Sunday, December 10, 2017

Philippines: Bangsamoro Basic Law Looms Over Mindanao

By Elizabeth Kendal,
Religious Liberty Monitoring, 11 Dec 2017

As the Battle for Marawi City comes to an end the struggle for Mindanao heats up.

As would be expected, ISIS and its affiliates are busy regrouping and recruiting across western Mindanao. Having looted thousands of homes and emptied all Marawi’s banks they are now offering recruits a “sign-up purse” (one-off payment) with the promise of further payments and benefits if they join a battlefront. The recruiters target displaced Muslims and Islamist sympathisers, many of whom are furious about the physical destruction of Marawi City which they blame on the Philippine military. Rommel Banlaoi from the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research warns that cashed-up “sleeper cells are everywhere”. 

But transnational jihadists, in particular Islamic State (IS/ISIS) and its affiliates and sympathisers, are not the only ones seeking to exploit the Marawi crisis.

As should be expected, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is also busy, exploiting the Marawi crisis for political gain. MILF’s efforts and aims, along with the implications for Christians, are the focus of this posting.

See also: Philippines: Battle for Mindanao far from over, 
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 435, 6 December 2017



On 2 September 1996, the Government of the Republic of Philippines (GRP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace deal which established the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The deal was supposed to end more than two decades of civil war. However, the more hardline Islamist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rejected the agreement. Reiterating the demand for an independent Islamic State, MILF continued the fight/jihad. 

On 27 March 2014, the Government of the Republic of Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), negating the GRP’s agreement with MNLF. Under the terms of the CAB, the MNLF-ruled ARMM would be abolished and replaced with an expanded and MILF-ruled Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (or Bangsamoro Judicial Entity). The deal was supposed to end nearly four decades of civil war. However, the even more hardline Islamist Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) rejected the agreement. Reiterating the demand for an independent Islamic State, BIFF continued the fight/jihad.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is one of ten “fighting battalions” in the Philippines to have subsequently pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Other groups includes “a portion or all of the ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group] . . . Ansar Khilafah in the Philippines, Katibat Ansar al Sharia, Katibat Marakah al Ansar, the Islamic State in Lanao, Jund al Tawhid (a former ASG battalion), Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad (a group formerly loyal to al Qaeda), and parts of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).” (Caleb Weiss, Long War Journal, 12 June 2016)

After signing the CAB, the GRP and MILF drafted the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (also known as the Bangsamoro Judicial Entity) in Mindanao under MILF rule. However, progress of the bill stalled in Congress in late January-February 2016 after a violent clash between Philippine elite police and MILF forces in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, left 44 police commandos, 17 MILF fighters and three civilians dead. 

Isnilon Hapilon (second from left)
plotting the siege of Marawi.
(AFP forces killed Hapilon on 16 Oct 2017).
Having pledged allegiance to ISIS in January 2016 on behalf of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon subsequently defected from the ASG and joined Islamic State, becoming the group’s first Emir for South East Asia. From his hideout in the 99.6 percent Muslim city of Marawi, Haplion plotted an Islamic State take-over of Marawi City. The plan was to establish Marawi as the capital of an ISIS wilayat (province) in South East Asia, much like Raqqa in Syria, or Mosul in Iraq. He was confident the local Muslims would not resist.

On 23 May 2017 the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) moved to arrest Hapilon. But the raid was botched and jihadists from various pro-ISIS groups flooded into the city to fight the AFP causing all hell to break loose


After the events of 1979 – specifically the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia – the regional trend of Islamic revival went global. As Shi’ite Iran strove to establish its ascendancy in and across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia got busy “Wahhabising” (often referred to as “radicalising”) the world’s Sunni Muslims so as to bring them in line with Islamic fundamentalist Saudi Arabian Wahhabi doctrine. In this the Saudis have been phenomenally successful. From Morocco to Mindanao, Sunni Muslims have submitted to Arabisation and become more fundamentalist as Sunni Muslims. African and Asian Muslim women who never wore veils now do, religiously. Muslims who never resisted non-Muslim leaders now reject them, religiously, as occurred in Jakarta, Indonesia, last year. [See: Indonesia: Ahok’s ‘Blasphemy’, by Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring, 29 Nov 2016].

Still, political elites continue to blame radicalisation on its victims; in this case, on the Philippine government whose failure to pass and enact the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is said to have left Mindanao’s Muslims not only frustrated but vulnerable to manipulation by jihadist groups such as ISIS.

“We live in very dangerous times,” said MILF chairman Al Haj Ebrahim Murad on 17 July as a new BBL drafted by a panel of representatives from government, the MILF and religious groups, was submitted to the president.  “We watch with utter disgust of the destruction that violent extremism has inflicted in the city of Marawi. These misguided people have filled the vacuum created by our failure to enact the basic law and (they) feed into the frustration of our people.”

Front row centre: President Duterte
Front left: Murid (MILF Chair)
Front right:  Jaafar (MILF Vice-Chair)
Convinced that ISIS had exploited the government’s failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), President Duterte vowed on Monday 17 July, to expedite the passage of the BBL. “May I say to you my brothers . . . I will support and hasten this instrument as it goes to the legislature,” Duterte said in a ceremony for the handover of the bill, drawing loud applause.

In a 17 July interview with Reuters in Cotabato City, Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s top peace negotiator said he feared the Marawi siege could complicate the passage of the law if there was a perception that the MILF and the radical Maute group fighting in Marawi were associated with each other because both hail from the same region.

Concern over perceptions may well have been at the forefront of MILF’s thinking when it decided in August to take up arms against the pro-ISIS BIFF jihadists wreaking havoc across the MILF heartland of Maguindanao province.

Bong S Sarmiento reports from Maguindanao for Asia Times Online (1 Oct): “MILF is fast emerging as a local counterforce to that threat [i.e. BIFF], an ironic voice of moderation after plunging the region into decades of debilitating civil war. ‘Violent extremism is not acceptable in Islam,’ Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s peace implementing panel chair, said in a recent statement.

MILF fighters and flag
“In August, the MILF dusted off its rusting guns to launch an offensive against the IS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the little-known Jamaatul Muhajiren Wal-Ansar in Mindanao’s violence-prone Maguindanao province, the MILF’s strategic hub located about four hours away from Marawi.”

As Sarmiento notes, “It’s not altogether clear if the MILF’s motivations for launching the fight are driven more by political, religious, tactical or personal imperatives. While certain MILF members have known ties to the IS-linked Maute Group, including through marriage, MILF leaders have been consistently critical of the Maute Group’s IS-inspired scorched earth tactics.”

Considering the years of carnage and suffering the MILF has inflicted on the people of Mindanao, I think we can say its criticism is hypocritical, its actions are strategic, and its motivations political.


Carolyn O. Arguillas reports for MindaNews (26 Nov): “With only nine session days left from November 27 until the two houses of Congress go on recess on December 16, no Bangsamoro law will be passed by year end as originally envisioned by the Duterte administration’s Bangsamoro Peace and Development Roadmap approved in July 2016.”

Lanao del Sur Rep. Mauyag Papandayan, Jr., chair of the Committee on Muslim Affairs told MindaNews, that the new target for passing the law is March 2018. Committee hearings will start in the first week of December, after which Congress goes on recess from December 16 to January 14. When Congress resumes there will be public hearings, followed by committee deliberations then plenary session. “Hopefully,” he said, “by March tapos na’ (it’s done).”

Once the BBL is ratified, the President will appoint the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority which will rule in the ARMM until the 80-seat Assembly is elected in 2022.

Map courtesy Stratfor Intelligence, 2014


The full text of the Draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), as submitted to the president on 17 July 2017 can be found HERE.

The Articles that will cause the greatest concern among Christians and other non-Muslims will be Article III (3) which deals with territory; and Article X (10) which deal with the judicial system.


As would be expected in an Islamic sub-state, the justice system will consist of Shari’ah law and Shari’ah courts. The system will be backed up by a Shari’ah Academy which will not simply teach courses in Islamic law, but “develop the curricula, textbooks, and learning materials of schools and universities in the Bangsamoro” (Article 10, section 22. page 54).

Hudud will apply (section 4): “Under Shari’ah, the penalties for Hudud, plural for Hadd (capital crime) which are seen as crimes against Allah (God), and Qisas, which are crimes against persons, are imposed in the Qur’an.”

Theoretically the Shari’ah judicial system will only apply to Muslims “who voluntarily submit to the Shari’ah Court”. Theoretically indigenous (Lumad) rights and religious freedom will be respected.  Theoretically, Shari’ah will not be applied to non-Muslims, national laws will still apply, and all courts will be under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

However, as anyone familiar with the situation in Northern Nigeria, Aceh, or even Malaysia knows, it never actually works out that way. It is highly likely that any Muslim who refuses to “voluntarily submit to the Shari’ah Court” will be accused of being apostate. The Shari’ah prohibition on apostasy (leaving Islam) means all Muslims in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region will lose their religious freedom. According to Shari’ah, children inherit their faith from their father. If a Muslim man cannot convert, then he cannot raise his children as Christians. In line with this, Shari’ah prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. If a Muslim woman cannot convert, then she cannot marry a Christian man and raise Christian children.  And while cases could theoretically be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, not many Filippinos will have the funds for that. When similar cases have been tried in Malaysia and Egypt, the Supreme Court ruled that apostasy falls under the jurisdiction of the Shari'ah Court, making the constitution nothing more than a mirage. 

Further to this,  imposition of Muslim rule and legitimisation of Islamic law tends to elevate Islamic zeal and inflame feelings of Muslim supremacism. It is generally the case that Muslims in newly Islamised states become less tolerant and increasingly expect Christians to live as dhimmis, second class citizens, humiliated and subjugated under Islam.


The most disturbing aspect of Article III is the potential for perpetual expansion.

Once enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president, the BBL will be submitted to the people for ratification in a plebiscite. All registered voters in the core territory will be able to vote. Generally speaking, Christians are a minority across the region, so their vote will not save them from inclusion in the MILF-ruled Islamic sub-state.

However, Local Government Units (LGUs) that are outside the core territory but contiguous to it, will be able to participate in the plebiscite if they can submit a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters. Then, if a majority of voters give approval through the plebiscite the LGU will be incorporated into the Bangasmoro Autonmous Region.

Further to this, Article XV (15) section 4 (page 100) of the BBL allows for “periodic plebiscites” to be held every five years over a period of 25 years. By this means, LGUs that were not able to join the BAR previously, will have an opportunity to join subsequently.

Surely this raises the prospect of perpetual territorial expansion. Surely this is a recipe for intense Islamic pressure and even ethnic-religious cleansing.


Writing for MindaNews (19 Aug), Antonio G. M. La ViƱa comments: “As envisioned, the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity is not merely an expanded version of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the status of its relationship with the national government being fundamentally different from that of the ARMM. Indeed, BJE is a state in all but name as it meets the criteria of a state laid down in the Montevideo Convention, namely, a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and a capacity to enter into relations with other states.”


At this point in time the BBL is still just a proposal. Congress will struggle to produce a final product that is both constitutional and acceptable to the MILF. If the BBL is challenged in the Supreme Court and found to be unconstitutional – as happened in 2008 with the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on Ancestral Domain – then conflict may well resume, just as it did in 2008. And if conflict does resume, then the MILF may even re-think its relationship with ISIS.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).