARMM GDP per capita: Php 14,607, 79.6% lower than the national average
  • ARMM poverty incidence: 59%, almost double the national average
  • Number of MILF Forces: 11,000 

Groups involved in conflict41

Muslim separatists

  1. Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)
  2. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
  3. Rajah Sulaiman Movement
  4. Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao
  5. Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)
  6. Jemaah Islamiyah
  7. Justice for Islamic Movement
  8. The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)

Note: The MILF, BIFF, and Abu Sayyaf are all breakaway factions of the MNLF.

Communist insurgents

  1. Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), backed by its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA)

Criminal Groups:

  1. Pentagon Gang
  2. Abu Sofia
  3. Suicide Bombers
  4. Diamond
  5. Dragon



Philippine Statistics Authority. 2015. Census And Housing Population.


National Statistics Office. 2000. Census And Housing Population.


National Commission on Muslim Filipinos. 2011. Survey Of Muslim Filipinos.


Bueza, Michael. 2015. "MAP: Islam In The Philippines". Rappler.


Subanon Territory. "The History of Subanen since the Neolithic Era or the Stone Age."


"Read All About The History Of Mindanao". 2013. The Land Of Promise.


Sara, Marifil. 2016. "Businessworld | Mindanao Share Of Philippine GDP Up At 14.4%". Business World Online.


"Project Document: Catalytic Support To The Operationalization Of The Framework Agreement On Bangsamoro." 2013. United Nations Development Programme.


"FAO In Mindanao". 2016. Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations. Accessed June 10.


"Project Document: Catalytic Support To The Operationalization Of The Framework Agreement On Bangsamoro." 2013. United Nations Development Programme.








United Nations Development Programme. 2013. "Human Development Index Highlights Inequality, Slow Pace Of Progress".


"Project Document: Catalytic Support To The Operationalization Of The Framework Agreement On Bangsamoro." 2013. United Nations Development Programme.


"Philippines IDP Figures Analysis". 2016. Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Accessed June 10.


"Philippines-Mindanao Conflict". 2014. Thomson Reuters Foundation.


"Autonomous Regions Of The Philippines". 2016. Revolvy.Com. Accessed June 10.


Philippine Statistics Authority. 2015. Census And Housing Population.




Philippine Statistics Authority. 2015. "Davao Region's Economy Records The Fastest Growth In 2014".


"Real Per Capita GRDP Of NCR Nearly Three Times The National Per Capita GDP". 2013. Philippine Statistics Authority.


Gavilan, Jodesz. 2016. "NEDA: PH Poverty In H1 2015 Lowest Since 2006". Rappler.


Philippine Statistics Authority. 2016. 2015 First Semester Official Poverty Statistics.


Legaspi, Amita. 2011. "Palace Calls ARMM A 'Failed Experiment'". GMA News Online.


"Philippines-Mindanao Conflict". 2014. Thomson Reuters Foundation.




"Project Document: Catalytic Support To The Operationalization Of The Framework Agreement On Bangsamoro." 2013. United Nations Development Programme.


La Viña, Tony and Goropse, Pauleen. 2014. "Bangsamoro Agreement: A great day for the country." Rappler.


"Philippines-Mindanao Conflict". 2014. Thomson Reuters Foundation.








Rañeses, Raymond. Letter to Uriel Galace. 2015. "The Assembly -- Interview Request". Email.


According to, the Pentagon gang is “a Filipino terrorist group that broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2001 order to continue terrorism, kidnapping, and extortion.” The Abu Sofia is a splinter group of the Pentagon.


The Editorial Board. 2014. "The Philippines’ Insurgency Crisis". The New York Times.




Rappler. 2015. "62% Of Mindanao Residents Oppose BBL – Pulse Asia".




"Frequently Asked Questions On The Draft Bangsamoro Basic Law". 2014. Office Of The Presidential Adviser On The Peace Process (OPAPP).


BBC News. 2015. "Guide To The Philippines Conflict".





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