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A Continuing Past: The Moro Ethnic Conflict in Postcolonial Philippines

Postcolonial Philippines confronts a long and drawn-out armed ethnic conflict. Despite decolonization efforts, pronounced colonial categories of inclusion and exclusion remain. It is in this trajectory that I treat ethnic conflicts as a postcolonial problem. In this essay, I focus on the historicity of the Moro[1] conflict as an illustrative case using a postcolonial analysis. I treat it as a problematic colonial residue that results in skirmishes because of the asymmetrical relationship between a minority group and the state. The struggle becomes a crisis of identities because of the colonial binaries that still mark differences among people up to this day. The Moro becomes a distinct out-group and their consequent secessionist tendencies can be justified.

The unresolved armed revolts in southern Philippines result in cycles of innocent deaths and the creation of a diaspora. According to reports, human and financial costs of the conflict are quite enormous. Adriano and Parks’ (2013) development research reveals that the conflict has become a subnational, complex and multi-layered problem affecting millions. The Moro land covers about 10 percent of the Philippine territory and is home to 5.5 million of the national population, a third of which is greatly affected by the conflict. More than 120,000 lives have been lost, with an economic cost estimated at US$10 billion, making the Moro community “highly underdeveloped, and the conflict areas having the lowest levels of growth” (Adriano and Parks 2013: xii). These cycles of violence continue as struggles between two competing banners. On the one hand, the Moro decries the right to self-determination and self-government. On the other hand, the government is skeptical about this plight and protects the state’s stability by declaring the unconstitutionality of the Moro claim. It is often described as a conflict evolving from an “ethnonationalist struggle between an aggrieved minority and the central government, to a highly fragmented conflict with multiple overlapping causes of violence” (Adriano and Parks 2013: 38).

In my opinion, this conflict is more than just contemporary clamor and recent attempts at self-government of the Moro land. The conflict carries a deep-seated historical reality that I call a “continuing past.” Let me start by giving a brief overview of its colonial experience. The Philippines became an independent state only in 1945 after a long transitory subjugation by Spain, Great Britain, the United States and Japan. The 300-year Spanish colonial rule was the longest. During that period, the fundamental colonial category of whom to in-clude and ex-clude was the outright distinction between Christians and non-Christians. The term Moro was then used to refer to their “ancient enemy [the Moors], who aside from being Islamic, was hostile” (Buendia 2005: 111). Those who did not support the Christianization process (and therefore refused to be colonized) were identified as infidels or pagans, or Moro, as colonial sources refer to them.

In this light, colonization creates ideal types and sharp dichotomies— pure and polluted, pacified and unpacified, colonized and uncolonized, Christian and non-Christian, or civilized and barbaric. It is around this polarization that the “core solidarity group” (using Alexander’s language which I will introduce below) is shaped and “ethnic outgroup(s)” are created. Such colonial intervention structures this solidarity. The mainstream Christian population as the core group becomes the product of this problematic colonial category, manifestly entrenched in contemporary reality in the form of the Moro conflict. I therefore suggest that these political tensions rest upon the taken-for-granted and deep-seated colonial history, often disguised as a sheer conflict of religions or mere differences in culture, geography and language.

The enduring Moro conflict is a symptom of dysfunctional social arrangements. It is necessary to understand how colonial mediation fixed those categories and how they have recurred. In this case, the politics of conflict becomes a fundamental issue of identity formation. This socio-historical nature of the Philippine body politic becomes the most crucial factor to conflict resolution. The Moro clamor for self-determination and secessionist attempts can logically point to it. This is analogous to what cultural sociologist Jeffery Alexander calls “ethnic secession” in which he prescribes secessionism as a possible solution to ethnic conflicts in which excluded groups do not appeal for inclusion. This is a form of the “radical nationalism so often associated with the ideal-typical colonial case” (Alexander 1988: 97). In these cases, the “primordial gap is extreme, the external environment rigid, and the period of mutual exposure [is] relatively short” (Alexander 1988: 99). As Alexander further noted in “The Paradoxes of Civil Society,” to enlarge a solidarity base, “subjective commitments must be made to the national group as a whole” (Alexander 1997: 125). Alexander gives a sound explanation for the Moro case. He articulates, validates and favors the Moro stand to secede than to demand for integration. This is because the colonial ideal-types of inclusion and exclusion created the “primordial gap” between people, an active colonial history.

In further reviewing the Moro struggle, it is imperative to subscribe to a postcolonial analysis. The Moro conflict has continued for centuries, making it a deeply rooted issue that requires attention to the primordial elements of an unresolved conflict. As I have argued, this is fundamentally because outgroups were constructed under a colonial configuration or Western monotheism. The colonial past fortifies ethnic boundaries and studying the current body politic entails an understanding of deep socio-historical structures. Moving along the war-to-peace continuum may require secessionism as a possible solution. As Alexander theorizes, secession recognizes differences and pluralism, and not to be separatist all at once, but it is essentially part of inclusion efforts in an extremely differentiated society. Internal divisions may allow multicultural conceptions of social cohesion and inclusion, reconciling differences as collective spheres of social life.

Angelie Marilla is a student of Master’s degree in Cultural Sociology

Article was proofread and edited by Nadya Jaworsky


Adriano, Fermin and Thomas Parks. 2013. “The Contested Corners of Asia. Subnational Conflict and International Development Assistance: The Case of Mindanao, Philippines” The Asia Foundation.

Alexander, Jeffrey. 1988. “Core Solidarity, Ethnic Outgroup, and Social Differentiation” in J. Alexander Action and its Environments. Towards a New Synthesis. New York: Columbia University Press, 78-106.

Alexander, Jeffrey. 1997. “The Paradoxes of Civil Society” in International Sociology, Vol. 12(2): 115- 133.

Buendia, Rizal G. 1989. “The State-Moro Armed Conflict in the Philippines” Asian Journal of Political Science 13(1): 109-138.


[1] Moro is often confused with Muslim (Filipinos) but denotes contradictory meanings. The former is a historical identity while the latter is a religious identity. They are Moro but not necessarily Muslim Filipinos because the term Filipinos historically referred to “Christianized natives.” For the Moro, the term Muslim Filipino invokes an explicit antithetical meaning, i.e. “Muslim Christian.”






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