Fierce Islamic Tribes : Moros--A Philippine Powder Keg

Times Staff Writer

The Muslim leaders sipping coffee in the colonial-era Lantaka Hotel last weekend were reminiscing with pride and foreboding about the tens of thousands of would-be conquerors they and their ancestors have slain in the last 400 years. It was a history, they said, that may soon repeat itself, this time with the support of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

“You know, the Americans invented (the military use of) the .45-caliber pistol with us in mind,” Amin Kadra abu Bakar, an incumbent mayor in the southern island province of Sulu, told an American journalist as his bodyguards stood nearby with M-16 rifles and grenade launchers bearing excerpts from the Koran.

“The Americans told us that the .38-caliber wasn’t powerful enough to stop us. Oh, it would kill us, all right, but we’d live a few seconds--long enough to throw spears and bolos into your colonial soldiers.”


Battle With Pirates

The U.S. Army introduced the .45-caliber automatic to military combat in a battle with Moro pirates on Jolo Island in the Philippines in 1913.

But during the 50 years that the Philippines was a territory of the United States, the Americans never succeeded in taming the fierce Muslim tribes of the southernmost island of Mindanao.

Neither did the Japanese during their occupation in World War II, nor the Spanish during their 350 years as colonial masters that ended with the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Not even former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who ruled the Philippines with the help of powerful armed forces for two decades, could subdue the Islamic Moros of southern Mindanao, where the death toll from a Muslim insurgency in the 1970s reached into the hundreds of thousands.

Endured Torture

So brutal was that civil war that a Philippine army colonel, who conceded that his soldiers had tortured Moro leaders during the campaign, recently recalled, “The Moro rebellion taught me just how long it can take for some men to die.”

The next lesson, according to Moro leaders and senior Philippine military commanders alike, may well be President Corazon Aquino’s.


As those Muslim leaders gathered Sunday for their first ever Bangsa Moro (Moro Nation) Congress here in Zamboanga, 550 miles south of Manila, the message to Aquino’s new government was clear:

Negotiate a lasting peace with the more than 4 million Filipino Muslims in the next few months, or risk what one leader called “a holy war that will make the massacres and the carnage of the 1970s look like an afternoon picnic.”

The armed struggle for autonomy and independence in the Philippines’ resource-rich, second-largest island of Mindanao by the Moros is the lesser known of the two insurgencies facing Aquino as she gropes for national stability in the wake of the coup that brought her to power in February. (The Moros were named by the Spanish conquistadors who were struck by their similarities to the Islamic Moors of medieval Spain).

Aquino and her advisers have been far more preoccupied by the rebellion of the Communist New People’s Army, which has continued to strike almost at will throughout the country in military ambushes and political assassinations that have left more than 400 dead since Aquino took office.

Muslims Largely Ignored

Despite recent, intermittent guerrilla attacks by Libyan-backed Muslim insurgents in Mindanao, the Communist rebellion continues to grab headlines here and abroad, and U.S. congressional and Defense Department officials who have visited the Philippines in the last two months have largely ignored the Muslim insurgency.

Talking to a reporter visiting the Muslim center of Zamboanga, however, leaders of the Muslim rebel and political groups and local military authorities made it clear that Aquino could soon face another major crisis if she fails to address the demands of the Muslim secessionists.


The latter have maintained the rebel armies and kept enormous stockpiles of arms and ammunition, both here in the mountains near Zamboanga, despite a tenuous truce with the Marcos regime.

The Muslim rebellion is potentially more ominous than that of the Communists. Unlike the New People’s Army, the Moro insurrectionists have a foreign base.

Trained by Kadafi

Moro leaders openly boast that they were trained in Col. Kadafi’s terrorist camps in Libya and that the two principal Moro chiefs are now moving from city to city in fundamentalist Islamic nations in the Middle East.

The Moro leaders also concede that their campaign has been financed by Libya and Saudi Arabia, and, even now, the Moros refuse to negotiate with Aquino’s government without the mediation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a 46-nation group based in Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

Further complicating the military logistics required to put down a Moro uprising, the rebels have been using the Malaysian state of Sabah, a short boat ride from the Moros’ homeland on the southernmost tip of Philippines, as a haven in their guerrilla campaigns against the government.

Envoy From Aquino

While many members of Aquino’s Cabinet and the military have dismissed the Moros as a fragmented force more prone to rhetoric than war, the new government showed its increasing concern about the Moro threat by sending Aquino’s brother-in-law, Agapito Aquino, to attend the first Bangsa Moro Congress.


For nearly four hours under the blazing sun at Western Mindanao State University, Agapito Aquino listened and watched Sunday as the Moros burned an American flag while shouting praise for Kadafi and Allah and thrust their M-16s into the air, condemning the United States for bombing Libyan targets.

The president’s brother-in-law also heard speeches by Filipino Islamic leaders warning of a jihad, or holy war, if President Aquino does not announce meaningful negotiations with the Moros within 10 days.

And he listened to a “Moro Manifesto” that the group is sending to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, asking him to put pressure on the Aquino government to negotiate an agreement that would give the Moros virtual independence in vast regions of the Christian-dominated island of Mindanao.

More Time Sought

For his part, Agapito Aquino asked the group for more time. He praised the Moros in a 45-minute speech for the “historical debt” owed to them by the Filipino Christians, who Aquino said had surrendered to every conqueror who came to the Philippines. But he said his sister-in-law is so busy trying to consolidate her government that she may not get to the Moro problem for several months.

“You have waited for 400 years,” Aquino pleaded to the crowd of several thousand. “Surely you can wait another four months.”

According to Zamboanga’s Muslim leader, Sharif Adzhar Sarahadil, in four months it will be too late.


“We are getting irritated now,” said Sarahadil, a devout Muslim who studied at the University of Connecticut. “We Moros supported Cory Aquino because she was promising us a real and lasting autonomy, and so far we have told our people in the hills (the rebels) to lay low for a while.

“But if we give the government six months or a year, we are afraid they will find some way to manipulate us again.

“Next month is the holy week of Ramadan. That is a good time for holy war.”

Predates Catholicism

At the heart of the Muslims’ demands is their history in the Philippines. It predates even that of Catholicism, the religion professed by more than 85% of the population.

More than two centuries before the conquistadors brought Catholic missionaries to the shores of this nation of 7,100 islands, migrants from the Muslim empires and sultanates on Indonesia and Malaysia established advanced Islamic communities on the Philippine islands of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Mindanao.

The first mosque in the Philippines was built in 1380 on Tawi-Tawi, which is only a few hours by outrigger canoe from the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo.

The Spaniards arrived as the Muslims were working their way north toward Manila, and the conquistadors spent much of the next 350 years containing the Moros in the southernmost islands.


Force and Bargaining

The Americans, the Japanese and, after Philippine independence in 1946, a succession of Philippine presidents similarly tried to control the Moros through a combination of military force and political negotiation aimed at encouraging the Moros to join the mainstream of Philippine culture. In every case, the Moros resisted.

Marcos, however, went a step further. After he was elected to his second term in 1969, Marcos stepped up a program of government-sponsored internal migration--offering generous financial incentives to Filipino Catholics willing to migrate from the northern and central islands to Mindanao, where, until two decades ago, Muslims were a majority of the population.

So successful was the program that the Muslims are now in the minority in Mindanao. But it also touched off the bloodiest uprising in the history of the independent Philippines--the insurgency by the Moro National Liberation Front.

Marcos once said that the Moro war claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Philippine soldiers, and Moro leaders now say it left more than 300,000 Muslims dead and another half a million as refugees in Sabah.

Provincial Autonomy

After negotiations in Tripoli between then-First Lady Imelda Marcos and Kadafi in 1976, a peace agreement was signed giving the Moros sweeping autonomy in more than a dozen provinces of southwestern Mindanao and the island provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. But the Moros today claim that most of the provisions of the so-called Tripoli agreement never were implemented.

In preparation for the Feb. 7 presidential election, Aquino’s brother-in-law met in Spain with Nur Misuari, the leader of the largest Muslim faction, which is still called the Moro National Liberation Front, and promised that Aquino would implement the key provisions of the Tripoli accord, provided that the Muslims support her in the election. The Muslim provinces voted overwhelmingly for Aquino.


Advisers Not Trusted

“We still trust Butz Aquino,” Sarahadil said, using Agapito Aquino’s nickname. “It is the advisers in Aquino’s Cabinet we do not trust. She has appointed only one Muslim to any post in government, and that is the minister of Muslim affairs.”

The minister, Cando Maurip, was on hand for the Bangsa Moro Congress. So was his deputy minister, Faizal Hussin.

“There is no question the Muslims have lost out when it came to development and education in this country,” Hussin said. “Our history has been one of warfare. While the other communities of Filipinos were going along with the Spanish and Americans, who, in turn, taught them, we fought them. And it is only recently we have been sending our children to school.

“The Muslims’ complaints are just ones. Our challenge is to resolve them without bloodshed.”

Threat Seen Diluted

Many of Aquino’s Cabinet ministers, when asked privately about the Muslim problem, said that they have made it a low priority. They hope that the factionalism that Marcos sowed within the Moro ranks will dilute a violent threat from the Moro National Liberation Front and any of the splinter groups that the deposed president encouraged and helped arm during his final years in power.

But Sarahadil and other present and former Moro National Liberation Front members, whose leader Misuari was last known to be in exile in Libya and Kuwait, said such a strategy is bound to backfire.


Sarahadil asserted that his group still has a cache of more than 300,000 firearms on the islands off Zamboanga, and armed forces commanders in the region placed the number of arms at “at least 50,000 or more.” The military leaders also confirmed widespread rumors that Misuari and his most powerful opponent within the Muslim community, Hashim Salamat, are on the verge of reconciliation, which would unify the Moros in any fight against the new government.

“Mrs. Cory Aquino should make no mistake,” Sarahadil said. “If she does not at the very least announce her willingness to negotiate in the next few weeks, the forces of Allah will be upon her.

“And we will no longer be talking about autonomy. We will not be happy until Islam will reign in all of Mindanao.”