Conflict analysis of Muslim Mindanao

The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in the Philippines was founded in 1989. It consists of five provinces – Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Conflict between Moro groups seeking an independent state in Mindanao, and the Government of the Philippines (GPH) has been ongoing for four decades. After numerous attempts to resolve the conflicts, a final peace agreement between the GPH and the Philippines’ largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was signed in 2014. This paved the way for the establishment of a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR) to replace the current ARMM. However, progress on the implementation of the peace agreement has been slow. The Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is the basis for the creation of the new BAR, has not been passed and seems unlikely to do so before the Philippines holds presidential elections in 2016.

The conflict between the GPH and the MILF is not the only conflict affecting the ARMM. Rather, the conflict situation in Mindanao is multi-faceted, involving numerous armed groups, as well as clans, criminal gangs and political elites.

There is a relatively small body of recent literature on conflict in Muslim Mindanao. This largely consists of grey literature, although a number of academic journal articles have also been published on the subject. A recent initiative led by International Alert and the World Bank provides quantitative data on all the main drivers of conflict in the ARMM, disaggregated by province. This is called the Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System.

The presence of a plethora of armed groups in the ARMM increases the risk of accidental clashes between groups that are aligned, or between armed groups and government forces. However, the Moro insurgencies in the region are not considered to be the main source of conflict in the region by INGOs and academics working in the ARMM. Thus, while resolving the conflict between the GPH and the MILF will be a step towards peace in the ARMM, it will not end conflict in the region.

Rido or clan feuding is one of the primary drivers of conflict in the region. Moreover, it is inter-linked with many of the other drivers of conflict discussed in this report, as conflict actors in the ARMM often belong to multiple groups and frequently shift alliances.

Lawlessness in Mindanao is responsible for thriving shadow economies, such as the trade in illegal drugs and weapons. While the shadow economies in the ARMM are linked to violence and conflict, some of them, such as cross-border trade in the Sulu Sea also have the potential to contribute to peace. This is because they play an important role in the provision of livelihoods for fragile island communities.

Intercommunal tensions are also prevalent in Mindanao. Moros do not constitute a single ethnic group. Numerous Muslim ethnic groups have distinct linguistic and cultural traditions while at the same time identifying as Moro because of their religion. Moreover there are sizeable populations of descendants of Christian settlers from other parts of the Philippines living in the ARMM, as well as non-Muslim indigenous tribes, referred to collectively as Lumad. While intercommunal tensions are not a major source of conflict in the ARMM, the potential for conflict if all groups are not fairly represented in the new BAR is highlighted in the literature.

The absence of state services in the ARMM also contributes to fragility and instability in the region. Regional government spending on services is low, and the provision of healthcare and education in the region is inadequate.

International involvement in resolving conflict in the ARMM has been relatively limited. Conflict resolution efforts have largely been led by, but not limited to, Muslim actors, such as Malaysia and the Organisation of Islamic Conference. Beyond Malaysia’s facilitation of the peace process, regional actors have shown very little interest in conflict in Mindanao in recent years.

Suggested citation

Strachan, A.L. (2015). Conflict analysis of Muslim Mindanao. Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.