Hundreds of years ago, Spanish colonists entered the Philippines, converting the local Muslim population to Christianity in order to help maintain control. A small group of Muslims, known as the “Moro”, refused to convert and found themselves pushed to the countries southernmost islands. They have stayed there to modern times, making up the 5% of the Philippines population that practices Islam. Anger over the Moro situation has surfaced for years in the form of violent guerrilla groups, but only recently has the prospect of political change for the Moro’s emerged. This change is the product of the late Hashim Salamat, the founder of the largest separatist group within the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, dubbed the MILF, were revolutionary in their approach to what the government recognizes as the “Moro problem”. Under Salamat, the group took a policy of consolidation and steady resistance, a far cry from the terrorist-like actions of previous separatists. Salamat believed that political interaction was necessary to truly improve the lives of the Moro’s, understanding firsthand that senseless violence against both the Government and random Christians was pointless.
Before founding the MILF, Salamat was a leader in the more radical Moro National Liberation Front, a group that frequently aligned itself with terrorists like Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army. Despite his work to link the group with these dangerous allies, Salamat secretly disliked how radical connections alienated the movement from the more moderate and political organizations. Following an especially rough period of violent activity, Salamat and like-minded leaders split to form the MILF, choosing their home base to be within the southern island of Mindanao.
Within Mindanao they took over the local government and began to consolidate resources and build up an a trained military of over 90,000, enough to prevent government assaults on their territory. In 1996 Salamat then revealed his group’s power to the government, and for the first time since colonialism negotiations between Muslims and Christians began. The negotiations were far from peaceful, leaving 120,000 dead and over a million displaced. It wasn’t until 2012 that the groups reached a historically pro-Muslim agreement, that provided the MILF with official government-like powers over the southern regions and a seat within the greater Philippines government. Alongside this, the deal removed the MILF’s designation as a terrorist organization, changing them into a the political entity Salamat had envisioned.
This development prompted a new age of MILF activity within the Philippines. MILF Separatists and the Philippine Government now acted as political opponents rather than warring countries. The Front cut ties with violent groups like Abu Sayyaf in an attempt to further improve their image, and furthermore rewrote their constitution to demonstrate their new political interests. Their old motto, “Jihad in the way of Allah” has been replaced with a far more moderate sounding “intent to establish equal rights and overcome corruption and social problems”, and although Salamat passed away during this period of reform, the new head Al-Hadj Murad Ibrahim has carried the torch in publicly denouncing extremism of all types. The MILF-controlled Mindanao region now receives foreign aid from larger countries such as the USA, and the group is active in the fight against extremism within the Muslim regions of the Philippines.
With collaborations between the government and the MILF at an all-time high, popular leader and Mindanao native Rodrigo Duterte has begun pushing for a unifying law known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which is set to quell any further conflicts between the Muslim population and the government. Duterte has pushed the BBL to the top of his government’s to-do list, pledging to provide the Muslim population with the stability and political representation they deserve, saying in solidarity that he will get the law passed. Salamat’s separatists have come a long way from their wedding-bombing past, but accomplishing multiple centuries of work within a decade may bring unforeseen consequences. In less than 20 years the MILF have transformed from violent guerillas to legal authorities and established politicians within the Philippines, leaving the world to question if every wedding bomber and terrorist collaborator has truly set aside their old ways.