The Moro conflict : landlessness and misdirected state policies
Publication Date: January 2004
Publisher(s): East-West Center Washington
The conflict in the southern Philippines is becoming increasingly complex, and untangling the knots for a greater understanding of the problem is no easy task. Yet underlying the many manifestations of a complex conflict is a straightforward political-economic explanation. This study represents a step toward a more systematic inquiry into the problem by developing a political-economic explanation of the conflict. It starts from two observations: first, the geographic areas in the southern Philippines where there is a significant if not a majority presence of Muslims are marked by a high incidence of poverty and social exclusion; second, there has been an alarming surge of "entrepreneurs in violence" in these areas determined to enforce their own nonstate systems of property relations. The study contends that these two observations result, to a significant degree, from the highly skewed distribution of ownership and control over land resources in the southern Philippines that should be traced back in the country's colonial history. Thus we argue that the continuing war, the persistence of poverty and landlessness, and the emergence of entrepreneurs in violence are mere symptoms of something that has not yet been sufficiently addressed by a succession of Philippine governments or even by mainstream Moro revolutionary organizations: the highly skewed distribution of land-ownership and control in the southern Philippines. This study posits that the widespread landlessness, the continuing weakness of state institutions in implementing agrarian reform and enforcing ancestral domain claims, as well as the absence of autonomous civil society, are fundamental issues whose resolution may well hold the key to establishing long-term peace in the southern Philippines. Redistributive land reform must be a major component of any comprehensive solution to the crisis. Such reform holds the promise of addressing issues of poverty and eliminates a major reason for the proliferation of entrepr4eneurs in violence. Several key propositions are put forward here. First, the eradication of poverty in the southern Philippines can offer poor Muslim households a workable alternative to joining the armed rebellion and the ranks of entrepreneurs in violence. Second, this process of poverty eradication must go beyond the current policy prescriptions of the central state and confront the issues of poverty and social exclusion from historical, social justice, and redistributive land reform perspectives. Third, in the context of agrarian societies like the southern Philippines, broad-based social development can only be achieved if there is a redistribution of productive assets, especially land. Land is central to the rural poor household's capacity to construct and maintain a sustainable livelihood. Fourth, policy discussions about the issue of ancestral domain of Muslim Filipinos must be intertwined with the issue of redistributive land reform and the ancestral domain claims of other indigenous communities (Lumads). And fifth, redistributive land reform and respect for indigenous claims over ancestral domains, as repeatedly emphasized by scholars, are a necessary but not sufficient requirement for broad-based social development. Equally important is a comprehensive package of support services to enable the rural poor to sustain their livelihoods. The policy propositions put forward here are broad outlines of possible options; the actual content of state policies may vary as long as the general principles underscored in this study are maintained. Whether these policy options are politically practical in the immediate context should be informed by further research on certain contentious issues identified in this study–how, for example, can autonomous social movements emerge in the context of the contemporary southern Philippines? The political-economic explanation advanced in this study does not necessarily contradict other interpretations of the conflict in the southern Philippines. Whether coming from the strictly "economic reform" perspective, the political-constitutional reform (federalist) framework, or, most radically, secession and the creation of a new Moro state, the fundamental issues raised here are likely to remain relevant. Peace building from below is necessary if only to ensure that agreements settled at the negotiating table can be properly implemented. There is no easy solution. Policies that focus attention only on strengthening state authority may be important but not sufficient; policies that focus attention only on building civil society are also crucial but incomplete. An interactive state/society policy framework may be more useful. The challenge is to attain a redistribution of wealth and power that favors the poor, largely through land redistribution and agrarian reform, alongside peace building to be generated from below as well as from above.