Mindanao can easily be considered the most interesting of the Philippine islands. It is, however, not necessarily the most accommodating.
What makes Mindanao so interesting are social features which are of a variety probably not found elsewhere on the globe on so limited a space. Mindanao is Christian, Muslim and animist; it is modern and Stone Age; it is communist and fascist; it is feudal, bourgeois, and proletarian; it is violent and peaceful; it is colonial and independent; it is realistic and crazy.
Those bored with western civilization can easily be cured in Mindanao. It's a reservation for all with a need to spice up their lives. They will get an impression there of the chaos life originates from, but if they are not careful they could also get a taste of how life ends.
Definitely, Mindanao is a thrill, but definitely, too, Mindanao is also a risk. Probably, one can't take away the risk and keep the thrill.
Both, thrill and risk, come from people rather than nature. It's something like the Wild West. Of course, there are gold mining towns, as for example near Mount Diwata in the province of Davao. And of course, many people are armed, and shoot-outs are common. There are organized bandits and unscrupulous businessmen, and there are crazy preachers and religious fanatics.
However, Mindanao has not only the Wild West ambiance of a pioneers' land but medieval Muslim life as well. There are areas where it is dangerous to be a Christian, and there are areas where even Filipinos, if they are government officials, move around only with a back-up of soldiers. And of course, Muslims when living a traditional way are armed, too.
Wild West and Muslim Middle Ages are by far not enough to make a Mindanao. To complete the adventure that is Mindanao, it also takes a portion of piracy around the shores, and it takes the many primitive tribes in the jungles of the island; not all of them are necessarily friendly when their living space is intruded upon by foreigners.
And last but not least, there is a political atmosphere created by various revolutionary bands roaming around in The Country side. Many of these revolutionaries are not very strong when it comes to ideology but they are good in solving their practical, especially financial problems.
Mindanao owes its diversity mainly to the lack of ability on the part of the rulers in Manila to implement their order. It has always been like that. The Spanish who arrived as early as 1527 were never able to conquer the whole island. Anyway, they were only in second place among powers coming from the west and trying to export their social, economic and religious systems to east Asia.
About a century before the Spanish, the Arabs arrived in western Mindanao and on the Sulu islands. It was always easier for those coming first to primitive societies to install their religion and social order. Parts of the Philippines, where the Spanish only met animists and chieftain forms of rule were easily conquered and evangelized. But in western Mindanao and the Sulu islands, Islam and a sultanate form of government were already established by Arab powers, and there was a lot of resistance to the Spanish.
Only along the northern coast and in Zamboanga were the Spanish able to establish their colonial order. Zamboanga, particularly, remained for centuries a Spanish enclave in a Muslim surrounding. Probably because the enemy was right at the doorstep, the population of Zamboanga, after being colonized, took on much more of the cultural values and forms of the Spanish than did other parts of The Country . The local non-Muslim dialect Chabacano, for example, contains many more Spanish idioms then any other Philippine dialect.
Zamboanga today is an explosive mixture of Christian Filipinos and Muslim Filipinos. A large contingent of Philippine military (more than 50% of the Philippine military are assigned to Mindanao) is trying to keep peace and order - with little success. Big gatherings of armed members of the Moro National Liberation Front, MNLF, take place even in Zamboanga City. Beginning of the 90's, both sides seem to have a quiet understanding to avoid armed confrontation at large, but accidentally or not, gunfights between MNLF forces and government troops do happen. The situation in some areas of Mindanao which are purely Muslim populated is different from Zamboanga. Such an area for example is the province of Lanao del Sur. Among the Muslim inhabitants there are no conflicts based on different religious belief. But as there is not much interference from the national government, local power groups are often not very choosy in the means they use to compete among each other.
The center of Muslim culture in the Philippines is Marawi City, the capital of the province Lanao del Sur. Powerful factions there include the Dimaporo clan, the Alonto clan, the Lucman clan, and the faction of former governor Saisadem Pangarungan.
In the provinces of South Cotabato and Maguindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF, is a power factor, whereas in western Mindanao and the Sulu islands, the MNLF is more dominant. In all purely or predominantly Muslim areas foreigners run into the danger of being kidnapped (details on the danger of being kidnapped below)
The NPA on Mindanao basically respects the Muslims areas of influence and generally does not interfere in Muslim matters. The communist movement more than the Muslim secessionist movement seems to be interested in a tactical alliance against the Philippine state. However, there are some areas where Muslim factions as well as NPA groups operate, mainly in the provinces of Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga del Norte.
Rural areas of Mindanao that have a strong NPA presence are Surigao, Davao and Zamboanga provinces. An exceptional position has been held by Davao for many years. The city, especially its depressed Agdao district, used to be completely ruled by the NPA. Until the middle of the 80's, the district was even nick-named Nicar-Agdao, suggesting that it was a kind of Nicaragua.
However, shortly after Cory Aquino came to power, the anti-Communist, and many claim fascist, vigilante group Alsa Masa was created in Davao City. Within just a few months, the Alsa Masa drove the NPA completely out of Agdao and Davao City. The Alsa Masa has never been particularly concerned about respecting human rights when conducting their anti-insurgency operations. Nevertheless, former President Cory Aquino, a self-styled human rights champion, publicly supported the Alsa Masa during her visit to Davao on October 23, 1987, when she said: "I know you have succeeded in crushing the communists... We look up to you as the example in our fight against the communists." And indeed, according to the example set by the Alsa Masa, anti-Communist vigilante groups were organized throughout the archipelago.
An anti-Communist group of its own kind which also originated on Mindanao are the Tadtads. Actually, they are a religious sect calling themselves 'Sagrada Corazon Seņor'. They are led by Sade Catili who claims to be a reincarnation of Jesus. They believe themselves to be 'soldiers of Christ' and regard killing of communists as a cultic act that includes the chopping apart of the victims' bodies. Probably there are even some cannibalistic rituals which they believe make their own bodies bulletproof.
In spite of the fact that Spain had claimed from the early times of their colonial rule in the Philippines to own all of the archipelago, Muslim Mindanao had practically been fully independent until the middle of the 19th century.
Only in the mid-19th century were the Muslims' war boats, the vintas, powered by sail and oars, overcome by the Spanish's new marine military technology. In the middle of the 19th century, Spain had bought steam-powered gunboats from London and achieved her first decisive victory against the Sultanate of Sulu that ruled much of western Mindanao in 1851.
A peace treaty was concluded to formalize the new realities of political power. As was pointed out by O.D. Corpuz in Newsday of June 8, 1990, the Spanish text spoke of "an act of incorporation" of Sulu and its dependencies into the Spanish monarchy; the Sulu text of the peace treaty instead used the formula "statement of agreement and union (in friendship)." Misunderstandings and further conflict were programmed by the wrong translation between the two languages, Spanish and the local dialect of the Mindanao and Sulu Muslims.
In 1860 Madrid decreed the organization of a new province in the southern Philippines, covering all of Mindanao and the surrounding islands, including Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. As O.D. Corpuz pointed out, it was a "paper province". The Spanish could enter "their" province only with armies, and instead of administration, there were battles.
Owing to their new war ships, the Spanish achieved a number of victories. In early 1876 a large garrison was established in Jolo. At around the same time, in January 1878, the Sulu sultanate lost its possessions of Sabah on Borneo to the British North Borneo Company.
However, even after the Spanish had established their military rule over the Sulu sultanate, this hardly affected Muslim life and culture. As O.D. Corpuz wrote, the Spanish regime collected neither tribute nor taxes, nor set up schools or provided social services, nor applied the laws of the Christian Philippines to Mindanao and Sulu.
That the US had taken over the Philippines from the Spanish in 1898 was, for the first few years, hardly felt on Mindanao. A report of the Philippine Commission, quasi the US government of the archipelago, stated in 1904 that "nothing of importance was done toward bringing the inhabitants of the Moro Province under American control". O.D. Corpuz mentioned that a project to codify Muslim custom law died early, basically because of the contempt the Americans had for Muslim laws and rules. US military governor (General Leonard Wood) observed: "Such laws as they have are many of them revolting and practically all of them utterly and absolutely undesirable from any standpoint of decency and good government."
The Moro Wars in which the US established her rule over Mindanao lasted until 1912. In 1914 the US set up the Department of Mindanao and Sulu as the local administrative body dealing with the southern Philippines. The Department of Mindanao and Sulu was abolished in 1920 and the region was placed under the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes.
While in the first decades of the Philippine Republic the Muslim provinces of Mindanao were formally equal to other Philippine provinces, there has been large-scale infringement on traditional rights of the Muslim population as well as tribal minority groups on Mindanao, particularly violations of property rights, as, for example, collectively owned lands were opened to Christian settlers from the central and western Visayas.
In 1967 Nur Misuari founded the Muslim National League, the first modern group to work for a secession of Muslim Mindanao from the Philippine state. On March 28, 1968, the Philippine army raided a military training camp of Misuari followers on Corregidor Island in Manila Bay, killing many of the participants. Nur Misuari, thereafter, reorganized his group under the new name Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and founded the group's military arm, the Bangsa Moro Army. A number of additional, partially competing organizations to work for Muslim independence to various degrees were formed in the following years.
After President Marcos had declared martial law, several hundred Moslems who were members of the Mindanao Revolutionary Council for Independence, on October 21, 1972, attacked the Philippine Constabulary headquarters in Marawi City, seized the Mindanao State University and attempted to take the portal bridge on the Marawi-Iligan road. In a battle the next day, government troops regained control of the city.
In 1973, Misuari left The Country for Libya to solicit armed support from Muslim nations for the war in Mindanao. Eager to avoid military involvement of foreign powers, the Marcos government pursued an appeasement policy, agreeing to negotiations with the Muslims if only to gain time and confuse the situation.
On December 23, 1976, the Tripoli Agreement was agreed upon in the Libyan capital among three parties: the Marcos administration, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Organization of Islamic Conference. The Tripoli Agreement provided for full autonomy of the Muslim region in the southern Philippines, composed of 13 provinces. These provinces are Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Maguindanao, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Palawan.
President Marcos, on March 4, 1977, issued a decree creating the autonomous Bangsa Moro Islamic Government which gave autonomy to the 13 provinces and called for the withdrawal of all armed forces of the government. Regions 9 and 12 become autonomous but remained separated from each other.
On August 17, 1977, a referendum was held in the 13 Muslim provinces, regarding their merger. The result of the referendum did not favor the merger, and therefore it was not implemented, a fact that violated the Tripoli Agreement. For the next few years, tension again built up between the Muslims of Mindanao and the Philippine state. Large contingents of the Philippine army and constabulary were deployed on Mindanao. However, as the communist insurgency became more threatening to the Philippine government, the military didn't pursue a particularly eager campaign against Muslim forces but concentrated on tracking down and fighting units of the NPA.
After the fall of Marcos and his government, on April 9, 1986, the MNLF and the new Cory administration entered into a cease-fire agreement for Region 9. The agreement was called the Marawi City Joint Declaration. Region 9 combines the following provinces: Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, Jolo and Palawan. However, the cease-fire only held for a few months.
In the later part of the Aquino presidency, a kind of autonomy was formalized for parts of Muslim Mindanao through a so-called Organic Act for an Autonomous Muslim Mindanao. Plebiscites and elections on and for an autonomous region in Mindanao, however, showed that only a few Mindanao and Sulu provinces wanted to join the new administrative unit. In many Mindanao provinces, Muslims had become a minority and the Christian settlers that arrived just a few decades ago, as well as their Mindanao-born offspring, fear Muslim domination and voted against any special status for Mindanao or parts of Mindanao.
Furthermore, all radical secessionist organizations saw the autonomy the Philippine state was willing to grant Muslim Mindanao regions as a bogus measure, aimed only to distract larger parts of the Muslim population from pursuing real independence, a policy formerly also applied by Marcos.
Muslim Violence Against Foreigners
In recent years, the Muslim separatist movement has partially disintegrated and partially sacrificed political endeavors for material pursuits. Many splinter groups and subordinate organizations of the mainstream Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) now just act to enforce their own power and economic interests.
The three most important Muslim separatist organizations are the traditional MNLF under Nur Misuari, a moderate MNLF wing under Macabanton Abbas, and the Islamic fundamentalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), led by Hashim Salamat.
But among the Muslims, these three factions of the original MNLF are not the only armed groups. Power also grows out of the barrel of a gun for a number of traditional chiefs, majors, landlords and even governors who all maintain private armies of various sizes, and who seem to be constantly at war not only with the Philippine state but also among themselves.
In the last few years, Muslim groups were more threatening to the foreigners than the communists. They have often sown terror with disregard to those accidentally hit. Furthermore, in some Muslim areas, being a foreigner may be enough to attract armed action.
The chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari, was quoted with a blatant warning in the Daily Globe, August, 1989: "We cannot guarantee security to the foreigners seen in Mindanao and other nearby islands." The quote was from an interview with Misuari published in the Saudi Gazette. Misuari elaborated that the situation in the southern Philippines had become explosive after President Aquino had signed into law the Organic Act for an Autonomous Muslim Mindanao, as this Act was, as said above, regarded as a bogus measure. Misuari warned: "Investors and tourists should avoid entering the region."