Unraveling the Mindanao Conflict through the Lens of John Paul Lederach's Psalm 85 Framework

Eric Demeter

November, 2013

Additional insights discussing intractable conflicts are offered by Beyond Intractability participants.


The conflict in Mindanao, Philippines is complicated, and there are a myriad of leaders and political groups that are associated with it. Three main Muslim separatists groups lie at the heart of the conflict. These groups fight for their right of self determiniaton over a relatively small piece of land in Western Mindanao.  The battles are frequent with the government and with Christian communities, as the Moro population claims ownership of the land due to the concept of ancestral domain.

Conflict Terms

This battle over land and self determination is a veritable puzzle, because the parties are numerous, and the time-frame spans centuries. Therefore, the first hurdle to unraveling this intractable conflict is to define the many terms and acronyms that are involved.


  • Moro: “a Muslim inhabitant of the Philippines[1]
  • GRP/GPH: Government of the Republic of the Philippines, or Republic of the Philippines, or Philippine Government
  • MNLF: Moro National Liberation Front
    Founded in 1971, and is “formally recognized by the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference) as an “observer member[2]” The 1996 Jakarta Peace Agreement brought MNLF into the mainstream as it “launched” them into a “demobilisation and reintegration process[3]”. The MNLF supports “secular administration” of their government[4]. They signed the ARMM agreement with the federal government, which, in theory, demilitarized the MNLF.
This agreement legitimized the MNLF and it brought them into the mainstream, to the chagrin of the breakaway group, the MILF. At the same time, some members of the MNLF currently seem to be regressing into using their old, violent ways.
  • MILF: Moro Islamic Liberation Front
    The first breakaway group from the MNLF in 1976[5]. They take a more hard- line approach than the MNLF and are “more radical[6]” in their religious and political views because they believe that 1) “the Bangsamoro Land should be an Independent Islamic State”, and (2) “the Bangsamoro freedom fighters should not negotiate with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines[7]” (even though they are now the main negotiators with GPH). The MILF uses Sharia law for their courts for dispute settlement, and are trying to create a “microstate” by performing community-friendly acts and socioeconomic developments[8] (sort of like Hamas).
  • ASG: Abu Sayyaf Group
    This is the second group that splintered from the MNLF. The United States lists ASG as terrorist organization[9] for good reasons.
  • Bangsamoro: Pertains to the land of the Moro, specifically central and western Mindanao[10].
  • ARMM: Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao
    This is the area in western Mindanao that the government allowed the Moro to self-rule to pacify the separatist movement. It is made up of “predominantly Muslims” and includes the provinces of “Basilan (except Isabela City), Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi[11]”. ARMM still subjugates itself (in theory) to the Filipino federal government, because the government can still “levy taxes” and “fees” on it, according to the national constitution[12]. ARMM was created in 1987 by president Corazon Aquino, Benigno’s (the current president) mother, but has now “become a byword for inefficiency and corruption. Crucially, it did not stop the war[13]”.
  • Ancestral Domain: This is the idea that the Moros have a right to be self-determinate, based on the hundreds of years they have occupied the western lands of Mindanao.
  • MOA-AD: “Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement of Peace of June 22, 2001[14]”.
  • Sultanates: Land “areas” in Mindanao[15]
  • FAB: “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro”
    It is the interim peace agreement with the MILF by President Benigno S. Aquino in October 2012[16].
  • AFP: Armed Forces of the Philippines
  • BIFF: Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters
    They deny the FAB agreement and believe MILF is a “sellout” for supporting it. They desire to annex part of western Mindanao fully, and without compromise.
  • Lumad or Bangsa-Mamalu: These are “indigenous people living in Mindanao[17]”, and are not necessarily Muslim.
  • New People’s Army: This is a “MILF splinter group” that still “remains at war with the central government[18]”.
  • OIC: Organization of Islamic Conference
    “The Organization is the collective voice of the Muslim world and ensuring to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world[19].” The MNLF group has observer status in the OIC.
  • Barangays: Filipino villages

Key People:

  • President Benigno Aquino III: President of Philippines, 2010-current
  • Ibrahim Muran: Leader of the MILF
  • Nur Misuari: “founding member of MNLF”. “Malik is known as a warrior and has outstanding arrest warrants, including for the death of two American servicemen in a roadside bombing in 2009[20]”. Misuari declared the independence of Mindanao and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Republik [sic][21], and only exacerbated the conflict in doing so.
  • Habier Malik: National Liberation Front commander[22]

Mindanao Facts: Geography

The Philippines has over 7,100 islands, “of which more than 800 are inhabited[23]”. Mindanao is the second largest of the three main islands. The U.S. State Department does not advise travel to Mindanao and advises U.S. citizens to “exercise extreme caution on the island of Mindanao[24]”.The author of this article has traveled to Mindanao three times, residing in two major cities: Surigao and Davao City. In all these visits, it has been strongly suggested to him that he stay inside the city limits, which he has done, and has felt perfectly safe.

Map of Conflict in Mindanao[25]
 Map of Conflict in Mindanao

Mindanao Facts: Religion

Mindanao has a population of about 84 million, and the vast majority of those (about 81%) consider themselves Roman Catholic[26]. Muslims make up about 5% of the population (about 3.9 million) and the majority of them live in western Mindanao. The actual number of Muslims might be skewed, however, due to inaccurate census taking methods in the year 2000—actual number of Muslims may be about 8-12 million[27]. The two main Muslim ethic groups in Mindanao are the Maranao and the Maguindanao[28].

Overview of the Conflict

The Muslim groups in Mindanao, also known as “Moro” people, have never seen themselves as belonging to the Philippines proper. The MNFL and MILF both claim that they have the right of ancestral domain over the disputed territory in Mindanao. They use the argument that their occupancy has been solidified since the 14th century, which falls well within the “standards” of ancestral domain. The ancestral domain issue is a long, and complicated problem. I found three international documents and one national document that explained the criteria for ancestral domain in detail. These include:

  1. 1989 International Labor Organization Convention No. 169
  2. 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity
  3. 2007 United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  4. Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 (National level)

These documents give the MILF a solid foundation for validating their right for the ancestral domain cause, but the issue, again is complicated, and without further in-depth study, it only needs to be noted here that idea of ancestral domain is a direct conflict-of-interest with the Filipino government. This is validated by the fact that the Philippine Supreme Court officially rejected their ancestral domain argument in 2008, which spurred a “strong military response[29]” from the MILF.
The MNLF, who before, was the dominant separatist group, has been losing political and social influence in recent years. Since their official demilitarization in1996, they have been integrated into the mainstream reconciliation process with their more moderate views, even though their website takes a more “hard-line” approach. But again, this is a complicated group because it seems to be full of contradictions. On one hand, the international Muslim community has legitimized them by the OIC granting them observer-member status, but now, they are losing influence within their own country. This is because currently, the Filipino government now negotiates primarily with their counterparts—the MILF.
To further expand on the MNLF’s dichotomies, on one hand they are officially demilitarized, but one of their factions just bombed Zamboanga City this past September. Dichotomies such as these are numerous in this conflict, which makes it difficult to fully understand.

The next group, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), is the most radical of the three main separatist groups. As stated earlier, they are officially listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization[30]. The United States Counterterrorism Center, writes that ASG “is the most violent of the Islamic separatist groups operating in the southern Philippines and claims to promote an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Split from the Moro National Liberation Front in the early 1990s, the group currently engages in bombings, assassinations”. According to Wikipedia, “Abu Sayyaf is intolerant to other religions and called for continuous Jihad to pursue a pure Islamic State and believes in the "killing of enemies" and "depriving them of their wealth" (kidnap for ransom)[31]”. Furthermore, in a press release from their website in August of this year, the MILF, to their credit, decried the “suspicious release” of eighteen Abu Sayyaf prisoners from Bicutan Jail by the federal government[32].

This conflict, in many ways, is analogous to that of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. The Philippines would be Israel, the MNLF and MILF would be the PA, and ASG would be Hamas. This analogy is valid because the Filipino government is worried about security in Mindanao, just like Israel is about Gaza and the West Bank. The PA is like the MNLF and MILF because they both began as a hard-line, violent group (and still use violence occasionally), but now they have taken a more moderate approach, as they struggle to find their place in the Filipino State. Finally, ASG is like Hamas, because they still openly use violence (“jihad”) as a means to pursue their goals. Overall, this is a wide lens to see the conflict through, but I believe that this struggle has certainly has taken notes from our friends in the Middle East.
The idea of “self determination” is at the heart of the conflict between the MNLF, MILF, and the GPH. Their desire to annex western Mindanao gets powered by the lack of economic development and the resulting major poverty in the region; thus, it creates a positive feedback loop that reciprocally reinforces itself: the more poverty, the more separation; the more separation, the more poverty. And, as usual in these conflicts, the local people find themselves in the middle of it, and at the “centre of competing incentives from the rebel and government forces for loyalty, support, and local resources[33]”.
Another important factor in this conflict puzzle is the inter-fighting between the different Moro groups. Just on May 6th of 2013, “[clan] members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under the Sebangan Kutawato Revolutionary State Committee clashed with members of the MILF under the 105th base command in Barangay Marbel, Matalam[34].” This is surprising because the MNLF is not supposed to have a military but apparently the still have armed forces available.

Background of Conflict

Muslim missionaries arrived in the province of Tawi-Tawi in 1380, and started converting the people to Islam[35]. As the Spanish colonizers overtook land in Mindanao by “simply declaring a change of ownership as an act of protection over the territory claimed[36]” In the 16th century, the Muslims “successfully resisted the subjugation by the Spanish colonial forces” and resisted Christian missionaries to begin their separatist movement. The Muslims identity, and their connection to the lands, was beginning to solidify because the “majority of the Filipinos who were converted to Christianity[37]”. “
“The conflict was sparked by a series of resettlement programs within Mindanao by the central government in the 1950s up to the 1970s. This led to widespread dispossession of lands previously owned by the Moros and the indigenous peoples in Mindanao by Christian settlers[38].”

Current Status: Political View

Just on September 22nd, Nur Misuari, of the MNLF, led “deadly attacks on Zamboanga City” that left “140 dead”. This was in response to the peace agreement that is forming between the federal government and the MNLF’s “rival group, the MILF. Misuari also wants the “full implementation” ARMM agreement that was signed in 1996[39]
At the same time, another MNLF leader, Dima Ambel in the province, stated that “they [other MNLF members] will not follow the action of the followers of Misuari in Zamboanga City and Basilan[40]”. This is a positive sign that another MNLF leader is abstaining from using violence, but again, it shows the inconsistency and discrepancy within one of the major organizations in the conflict.
Like the MNLF, the MILF has factions as well. BIFF, or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, “broke ranks” with the MILF in 2008[41] and claims the MILF “sold out” by signing the FAB (interim peace agreement with the MILF by President Benigno S. Aquino in October 2012) because it falls short of establishing an “Islamic state” for the Bangsamoro people[42].”
Regardless of all the factions and inner-group conflict, President Aquino III is committed to a lasting peace agreement because his term ends in 2016, and he probably desires to leave legacy of having resolved this conflict. He initiated a new step in the peace process by “forging” the FAB agreement with the MILF, that provides for the “creation of the Transition Commission (TC), which will eventually evolve into the Transition Authority (TA) until the full implementation of the new Bangsamoro political entity in 2016[43]”.   
The president wants to give Bangsamoro more “autonomous powers, including raising taxes and a police force. It will be run be elected ministers operating on parliamentary lines, in contrast to Manila’s presidential system[44]”.
One other point that should not left out is that there are many Christians living in Mindanao and they worry about how a “Muslim-led government will override their concerns[45]”. This is one other important conflict that has received little attention in my research.

Current Status: Poverty and People

Poverty is rampant in Mindanao. According to the charity Oxfam, “Poverty rates in the ARMM are 45.4%, nearly double the national average of 24.4%” and resulting in the most “formidable” obstacle to peace in the region[46]. Furthermore, Maguindanao is the main operating province for MILF and its’ one of the “10 poorest provinces of the Philippines” and only “42 per cent of the population have completed elementary education[47]”. Overall, ARMM has a “per capita gross regional domestic product of only PhP3,433 [$79 USD] in 2005” which is “75.8 percent lower than the national average of Php14,186 [$326 USD][48]”.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the main reason, 54 percent of those surveyed, for youth participation in the MILF surveyed is because of poverty[49]. But other local people, as well, are supporting the MILF less and less because of poverty[50]. They mainly support them in secret but their overt support is decreasing because of their economic circumstances. The civilian support for the MILF is also decreasing as the AFP (government’s military) influence increases in the disputed areas. The sustainability of these rebel groups and the local population are intimately connected. The MILF and MNLF need the civilian population to legitimize them, and the local people need their protection at times, but this isn’t happening and the overt civilian support is waning.

This identity-based conflict seems to be making solid progress, even amidst the different factions and “spoilers” to the peace process. The federal government and MILF, the main organization interacting them, are all hoping to have a permanent peace agreement by 2016. They just finished their 41st round of “exploratory talks[51]” in October of this year.
This conflict is also ripe for reconciliation because the people desire it. In the past, local villagers sent their children to MNLF and MILF training camps for various reasons, but the “cost of training youth in the camp is often borne by the families themselves[52].” This burden on the families has helped decrease youth recruitment in the separatist groups.
As stated earlier, there are also “few economic incentives for participation[53]” in these groups as well. Unlike Hamas in Gaza, they the MILF and MNLF have not been successful in developing successful medical care facilities or in developing the local economies.
The international community has also been investing financially and politically in the situation for the economic growth and stability of Mindanao. The President Aquino has dedicated himself to economic development, and the EU just donated 8 million Euro to a fund that supports Mindanao[54]. Even Malaysia has been involved politically in the conflict, and has urged Muslims to understand that “they must live under current national governments…[55]
Finally, the soldiers from the MILF are defecting now, due to the MILF’s overall impotence caused by “defection” and a “split in ranks[56]” in the military. With all these elements in place, the time is ripe for reconciliation and peace in Mindanao.

The Peace Plan

The Mindanao situation has many angles.  But it is important not to get bogged down in the conflict’s complexity, but to see it—as both Peter Coleman and John Paul Lederach suggest--as an opportunity.  Lederach suggests that complexity creates avenues to engage in the conflict.  In his words from his recent book, The Moral Imagination,

Moral imagination relies on complexity as a friend not an enemy, for from complexity emerges untold new angles, opportunities, and unexpected potentialities that surpass, replace, and break the shackles of historic and current relational patterns of repeated violence[57].

 One way to do this, however, is suggested by an exercise Lederach developed when he was working as a peacebuilder in Nicaragua in the 1980s, alongside Nicaraguan partners.  Every negotiation, Lederach recounts, started with the reading of a Biblical text.  One frequently read was Psalm 85, which—in an English version of the Spanish translation contained two particularly fetching lines:

Truth and Mercy have met together
Justice and Peace have kissed.

 In Journey Toward Reconciliation, Lederach writes:

“In these two short lines are four important concepts and two powerful paradoxes.  The concepts kept dancing through my mind as I watched the peace process unfold in fits and starts.  For the first time, I noticed that the psalmist seems to treat the concepts as if they are alive.  I could hear their voices in the war in Nicaragua.  In fact, I could hear their voices in any conflict.  Truth, Mercy, Justice, and Peace were no longer just ideas.  They became people and they could talk.” pg. 53.

In Nicaragua, and in many 100s of times since, Lederach asks disputants (or conference participants) to play the role of Truth, Justice, Mercy, and Peace. All four are needed, Lederach explains, to start and continue the reconciliation process.  So people choose one of these “people” to “play,” and then Lederach asks them “What are they (peace, truth, justice, or mercy) most concerned with in the midst of their conflict? What policies would they advocate?  What actions would they propose and pursue?[58]

  • Truth, in this personification, is the person seeks to know what happened: who was involved, the facts of the event. It mainly looks backward. Truth wants to bring the details of the hurt into the light, so that everyone can get a clear picture of what happened. Truth doesn’t necessary claim to have all “truth”, but together, with the other Persons, she can put the stories back together.
  • Justice dwells in the present and wants accountability for the perpetrators—too make things “right”. Justice believes that love is real only through accountability[59] and that his main goal is restoration, but not just by words, through action.
  • Mercy looks to the future, especially future relationships. “Acceptance, compassion, and support stand with me[60]”. Mercy love forgiveness and healing, is scared of Truth if its light is too harsh and burning.
  • Peace is called the “Mother” and the “child” in the Quartet. Peace holds the community together[61] and runs through Truth and Justice because without it, it would not be possible for Truth and Justice to express Themselves and break out of their “vicious cycles”[62]
  • Reconciliation, as the author defines it, is a verb, not a noun. Reconciliation is also the goal of the peace process.

 This approach can be applied to Mindanao in a variety of ways.  I will apply it to two issues:

1) The ancestral domain argument made by separatists
2) The economic hardships in Mindanao

Truth’s Perspective

“I want to share the facts of this conflict—the good and the bad of what happened. Moros ruled autonomously until the arrival Spanish arrival in the 14th century. The Spanish unlawfully took these lands, and there has been fighting to get the land back and for it to be governed independently since that time. Both the Moros and the government supported the ARMM agreement, and it has not fully developed yet. Mindanao is full of natural resources but the areas still remains the poorest in the Philippines, and the people still suffer.”
“There has been a lot of conflict between the government and Moros. MILF has killed and bombed numerous times and many innocent people have died. There has been unnecessary violence at times that has impeded progress”.
“As Truth, I need to know that everyone understands that the Moros, feel like ancestral domain is not just an idea or an argument for them—it is their identity and their right. The land belonged to them before they were removed from it. Because the Supreme Court voided this, it caused more uprising and violence in Mindanao and the Moro people have suffered from it”.
“As Truth, I also know that the government has tried their best to help the Moro people and with their claim to the land in Mindanao. They initiated and signed the ARMM agreement. It has not been perfect, and they have far to go, but it is a start.
“As Truth, I know there are competing narratives and there is ambivalence to what is ultimately “true”. Yet I hold together, with outstretched arms, all truths from all sides, and know there are a common narratives of pain and suffering from both sides, as both sides want to reconcile.”

Justice’s Perspective

“As Justice, I need to know there will be accountability for all the crimes committed. People have suffered, and the perpetrators need to be brought to me. I need to know that Mercy will not interfere with this procedure. And peace needs to know that there will be no peace without me being satisfied.
As Justice, Peace needs to know that the Moro people will only be satisfied when there is action taken by the government to create an independent or semi-independent state for them. I also need to Peace to understand that I won’t be content unless violence is ceased by the Moro separatists, and the people who bomb are considered by me to be “terrorists”. Furthermore, all the innocent people need to be brought to me, for full recompense.

I, too, stand with outstretched arms, holding two narratives on what I, justice, mean to both sides. It may look different, and I will have different ramifications for the Moro people and the government; yet, we can agree that both sides desire me, and I play an integral part of the reconciliation process.

Mercy’s Perspective

“I, Mercy, need to be involved in the peace process. I look to the future, to see how we can bring amends and bring Peace into the picture. I need Truth and Justice to understand that I also play a key role in reconciliation. I do not disagree with Truth and Justice—they are correct—AND I need them to understand that to move forward each side needs to forgive each other. Truth, your shining rays bring into light the disturbing events that have occurred over the last several decades and through several centuries. Justice, your presence is good because, without you, people would get away with more atrocities. I validate both of you.”
“At the same time, Truth, we cannot share every story of pain—if we did, it would take too long and myself and Peace would never get a voice. Justice, this is the same for you: we need to bring people through you, and we cannot bring everyone. We need to find the most significant people who caused harm, and let you deal with them. Both of you need me in this process to bring balance and grace to the painful events, and forgiveness to the perpetrators—only then can we move forward to reconciliation. People will need to ‘let go’ of their hurts, and I can help them do that.”

Peace’s Perspective

“Truth and Justice, I have heard your voices, and understand you. You both have eloquently spoken your needs, and now please hear mine. Without me, there is no way to break out of the vicious cycle of accusation bitterness, and bloodshed[63]”.
“I am the glue that holds the four of us together. Brother Justice, we need one another[64], and we become more of who we want to be by embracing each other. Truth, your revealing nature will help Mercy permeate the situation. Truth, we need to keep that we need to work together to accomplish reconciliation—our means are different, but our goal is the same.
As Peace, I lay in the heart of everyone here, so I need to be thought of in the beginning and at the end—as the Mother and as the Child of you three. I am the motivation that drives you, even though it may not be apparent at first. I am weak, and I am still strong. My voice is not loud like Sister Truth’s or Brother Justice’s, but my voice is heard in the hearts of men and woman, as they long for me to permeate their hearts.


Like most intractable conflicts, the Mindanao conflict is very complicated.  However, progress has been made in the last decade, and especially in the last few years.
At the same time, it still remains difficult. The Moro people live in economic hardship and seem to be marginalized by the Filipino government. The separatists groups still desire to annex part of the southern island. Yet, the president is taking a very active role to solve this conflict, and he desires a permanent peace solution by 2016.

Author's Note:

One thing that is surprising about this conflict was that, even though I read dozens of articles on about this conflict, there wasn’t more attention given to the all of the natural resources in Mindanao. Therefore, I thought the conflict would revolve more around oil and other minerals, but instead, it seemed to be more of a conflict concerning identity and self-determination.  Peter Coleman, probably wouldn’t be surprised.  He argues, in his book The Five Percent, that intractable conflicts devolve into simplified struggles between “us versus them.”  He calls for “complexifying” the conflict (among other actions) to try to break out of the intractable conflict “traps.”  Applying Lederach’s “meeting place” exercise to this conflict is one interesting way to complexify the issue beyond simple “us versus them” framing, which might provide creative ideas for further reconciliation.


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  3. Buat, Atty. Mohd. Musib M. (Copyright 2011). A NEW FORMULA IN THE RESOLUTION OF THE MINDANAO CONFLICT: THE ROAD TO LASTING PEACE. Website on Muslim Mindanao: For Journalists and Other Communicators. Retrieved from http://www.muslimmindanao.ph/points_view5.html
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[1] Google.com Dictionary
[3] Ozerdem & Podder, 523.
[4] Ozerdem & Poder, p. 540.
[6] Ozerdem & Podder, p. 523
[8] Ozerdem & Podder 525
[10] Tidsall, The Guardain
[13] Tidsall
[14] Buat
[18] Tidsall
[20] Adriano, Fermin D
[24] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ozerdem and Podder, p. 521.
[29] Ozerdem and Podder, p. 526.
[33] Ozerdem and Podder, p. 522.
[36] Podder, Sukanya, Politics, Religion & Ideology, p. 499.
[37] Adriano, Fermin D.
[38] Ibid.
[40] Fernandez, Edwin O. http://www.zambotimes.com/archives/news/75650-North-Cotabato-MNLF-vows-l... e-agreement,-shuns-violence.html.
[42] Adriano, Fermin D.
[43] Adriano, Fermin D.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Ozerdem & Podder, p. 523.
[49] Ozer and Podder, p. 523.
[50] Ozerdem & Podder, p. 535.
[51] Rood, Steven.
[52] Ozerdem & Podder, p. 542.
[53] Ibid. 542.
[54] Rood, Steven.
[56] Ozerdem & Podder, p. 525.
[57] Lederach, John Paul. Moral Imagination, Kindle Edition. Location 835.
[58] Lederach, John Paul, personal correspondence with Heidi Burgess, date unknown.
[59] Lederach, John Paul. Journey Toward Reconciliation, Kindle Edition, Location 474.
[60] Ibid. Loc. 460.
[61] Ibid. Loc. 478.
[62] Ibid. Loc. 483.
[63] Lederach, Journey Toward Reconciliation. Loc. 483.
[64] Ibid. Loc. 495.