It’s practically an article of faith among the Muslim separatist groups: the Muslims in the Philippines are not part of the Christian majority, are not even Filipinos, and have their own culture, beliefs, traditions and history. It’s true enough — except in one outstanding respect: with most Filipino Christians, the separatists (the word is used advisedly) share fealty to the idea that the problems of this land can be solved only with US intervention.

That’s the subtext of one of the recent issuances from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Secretariat as well as of the recent history of MILF-US engagement. In a statement issued a day after the visit to the Philippines of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretariat Chair Muhammad Ameen bragged that in response to a letter the MILF had written to US President Barack Obama, the MILF’s chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, had met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel last November 6 in Makati City. Marciel, said Ameen, handed to Iqbal Obama’s reply to the MILF letter.

Ameen refused to disclose the contents of Obama’s reply, but one can pretty much guess what it said. The MILF had earlier issued a statement asking Hillary Clinton to press the Arroyo government to sign a peace agreement with the MILF, and Clinton did exactly that, and in public too, when she declared during that interminable, US Embassy/ABS-CBN November 13 forum at the University of Santo Tomas that “the time was ripe” for such an agreement.

We can presume that she said the same thing to the Philippine government in private. In what could not have been mere coincidence, a statement echoing Clinton was issued by Press Secretary Cerge Remonde from Singapore (where he was in attendance to Mrs. Arroyo in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting) on the same date as the MILF statement. Remonde dwelt on Clinton’s statement during the UST forum that the outgoing Arroyo regime was “very committed” and “fully prepared” to make the “difficult decisions” needed to make peace with the MILF before it (hopefully) leaves office in June 2010.

“It’s better for the MILF to seal a peace deal with this administration” instead of waiting for the next one, said Remonde, because “it has demonstrated its desire to achieve equitable, genuine and lasting peace in Mindanao — something the MILF cannot be assured of in the next administration.”

US involvement in the MILF-Philippine government negotiations couldn’t be more evident. But US brokering in the peace process in Mindanao — at the request and with the enthusiastic support of the MILF — did not begin with the Obama administration, but goes as far back to at least 2003, when, says the US Congress-funded US Institute of Peace, the late MILF chair Hashim Salamat requested US support for the Mindanao peace process in a letter to then US President George W. Bush.

In response, said USIP, an elated Bush (has any other Muslim separatist group gone to the same lengths?) told Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in May 2003 that the US would support “a renewed peace process” if the MILF “addresses its grievances through peaceful negotiations”.

One can argue that the MILF strategy to finally win even its maximum goal of independence is premised on the imperatives of realpolitik. It knows that the Philippine government would bend more easily to foreign, particularly US pressure, than to internal ones. Part of the MILF strategy is to tell the US what it wants to hear, among them the MILF’s openness to the establishment of US military bases within the territories over which a peace agreement would guarantee MILF control.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said as much in 2008 during the public debates on the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain fiasco: “If the American interest is really in pushing this peace process, then we can talk about military bases.” “Talking about” US military bases would be possible only if the territories the MILF would have control over as a result of a peace agreement — in the aborted 2008 MOA-AD, labeled the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) — would be independent rather than merely autonomous. Despite past US assurances that it would not support demands for Moro independence, independence could nevertheless result from a peace agreement forged and signed hastily under US pressure. The MILF would then realize its maximum aim of separation from the Philippines rather than mere autonomy.

Terrific. Except that the US price for independence/autonomy may not be as fair as the MILF expects. It may not be limited to extracting an agreement to host US military bases, but would almost certainly include the right to exploit the natural resources of prospective MILF territories.

The MILF strategy forgets the record in these parts of Muslim-US engagement. Despite a pledge to respect the fact that the Muslims were never under effective Spanish control, the US nevertheless signed the Treaty of Paris with Spain at the turn of the century. The Treaty ceded to the US those Muslim areas in Sulu and Mindanao that were never part of Spain’s Philippine colony.

The marginalization and neglect of the Muslims of Mindanao in the colonial and post-colonial era were driven by US colonial policy, and by the copycat policies of all Philippine governments since 1946. The focus of US policy in the 46 years it was sovereign in the Philippines was on Christianizing and de-Islamizing Mindanao through the resettlement of Christians from Luzon and the Visayas. Every one of the US’ client governments after 1946 continued that policy, and reduced Muslim dominance from 98 percent of the population at the turn of the 20th century to the current 20 percent, or 3.2 million, of the total Mindanao population of 16 million.

Inviting and getting US intervention is the MILF and other Bangsamoro groups’ call. But they could do worse than to take a look back at what happened in history.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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