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Moro conflict never was about religion, but over land

OTHER than their sheer insane cruelty, what is so condemnable about the bombing of the Jolo Cathedral last Sunday and that of a mosque the other day, is that it is the nth time that a tiny group of the younger generation of Moro insurgents is attempting to portray the decades-old conflict in Muslim Mindanao as a religious one.

The two bombings’ intention is as clear as it is obviously futile: To rouse anger among Catholics for the bloody bombing of this center of worship, and then among Muslims for theirs.

It won’t work, as leaders of both the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) decades ago realized. I suspect that whatever name they have given their gang, the terrorists are some young Muslims who had been brainwashed into believing that a Christian-Muslim war has been raging in Mindanao, whom Middle Eastern jihadists, probably the Islamic State, are now directing ideologically and militarily.

Many Filipinos who never lived in Muslim Mindanao, or who have never seriously studied the conflicts there, still very mistakenly believe it has been a religious war between adherents of Islam and the faithful of Christianity.

It never was, and the site of the deadly bombing, Jolo the capital of Sulu, has actually been the inarguable proof of the peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims, between the dominant Tausug and the migrant Chinese.

The Mindanao Muslims’ resistance to the Spanish and the Americans was a resistance to a foreign invader, and religion had nothing to do with their refusal to accept the yoke of colonialism.

Margarine and soap

You’ll never guess what made Muslim Mindanao into an arena of bloody conflict.

This is the invention and widespread dissemination of margarine and soap, without which Europe’s industrial revolution relying on cheap, free labor, wouldn’t have occurred. Margarine and modern soap were invented towards the end of the 19th century and became popular, necessary items starting in the 1920s.

While initially made from such things as beef fat and ash, a cheap raw material was discovered for both margarine and soap: coconut oil.

Indeed, from my researches*, the US push to colonize the Philippines — and in the case of the Dutch, Indonesia — was the project of their biggest manufacturing companies (Procter and Gamble for the former, and Unilever for the latter) to convert these tropical countries into plantations devoted to coconuts, in order to provide the raw material at the cheapest price for their main products to this day, margarine and soap. The US-Philippine free trade agreement of 1910 made copra (from which coconut oil is squeezed) cheaper for Procter and Gamble than cottonseed oil, which it first used for its manufacture of margarine and soap.

What’s this got to do with the Moro conflict? A whole lot.

After converting virgin forests into coconut farms in such areas as Bicol, Quezon and Samar, the Philippine comprador class that supplied the copra to the US and Dutch margarine and soap manufacturers, turned to Mindanao, and found it to be their profit-paradise.

With the Muslims’ feudal structure, traders could easily transform vast tracts of land into coconut plantations by just talking to and bribing one man, the datu, who would then order his clan to plant the trees. In Luzon and the Visayas, they had to convince (or fool through loans) numerous small farmers to all convert to coconut planting at the same time.

The traders though took advantage of the Muslims’ ignorance of formal, individual property rights so that the datu would find his community’s lands titled to a trader, with his people becoming plantation workers. Migrants from Luzon and the Visayas easily fooled Muslims into unwittingly turning over their lands to them, to be converted into coconut production.

Copra-producing areas

Look at the provinces where the Moro rebellion has been waging for decades — Sulu, the Zamboanga peninsula, Maguindanao — and these are predominantly copra-producing areas.

The first Moro secession groups calculated that by seceding these areas from the Republic, Muslims would easily recover the lands lost by their ancestors to the compradors.

It was only the MNLF, however, that made headway in rousing Muslim communities for such a project, and to organize an armed force strong enough to challenge the military because of one crucial factor that had never before existed: the emergence of the state of Malaysia.

The MNLF grew because of the huge financial support given by Malaysia. Its British mercenaries also trained the MNLF’s officers corps, that the Philippine army would be stunned at their tactics in the battlefield. Malaysia also made the neighboring Sabah, reachable by small boats, as the MNLF’s refuge, an ingredient that has been crucial in almost all successful revolutions.

Malaysia calculated that by helping a Moro insurgency, the Marcos government would be too tied down to attempt a military invasion of Sabah, which both the strongman Marcos and his predecessor Diosdado Macapagal had become aggressive in claiming.


More importantly, Tun Mustapha, the first governor of Sabah after it became a federal state with Malaysia’s independence in 1957, was a Tausug, who felt that Sulu was part of a community of Tausugs. The MNLF would also get crucial support from Libya’s Gaddafi, whose notion of an Islamic socialism was similar to MNLF Nur Misauri’s ideology, influenced by the communist worldview of Jose Ma. Sison.

Nur and his MNLF never advanced an Islamist view, believing only that the Muslims of Mindanao should have their homeland,
“Bangsamoro,” the lands stolen by non-Muslims returned to them.

When the MNLF split in the mid-1970s, after Nur reached a peace settlement with the Marcos government, the breakaway group called itself the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, purportedly in rebellion against Nur’s neglect of Islam as its spiritual guide.

But this was more of propaganda intended to get the support of the rich Muslim countries, where in the mid-1970s Islamic leaders started espousing jihadist ideologies that would create such terrorist groups as al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The real reason for the MILF’s split from the MNLF was tribal, with the former’s base of support mostly in Maguindanao-dominated central Mindanao, in contrast to the latter’s Tausug Sulu. The MILF leaders were sore at Nur that the MNLF’s finances were mostly going to Sulu, and its hierarchy dominated by Tausugs.

As shown in this brief history, jihadist Islam hardly played a role in the Moro insurgency. The MNLF and MILF occasionally did try to portray their rebellion as a resistance to a Christian plot to wipe out Muslims, thus the Jabidah “massacre” that didn’t occur, as I’ve written**, and the so-called Malisbong massacre, which I will soon write, was a scam to get money from the Human Rights Victims Compensation Fund. |

If one studies the history of the Moro conflict, it would be crystal-clear that the bombing of the Jolo Cathedral, and other horrors like the beheading of innocents by the Abu Sayyaf and a group paying homage to the IS, are total aberrations. They are the work of a tiny group of young Muslims, brainwashed — ironically because of that modern technology, the internet — that they could spark a jihad in Mindanao.

They make up a murderous band of sociopaths which government even with the help of the MNLF and the MILF, should destroy without mercy.

*The Philippine Coconut Industry (ARC Publication, 1981)
** Debunked (Akropolis Publishing, 2018)


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