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The Moro question

By Sonny Melencio

As Marxists, we support the right to self-determination of oppressed nations. This right applies to the democratic demand of the oppressed nation to determine its political relationship to the oppressor nation, which includes its right to secede and form a separate state.

It is in this sense that we uphold the right of the Moro people to self-determination.

However, questions have been raised whether the Moro people constitute an oppressed nation, or an oppressed ``national minority'' (i.e., part of the Filipino nation) that could not be granted the right to secede and form its own nation-state.

The latter view is quite common among activists who belong or once belonged to the ``national democratic'' grouping, meaning those who adhere to the political line of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). This view is mainly the result of an analysis presented by Jose Maria Sison in Philippine Society and Revolution (PSR) on the so-called special social groups in the Philippines, to wit:

Special recognition must be given to the need for autonomous government among the national minorities numbering about five million or about 14 per cent of the population. The so-called Muslim tribes (it is more accurate to speak of them as Maguindanaos, Maranaos, Tausogs, etc.) compose the largest minority, numbering 3.5 million. They are followed by the Igorot tribes numbering half a million.

The vast majority of the national minorities live in the hinterlands and in areas most neglected and abused by the reactionary government. The national minorities have long been subjected to Christian chauvinism and oppression by the reactionaries. It will never do to impose or give the impression of imposing something beyond their autonomous needs. The Party recognizes their right to self-determination. They can be united with the rest of the Filipino people only on the basis of equality and respect for their culture or race.

What is clear in this view is the following:

  1. The term ``national minority'' refers to individual ethnic tribes in the country -- that is why, for Sison, ``it is more accurate'' to speak of Moros as tribes of Maguindanao, Maranao, Tausog, etc., rather than to stress their ``national'' formation. (This explains why the PSR lumped the ``Muslim tribes'' with the Aetas or Negritos; or why the plight of the Chinese racial minority, the Filipino-Chinese, was discussed under the same heading of ``national minority''.)
  2. The term ``national minority'' presupposes that these various tribes and groupings are part (albeit a minority) of the Filipino people—that is why Sison talks of unifying them with the rest of the Filipino people.
  3. For this ``special group'' of ``national minority'' (referring specifically to the Muslim tribes and the Igorot tribes), the demand is for an autonomous government of their own—one that is based on equality and respect for their culture or race. This is basically what Sison means when he talks about the CPP recognising their ``right to self-determination''. The concept of self-determination here is limited at once to political autonomy! It should be clarified that the Marxist concept of self-determination means the right of the oppressed nation to choose its form of political relationship to the oppressor nation—autonomy, federalism, an independent state or any variation.

Hence the confusion regarding the term “national minority”. The term itself is non-Marxist and open to liberal interpretation (that’s why in PSR, all minorities, ethnic or racial, have been lumped into one). It dissolves the national question (i.e., whether an oppressed nation exists in the Philippines) into a mere “minority question”—i.e., “minority” vis-a-vis the “majority” Philippine population. If that is the case, all oppressed nations (“Indonesian” East Timor, “Sri Lankan” Tamils, “Yugoslav” Kosova, “Spanish” Basques, “British” Scotland, the “Russian” nations and so on) have always been the “minority” compared to the total population of the state.

It is partly because of this “national minority” framework that the national question in the Philippines has not been addressed separately from the overall struggle of the Philippine nation against the imperialist powers or from the struggle of the Philippine working class for socialism. Whether we like it or not, there is a national question that involves the struggle of entire peoples (including their own rising bourgeoisie) against the Filipino chauvinist state—one is the struggle of the Moro people for a separate state, and the other is the struggle of the Cordillera people for genuine autonomy.

The Marxist concept of nation

For Marxists, a nation is not an “imagined community” (i.e., a mere desire, belief, or conviction to form a nation) but an objective historical entity encompassing four features—common territory, common language, common economic life, and common culture. These four features are necessary to the forging of a nation. They also constitute the necessary conditions for the viability of a nation-state.

Marxists locate the nation as a product of a specific stage of historical development of class society and the class struggle, i.e., the rise of capitalist economic relations and the struggle of the rising capitalist class against the pre-capitalist social relations and classes. This means that before the rise of capitalism, communities that approximated the four features were not nations.

In primitive societies, or in the so-called Asiatic mode of production, the unit of social organisation was the clan and the tribe, or the entire village community; under ancient slavery, it was the city-state; under feudalism, it was the fief or feudal estate. Under capitalism, the unit of class formation is, generally speaking, the nation.

To assert that a non-national formation (a religious, racial or tribal group) is a nation can lead to reactionary political consequences. The argument, for instance, that the Zionist Jews (meaning the religious group formed around the ideology of Zionism) constitute a nation leads to its colonisation of Palestine. To argue that a racial or tribal group (i.e., those not possessing the four criteria of a nation) can be considered a nation is to further fragment national formation, or confuse their struggle for full equality and respect for their culture and race as a struggle towards an independent nation.

It is hard to think, for example, that the Negritos (an ethnic tribe) constitute a nation; their level of social formation is at the most primitive, and they haven’t had a chance to be integrated into a larger formation. Of course, the Filipino-Chinese or the Chinese nationals do not constitute a nation in the Philippines; they have been almost fully integrated into the Filipino nation and in fact represent a large part of the merchant and commercial capitalists in the country. This is not to say, however, that they have not been discriminated against, persecuted and scapegoated (from time to time) by the Filipino chauvinist state.

Nations and states are qualitatively distinct social formations, the first being the unit of capitalist class formation and the second being a concentrated expression of the political power of a ruling class. Sometimes the nation and the nation-state coincide, for example, the French nation and the French state. But often they do not.

Sometimes different nations are politically united (or forced to unite) under a state that represents only the power of one nation’s ruling class (for instance, the United Kingdom, which politically unites the English, Scottish, and Welsh nations, plus part of the Irish nation, under the state power of the English ruling class). This is the case of the Moro and Cordillera nations, which are forced to exist under a state of the Filipino ruling class.

It is clear that the four features (common territory, language, economic life and culture) constitute the historico-materialist evidence of the existence of a nation. They refer to the historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions that display the viability of nation-state formation. The existence of all these features indicates the material basis for a given community to exercise national self-determination, including secession to form a separate state.

Is Bangsamoro a nation?

The Bangsamoro is a historically constituted nation. Before the Spaniards arrived, they were already on the road towards nation building.

In the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, before the coming of the Spaniards, Muslim sultanates—which were gradually evolving into a centralised nation-state structure—were already predominant in the Philippine archipelago.

Its territory was specifically Mindanao and Sulu. It was there where the sultanates held sway, or were fully developed. The Sulu sultanate was formed in 1450, the Maguindanao sultanate in the early sixteenth century, and the Buayan sultanate in the mid-sixteenth century. (Manila itself was a Muslim bastion, ruled by Rajah Sulaiman Mahmud, although it was not clear whether it belonged to a sultanate.)

Each sultanate was composed of groups of villages under the realm of a sultan and his retinue—the court and ministers. There were smaller sultanates, formed later by the break-up of big sultanates or the merger of small villages (in some localities, the office of the sultan was not hereditary but merely proclaimed after fulfilling simple requirements). All these constituted the state form of the emerging Philippine nation at that time.

Unlike the fragmented barangays in the north, the sultanate had a centralised government structure patterned after the Arabian and Turkish model. Had the Spaniards not colonised the Philippines, the sultanates would have evolved into a unified nation-state structure or a Muslim nation just like our neighbouring countries. The fragmented barangays and villages (which were fast becoming Islamised) would have joined the sultanate system and been integrated into the national formation.

Common economic life was forged by the interaction of several villages exchanging goods with each other. There were already trading ports that dealt with merchants from as far as Arabia, China, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. Islam itself was disseminated by Arab traders, missionaries and teachers (sufis) who came along the trade routes.

Due to the developing trade and economic interaction of Muslim villages, a common language was starting to develop. Although Moros now speak thirteen languages, they are languages that are closely related to each other—a product of a long period of community interaction. The Maguindanao, Iranun and Maranao, for instance, virtually constitute one Mindanao language. (There is one language, Kolibogan, which is actually an amalgamation of most of the major languages of the Moros.) The language itself had one parent stock, Austronesian or Malayo-Polynesian.

A common culture was shared by the population of the major villages. The customs and traditions of the Iranun, Maranao and Maguindanaon—which constitute 61% of the entire Moro population—have no major distinction from each other. What was dynamic in the forging of a national culture was the Islamisation of the villages—the shared destiny of being a Muslim.

All of the above indicates the objective material basis for the formation of the Moro nation—what Engels referred to as “the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for independence and viability” as a nation. That the Moro people were not able to formally constitute themselves as such does not negate the fact that they have become an oppressed struggling nation under the successive colonisation and domination of Spain, the United States, Japan, again the United States, and finally the Filipino state today.

The Moros were never colonised by Spain. The term Moro was given by the Spaniards to the Muslim population of Mindanao and Sulu who resisted colonisation. The term Moro, which for the Spaniards meant the Mauris or Moors who once occupied Spain, stuck and became a rallying cry for their nation (Bangsamoro). The Moro people have in fact prior claim to the whole of Mindanao and Sulu, or the southern Muslim islands that kept up a prolonged resistance against the colonisers. In the treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898—which ceded the Philippines to the United States—Mindanao and Sulu were still marked as “foreign territory”.

During the initial period of the US occupation of the Philippines, the former had to resort to some diplomatic efforts to pacify the Moro lands: the Kiram-Bates treaty in 1898, a trick to open Sulu for us intervention; the creation of the “Moro Province” in 1903 under the office of the US governor of the Philippines; the establishment of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu in 1915 under the US governor-general’s office; and the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes in 1920, which was put in the hands of the Filipinos. (Up until 1950, there were provinces in Mindanao where the Moros were denied the vote: in Sulu, Lanao and Cotabato where the government directly chose local officials.)

All this was coupled with direct military repression aimed at breaking the Moro resistance. US troops poured into Moro lands from 1898 until the Japanese invasion in 1942. The US occupation forces adopted a scorched-earth policy in their military campaigns—a ruthless policy of killing all inhabitants and burning the villages of resisting Moros.

The fierceness of Moro resistance led to the invention of the .45 calibre revolver, which was specifically designed to kill Moros. Earlier, the US troops used the .38 calibre revolver as a sidearm, which was considered ineffective against the fierce Moro fighters.

The struggle of the Bangsamoro people

If the above points are not enough to convince us of the existence of the Bangsamoro nation within the Philippine archipelago, then the struggle of the Moro people speaks for itself. The viability of their struggle for national independence is all the more highlighted by the fierceness of their resistance against occupying military forces in their homeland.

Those who argue against the existence of the Bangsamoro nation always stress the fact that the Moros are now a minority in Mindanao. These are two separate points; nationhood cannot be equated with the question of whether one constitutes the minority or the majority in a given territory. But a nation with a historical claim to a given territory can be marginalised through a continued process of settling in colonies by the oppressor nation, which was what happened in Mindanao. The mere fact that the Moro people continued their struggle after 1946 attests to their resistance against this. At the turn of the twentieth century, the US colonial regime in the Philippines initiated the systematic dispossession of the Moros from their own land. The successive colonial set-ups enacted a series of laws that wiped out Moro communal and ancestral lands, and provided for less and less land for the Moros:

  • The Land Registration Act (Act No. 496) required the registration of all lands occupied by any person, group or corporation. Most Moros lost their communal lands in this way.
  • Public Land Act No. 718 was enacted by the Philippine Commission in April 1903. This decreed null and void all land grants made by Moro sultans and datus.
  • Public Act No. 926, enacted in October 1903, decreed that all lands not registered under Act No. 496 were public lands, and therefore available for homesteading, sale or lease to individuals or corporations.
  • The Mining Law of 1905 declared all public lands as free, open for exploration, occupation and purchase even by Americans.
  • The Cadastral Act of 1907 facilitated the acquisition of new landholdings.
  • Acts 2254 and 2280 of 1913 created agricultural colonies and encouraged Filipino migrants from the north to settle in the so-called public lands in Mindanao and Sulu. Act 2254 awarded the Filipino settler a sixteen-hectare lot while Moros were allowed to own only eight hectares.
  • The Public Land Act 2874 in 1919 allowed a Filipino to own a twenty-four-hectare lot, while a Moro was allowed only ten hectares.
  • Legislative Act 4197, enacted in February 1935, was also known as the “Quirino-Recto Colonization Act”. The government declared settlement the “only lasting solution” to the Mindanao and Sulu “problem”.
  • The Commonwealth Act 141 in November 1936 declared all Moro ancestral landholdings public lands. A Moro was allowed only four hectares, while a Filipino could own up to twenty-four; a corporation, wholly non-Moro, was allowed 1024 hectares.

The policy of widespread Christian settlement in Moro lands also began during us colonial rule in 1913, with the passage of Acts 2254 and 2280 (the “agricultural colonization acts”). Contrary to government reports, the Christian settlers were not the poor peasants and workers of Central Luzon and Negros, but people from the more affluent areas of the Ilocos region, Cebu and Iloilo—who later became the carpetbaggers, loggers, ranchers and bankers of Mindanao. Large tracts of land were also seized for US multinationals. B.F. Goodrich came in 1919, Del Monte in 1925 and Goodyear in 1929—to name a few.

After a short period of Japanese rule, in which the majority of the Moros also fought against the new invaders, the US returned and officially annexed Mindanao and Sulu to the territory of the Philippines with the grant of so-called independence on July 4, 1946. The “Moro problem” was handed over to the new Filipino rulers. The Filipino rulers continued with the policy of land grabbing in Mindanao and Sulu:

  • In 1950, the government formed the Land Settlement Development Corporation (Lasedeco), which continued the resettlement program.
  • The Homestead Act of 1950 gave lands to former Huks (but many of those given land were actually former soldiers, mixed with Huks in order to function as “stabilisers” in the villages).
  • Filipino capitalists also began to corner the lion’s share of the timber, pasture and coconut concessions in Mindanao. Bislig Bay Lumber, for instance, acquired 141,000 hectares in Surigao for its logging operation. Such names as the Sarmientos, Magsaysays, Sorianos, Cojuangcos, Puyats, Alcantaras, Ayalas, Floreindos, Yuchengcos and many more, wallowed in the sufferings of the Moros and the natives in the regions. Absentee Filipino landlords like the Elizaldes and Roces emerged.

    During the “Filipino rule” provided by so-called Philippine independence, US monopoly capital was allowed to intensify its spoliation of Mindanao. To name a few:

  • Firestone was awarded 1000 hectares of land in Cotabato for a rubber plantation in 1957.
  • Dole Philippines, a subsidiary of Castle and Cook, took vast tracts of lands in Cotabato for its pineapple business in 1963.
  • Weyerhouse Corporation obtained 72,000 hectares of forest lands for its logging operations in 1966.
  • Boise-Cascade Corporation got a 42,000-hectare timber concession in 1968.
  • In 1903, the Moros were seventy-six per cent of the estimated population in Mindanao. By 1990, the Moros were reduced to a mere nineteen per cent, while the non-Moros (largely Christians) were eighty-one per cent. Before the turn of the twentieth century, ninety-eight per cent of the lands in Mindanao and Sulu belonged to the Moros. In the 1980s, they owned less than seventeen per cent, most of it in remote and infertile mountain areas, which lacked marketing and infrastructure facilities. More than eighty per cent of the Muslims have become landless tenants.

    The SPP’s view

    The Sosyalistang Partido ng Paggawa (SPP) supports the right to self-determination of the Bangsamoro nation. The party recognises the eradication of all forms of national oppression as a distinct part of the revolutionary-democratic tasks during the first stage of the continuing Philippine revolution.

    The struggle in Mindanao is a national liberation struggle by the Moro people against the Filipino chauvinist state. Today, it is being waged primarily through the armed struggle led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

    The party’s support of the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination also includes the right of the Moro people to self-defence and to bear arms against attack by the Filipino chauvinist state, which the Moro fighters have always regarded as an occupation force on Moro land.

    The SPP’s support of the MILF struggle is specifically founded on these considerations—i.e., the MILF being a national liberation force, and its struggle an act of self-defence against the Filipino ruling state. On the other hand, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—which led the armed Moro struggle from the 1970s until the latter part of the 1990s, ceased to be a national liberation force after it was coopted by the Philippine government in 1996. MNLF chair Nur Misuari became the governor of the so-called autonomous areas of Mindanao, and the MNLF guerrillas were integrated into the Philippine state army.

    The SPP’s support does not mean that every group that claims to be a national liberation force in Mindanao is automatically acclaimed as such. The Abu Sayyaf, for instance, is clearly a bandit group, and the MNLF is now part of the Philippine chauvinist state army.

    The SPP takes the long view that the first phase of the socialist struggle in the Philippines (the revolutionary-democratic stage) cannot be completed without granting the oppressed nations (specifically the Bangsamoro in the south and the Cordillera nation in the north) the right to self-determination, including the right to secede and form their own state.

    The Filipino working class cannot be freed without granting freedom (political choice) to the oppressed nations within its so-called territory. By defending the right of the latter to self-determination, the Filipino workers demonstrate to the Moro workers and peasants, for instance, that they are opposed to the national injustices imposed on them by our own capitalist-landlord rulers. This facilitates an alliance between the oppressed Filipino and Moro classes against their common enemy—the capitalist-landlord state and the giant multinational corporations that lord it over the Moro land.

    While Marxists are internationalists—i.e., for the strategic abolition of national frontiers and for the integration of nations into a single, democratically centralised world socialist state—such an amalgamation of nations can be achieved only on the basis of the fullest democracy, and presupposes the existence of national-territorial autonomy for each nation.

    The SPP is opposed to the view that once the toiling classes have taken hold of political power in the Philippines, the right to self-determination of oppressed nation can then be simply dismissed. The fullest democracy in fact would still mean the recognition of the right to self-determination of the once oppressed nation—including the right to secede from a multi-national socialist state.

    Socialists cannot be insensitive to the feelings of suspicion, distrust and even hatred on the part of the masses of the once oppressed nation against the oppressor nation. As in the case of winning over the peasants to socialist construction in the countryside after power has passed into the hands of the working class, the method is not terror and compulsion, but tireless persuasion.

    And even within the multi-national socialist state, Marxists could not insist on formal equality in all situations, because this would often mean perpetrating real inequalities. Marxists must be willing to support measures that provide for an inequality (i.e., “affirmative action”) in favour of the oppressed nation.


    This article is good but

    This article is good but need a little correction for us to know the real fact about the identity of Muslims in the South.

    Moro is not the real identity of the Tausug as well as the Maguindanaons. If you say that Moro is a race of Muslims in the South then it is not correct. But if you say it is only a name or title which had given by the Americans and Spaniards to the Muslims in Sulu and In Mindanao then it is correct. Although i'm not an expert, but the term Moro is coined to wrapped the real identity of the Tausug. Before the Coming of the Spaniards and Americans to the Philippines what was the real identity of the Muslim in Sulu and Mindanao, is it Moro? or Tausug or Maguindanao?

    Please correct this word. This is a colonial word we don't want to call ourselves as Moro or Filipino, especially those of the Tausug shouting to separate Sulu from the Philippines. Our CITIZEN is TAUSUG not Filipino and not MORO.

    Real Tausug

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