Triumph, Then Tragedy in the Philippines

Once in a while, there is a glint of optimism in Muslim Mindanao, on the Philippines’ wildest island, a region long torn by sectarian violence and dominated by warlords.

So it was when cars honked in the night in Cotabato City for victory in a plebiscite for a greater autonomous region that has been almost two decades in the making. A strong 59 percent of voters opted to join the new Bangsamoro entity against 41 percent who voted no.

But then, on Jan. 27, barely two days after the law for a Bangsamoro – the autonomous land for the island’s Muslims – was ratified, explosions on Sunday tore through the Catholic cathedral in the Jolo capital of Sulu, one of the southernmost islands, which for even more decades has been prone to danger and terrorism. Twenty people were killed and 112 were injured. And on Jan. 30, an unknown motorcyclist threw a grenade into a Zamboanga City mosque, killing two and injuring four.

At this point, it is uncertain who set the bombs or threw the grenade. The Islamic State, which is believed to be growing in the region, claimed responsibility for the Catholic church attack, the most lethal in the Philippines since 2004. But authorities believe it was the Ajang-Ajang group within Abu Sayyaf, and have linked the group to Hatib Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf commander.

Whoever the perpetrator, it was a shocking slap for those who might have thought peace would come easy in this part of the country, which has seen violence turn like clockwork for almost half a century. The plebiscite was a second attempt to create a better framework for autonomy after the previous one that didn’t bring the fragmented region anywhere near the threshold of peace and progress.

Somehow the shock of the explosions, coming in the aftermath of a celebration, was a warning foretold of shattered dreams of aspirations for the country’s Muslim minority, living in a homeland that has shrunk since the colonial years. It has become the poorest of the lot and a cauldron of political and military troubles.

Sulu was against the so-called Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the only one of the five original autonomous provinces that resisted the move in forming a three-year transitional parliament leading to region-wide elections. Sulu is the island from which the radical Abu Sayyaf group sprang, the military also blaming the rebels for the explosions. Saying ‘no’ to the law was also a clear indication of how the political Tausug family ruling Sulu rejected being subordinate to another ethnic Muslim group.

More than anything, Muslim Mindanao is fissured by clan rivalries and cultural temperaments dividing the major ethnicities of the Tausugs, Maguindanaoans, and Maranaos. Their differences, whether or not it comes to naught, is the classic reason behind the lack of governance, and when this happens violence is sure to follow.

The law was the fruit of years of negotiations between government and leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is largely Maguindanaoans and based in the mainland of central Mindanao, where Cotabato City is located. Their challenge was to bring everyone to the fold of the autonomous region, and to learn once and for all from the failed lessons from the 1990s under a former Tausug rebel leader.

Cotabato City was the litmus test of the plebiscite, ironically the seat of the autonomous regional headquarters even though the city had before voted itself out of Muslim Mindanao. In the years of on-again, off-again peace talks, it has come to deem itself secular and progressive with sprouts of cafés, restaurants, mini-malls – a colorful change from when streets were dark and deserted at the height of the MILF threat, their main camp and the army division headquarters equidistant from the city center.

The fight was simply a yes or a no for the Bangsamoro law, but it also scaled away the veneer of a political war between two powerful Muslim women: the mayor who said the city had little to gain from a future administration to be run by former rebel leaders, and a congresswoman who said the law, albeit modified from the original, was what Muslim Mindanao has been waiting for.

This underscores, as it did for Sulu, how much clans play into the power politics of the region and the fear that it would undermine the governance it desperately needs to lift itself out of poverty and the violence that has claimed hundreds of lives. It has over the years seen rebel groups splintering and building up forces, ostensibly because of what was a long delay in the peace process.

The Muslim population of Cotabato City has grown in the past five years due to an influx of people displaced from armed conflict. The highway connecting the city to the neighboring province of Lanao del Sur of the Maranao tribe used to be an exhilarating drive through an expanse of coconut fields, now narrowed by pop-up shelters, provision stores, and dozens of tarpaulins bearing congratulatory messages, all hugging the road.

The warning of consequences sits in Lanao del Sur’s Islamic capital of Marawi, the site of devastation from a five-month battle in 2017 between the military and Islamist fighters that reduced the city literally to rubble. The same thing had happened to Sulu at the start of the separatist rebellion in the 1970s, which erased what its people called a paradise. The explosions last Sunday at the cathedral could drive a religious wedge through the fairly peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in the island city despite the presence of radical rebel groups.

Next week Lanao del Norte will hold its own separate plebiscite for six of its municipalities that are Muslim strongholds in a predominantly Christian province. Run by a powerful Muslim family that has been around for decades, it would rather stay out of the Muslim Mindanao autonomous region to preserve its political base. They’re just fine where they are as long as their neighbor keeps the buffer from spreading the kind of violent extremism seen in Marawi, brought on by rebels hewing to the Islamic State.

Most people of Marawi want to return to the ruins of their homes. They say that’s where they have built their lives, attached to their land and the memories drawn from it. Sulu had also tried to preserve what they had – the cathedral among the landmarks of the city – but it was never the same again. These are examples of how Muslim Mindanao has become a story of loss. It would take a lot more than memories to harness the people of different tribes and clans, heal from the violence, and break a path for a new Bangsamoro.

Criselda Yabes ( is a prize-winning reporter and author and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel