A Long History of Injustice Ignored: The Moros of the Philippines

Sheila Musaji

Posted Nov 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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A Long History of Injustice Ignored: The Moros of the Philippines

Sheila Musaji

The name Moros was given by the Spanish meaning Moors or Muslims.  Since the “terrorism” word is now being used against the Moros, and the Philippines is promoting a local anti-terrorism bill with sweeping implications, I felt the need to do a little research.

There are about 12 million indigenous peoples in the Philippines - groups which have not been Christianized or Hispanicized - the Moros and the Igorots are the two most important because of their numerical size, demographic concentration, and political organization.

There are twelve peoples whose shared religion, Islam, and shared historical experience, persecution by Spaniards and later Filipinos, have formed a distinct nation called the Bangsamoro.  They are located primarily in Basilan, Mindanao, Palawan, and the Sulu Archipelago.

The Muslim Moros in the South of the Philippines see themselves as involved in a continuing rebellion against outside forces which has gone on for 450 years - first Spain, then America, then the Central Philippine Government, and now America again.

It appears that in the year 1380 the first Mohammedan missionary, a noted Arabian judge named Makdum introduced the religion to the Philippines. The ruins of the mosque he built at Tubig-Indangan on the island of Simunul are still to be seen.  Later, about 1400, the Rajah Baguinda continued the work of Makdum. The remarkable campaign of this missioner ended on Sibutu Island where he lies buried today in the village of Tandu-Banak. The work of Baguinda appears to have been confined to the islands of the Sulu Archipelago. To Shereef Kabungsuwan is credited the conversion of Mindanao. ...  A Mohammedan settlement was established in Borneo as early as 1400, and Malacca was penetrated in 1276. The Portuguese Moluccas was converted by 1456.  The Swish of the Kris, Vic Hurley

The Muslims were set up under a series of Sultanates, for example the Sultanate of Mindanao and the Sultanate of Sulu.  By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s the Sultan of Sulu was the sixth sultan to rule.


Read the Swish of the Kris for a history of how after the Spanish conquest gave them a foothold in the north of the Philippines, the Moros withdrew to their strongholds in the South to continue fighting to retain their independence.  In the north, the Spanish brought Christianity in much the same way they brought it to North and South America—through subjugation, forced labor and the sword.

The struggle of the Moro people for freedom and self-determination is one of the longest, if not the longest, struggles in the history of mankind. Their struggle began with the “discovery” of the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, who claimed the island for Spain. The Moros rejected his claim, and Lapu Lapu subsequently killed him, a Moro Muslim leader. From then on, the Moros were in a fight for their independence and freedom.

The Spanish differentiated the two natives of the archipelago into pagan Malays (Indios) and Muslim Malays (named Moros after the Spanish Moors). Their policy was simply to convert the Indios to Christianity and kill the Moros. The military resistance against the Spanish lasted over 350 years, until the Spanish were defeated by the Americans in the 1898 Spanish-American war. Despite the fact the Spanish had never colonized the Morolands, Spain included Mindanao in the Treaty of Paris, which transferred sovereignty to the United States.

The US then attempted to subdue and disarm the Moros. Such was the resistance, that the US Army ordered the upgrade of the standard issue Colt .38-caliber pistol to the more powerful Colt .45-caliber, in order to stop the knife-wielding Moros. Their frenetic and oft suicidal style of fighting gave us the expression, “running amok”. The colonial administration then began passing laws that would quell Moro aspirations of independence by migrating large numbers of Christian Indios to the region.

In 1903, all Moro land holdings were declared null and void and made open to land grabbing. In 1913, law was passed allowing Christians to own up to 16 hectares, whereas a Muslim could only own 8. In 1919, Christian land entitlement was generously extended to 24 hectares. An Enduring Freedom For the Moros, Amir Butler


The Philippines were ceded to America by Spain at the end of the Spanish American War, although the Philippines had declared their Independence from Spain in 1896.  The U.S. fought the Philippine-American War between 1899 and 1913 in order to make the Philippines which had only recently declared its independence from Spain an American colony.  Like other warsӔ we have fought there was never any formal declaration of war, although this didnt make the dead any less dead.  This undeclared war ended in 1902 in the North,  although the Muslim Moros in the South refused to submit and continued fighting until 1916.  In America this was known as the Moro Rebellion.

Mark Twain wrote about one incident in this war with the Moros in an article entitled Incident in the Philippines  In this article he describes 600 Moros hiding out in the bottom of a crater and how they were surrounded by Gen. Leonard Woods forces who ringed the top of this crater and shot down into it until ԓThe enemy numbered six hundred-including women and children-and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

Twain knew that his view of this atrocity went against the prevailing mood of his fellow countrymen and so this was among the many essays he requested be published after his death.

ԔAlthough the final draft of the peace treaty which Madrid did sign provided for the sale of the Philippines, including Moroland, to the United States for 20 million Mexican dollars, President William McKinley had doubts as to Spain’s legal right to dispose of Moroland. He, therefore, instructed the Schurman Commission - the first U.S. government body to administer the Philippines - to investigate the legal status of the Moros. If it was determined that the Moros were independent of the Philippines, bilateral treaties were to be negotiated especially with the Sultanate of Sulu. A commercial treaty had already existed between the U.S. and Sulu since 1842.

The result was the Bates Treaty. Negotiated between two, equal, sovereign states - the United States and the Sultanate of Sulu - the treaty was signed on August 20, 1899. This was eight months after the Treaty of Paris had been signed ending the Spanish-American War. By this document - which officially states that any subsequent changes to the treaty could only occur by mutual consent - Washington officially acknowledged that the Moros were not part of the Philippines and specifically guaranteed to respect the identity and the integrity of the Sulu Sultanate. In return, the sultan recognized U.S. sovereignty.

On March 21, 1904, the U.S. government unilaterally, and illegally, abrogated the Bates Treaty. The sultan responded by officially expressing his surprise and sadness by Washington’s action.  The abrogation of the Bates Treaty provoked a war with the Moros which lasted until 1913. The subsequent Carpenter Agreement of 1915 by which the Sultan of Sulu formally relinquished all political authority was illegal as it was signed under American military coercion. This document, however, relinquished political power only to the United States government not to the Philippines. Igorot and Moro National Re-emergence, Joseph E. Fallon


“On Dec. 8, 1941, the islands were invaded by Japanese troops. Following the fall of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces at Bataan and Corregidor, Quezon established a government-in-exile that he headed until his death in 1944. He was succeeded by Vice President Sergio Osmea. U.S. forces under MacArthur reinvaded the Philippines in Oct. 1944 and, after the liberation of Manila in Feb. 1945, Osmea reestablished the government. The Philippines
“When independence from the US was imminent, the Moro leadership pled not to be included in the new “Independent Philippines”. Yet, on July 4, 1946, when independence was proclaimed, the Morolands were incorporated against their wishes, as they had been with the handover from Spain to the US. An Enduring Freedom For the Moros, Amir Butler

But the region, and its six million Muslims, remain apart and distinct from the rest of the 71 million Christian Filipinos. During the 1960s and 1970s, Christian settlers, backed by the Manila government, began pushing into the economically backward, long-neglected south, in many cases stealing land and driving out its Muslim owners in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Civil war erupted and the Muslim farmers fought back. During the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine army and the gangs of paramilitary thugs killed an estimated 50,000 Muslims from 1969-1971 - without a peep of protest from Marcos’ American sponsors.

Two years later, the Moro National Liberation Front was formed in response to Marco’s imposition of martial law. The MNLF, which was financed by Libya, called for an independent Muslim state - Bangsomoro. Three years of heavy fighting between the MNLF and the US-armed Manila regime left over 100,000 Muslims dead; 250,000 were driven from their homes. The world again ignored this massacre.In the mid-1970s, Libya brokered a peace between Manila, the MNLF, and a breakaway group, the MILF. The MNLF leader, Nur Misuari, joined the government, and rebel forces were integrated into the national army. The Muslim regions of southern Philippines were granted autonomy. But tensions simmered on. Christian settlers continued to press the south; Moro factions battled with one another and failed to develop effective local government.”Philippines:// Next Target of Bush’s War, Eric Margolis

The pattern of migrating Christians to Moro lands continued. In the 1950s, Northern peasants formed the New People’s Army and staged a Maoist rebellion. In order to defuse the situation, the government, under the auspices of the Economic Development Corp (EDCOR) began migrating these peasants to the Moro south and giving them seized parcels of Moro land.

In 1968, anger at Manilla reached a new level, when the US-backed Ferdinand Marcos executed nearly 70 Muslim commando recruits to keep secret an aborted plan to invade Sabah, in Malaysia’s Borneo. When Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, the Moros went to war after a quarter of a century of relative dormancy. Shortly afterwards, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed, which called for an independent Moro state - Bangsamoro. They fought the US-armed Manilla regime for twenty-five years, leaving at least 100,000 Moros dead, and 250,000 driven from their homes. In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace deal with the Philippine government. An Enduring Freedom For the Moros, Amir Butler


In a war that has been criticized for it’s double-standards, this latest US military adventure (Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002) will do little to change perceptions. 

America is helping fight the 800-strong Abu Sayyaf, whilst overlooking the New People’s Army, who represents a force of over 12,000 fighters. They’ve been staging a communist insurgency in the north for the last 30 years, and have killed over 40,000 people so far ...

The problems in the Morolands have little to do with international terrorism, but have everything to do with the injustices meted out to the Moro people for centuries. The solution to the Moro problem is the same as the solution to the East Timor problem. There must be a referendum under UN supervision similar to the one conducted in the former Portuguese colony.

After over 450 continuous years of struggling for independence, the Moros don’t need “Operation Enduring Freedom”, they just need freedom. An Enduring Freedom For the Moros, Amir Butler


Arroya Guilty of Rights Violations in Mindanao http://islamonline.net/English/News/2005-08/22/article05.shtml

Camp Where Muslims Are Detained Likened to Auschwitz http://www.mindanews.com/2005/10/11vcs-bagongdiwa.html

The Corregidor Massacre of Muslims in 1968 under Marcos http://corregidor.org/heritage_battalion/jabidah.html 

Ethnic Cleansing in Mindanao http://www.twf.org/News/Y1997/Mindanao.html

International Report Slams Philippines Over Moro http://www.islamonline.net/English/News/2004-04/27/article02.shtml

International Team Records Injustices Against Moro http://islamonline.net/English/News/2005-08/22/article05.shtml

Islam’s Journey Into Southeast Asia http://www.islam-online.net/English/ArtCulture/2005/10/article01.shtml

Manila Needs a Realistic Approch to Mindanao http://www.islamonline.net/english/Views/2001/08/article8.shtml

Mindanao To Get Own Constitution http://www.mindanews.com/2005/10/11vcs-bagongdiwa.html

The Moro Jihad, Sheikh Abu Zaheir   http://www.islamawareness.net/Asia/Philippines/struggle.html

Muslim Separatism in the Philippines, Thomas M. McKenna http://www.asiasource.org/asip/mckenna.cfm

Muslim Separatism in the Philippines http://www.asiasource.org/asip/mckenna.cfm

The Philippine American War http://www.historyguy.com/PhilipineAmericanwar.html

Philippines Next Target of Bush᱒s War, Eric Margolis

Proposed ID System For Muslims in Manila Spurned http://www.islamonline.net/English/News/2004-03/23/article04.shtml

2000 Massacre of Muslim civilians under President Estrada http://www.muslimedia.com/archives/sea00/phil-estra.htm

2004 plan to issue identity cards for Muslims only http://www.cair-net.org/default.asp?Page=articleView&id=33043&theType=NB 

by courtesy &  2005 The American Muslim  republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.