Maguindanao massacre:  a by-product of unresolved armed conflict in Mindanao


The gruesome murder of 58 civilians in the southern province of Maguindanao — suspected to have been diabolically masterminded by local warlord Andal Ampatuan, Jr. and brutally carried out by some 100 paramilitary thugs under his control — brings to the fore the complexity of the unresolved armed conflict in Muslim Mindanao and the futility of the “band-aid” solution to the problem by the government.

Muslim Mindanao has never been fully pacified and integrated with the rest of the country.  Not by the Spaniards who colonized the Philippines for more than three centuries, not by the Americans who annexed and administered the country for almost fifty years, not by the Japanese who savaged  the Filipinos for almost five years.  Successive government administrations since 1946 tried and  failed as well.

Some say their older and superior Islamic culture, coupled with their traditional way of life with guns, tribal wars, rido (vendetta) and piracy, made the Muslim Filipinos uniquely resistant to pacification and integration.  An exasperated Spanish colonial was even recorded to have given birth to the infamous line  “A good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” in an apparent show of religious intolerance and disdain over the conquest and occupation of Spain by the Muslim Moors for almost 800 years.  Hence colonial Spaniards referred to  Muslim Filipinos  as “Moro “, a misnomer still in use today.  It is however more appropriate to simply say that neglect, inequality and grinding poverty drove many Muslim Filipinos to resort to extreme measures in asserting their rights to their ancestral domain.  That is not to say violence is a legitimate means to an end.

The massive Christian settlement of Mindanao started with the enactment of Homestead Laws by the U.S. government in 1902 and accelerated after the Philippine independence in 1946.  By 1983 Christians constituted roughly 80 percent of the entire population of Mindanao, causing resentment among local Muslims.  Their resentment has to do with the socio-economic disparity between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority.  The Muslims in the most impoverished parts of western Mindanao point out that socio-economic development in those areas is lagging far behind the rest of the island.  Decades of uninterrupted neglect and indifference to the plight of Muslim Filipinos by “Imperial Manila” produced a socially-convulsive atmosphere ripe for dissent and rebellion.  A young Muslim scholar named Nur Misuari ignited the fire. 

Armed hostilities broke out in 1971 between the predominantly Roman Catholic government of the Philippines and the Misuari-led Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which sought greater autonomy for Mindanao.  Around this time the insurgent communist group New People’s Army (NPA) was also on the rise in many rural areas of the country.  Much later, the fighting in Mindanao was joined by the breakaway MNLF groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the fundamentalist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), both of which seek Mindanao independence. 

After years of intense fighting on two fronts,  President Ferdinand Marcos  organized the counterinsurgency paramilitary group Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF) to augment the undermanned and overstretched Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and protect government infrastructures and Christian communities in Mindanao against rebel attacks and sabotage.  When Marcos was overthrown and democracy restored in 1985, the new government of President Corazon Aquino banned paramilitary groups and disbanded the CHDF, amidst unsuppressed reports and complaints of numerous cases of criminal activities and human rights abuses commited by members of the CHDF.  By 1997 however, the government revived the use of paramilitary forces with the organization of the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) to counter the growing incidents of terror and kidnap-for-ransom in Mindanao.  It was originally comprised of paramilitary units of soldiers and volunteer reservists.

Because they are volunteers providing “part-time” service, the CAFGU members do not receive the same kind of training that the AFP gives its regular troops.  The requirements to become a CAFGU member are not as stringent as those in regular troops.  To be enlisted with the group, a CAFGU applicant need only to be an able-bodied Filipino of legal age, without any criminal record and known to be “loyal to the republic”.  Screening and selection are made by the local military group commander who is also the appointing authority.  Technically, CAFGU members are under the military command and subject to military laws and regulations.

Critics however say that the CAFGU is no more than a revived CHDF.  The criticism appears to have a basis.  The Commission on Human Rights, in its March 2000 statement, reported that about 653 cases of murder, execution, torture, disappearance, illegal arrests and detention had been filed with the Commission against 1,070 CAFGU members.

The situation is made worst by the military’s practice of forming Special CAFGU Units for a requesting entity, say a local government unit or a business entity.  The common reason cited for such requests is to protect police stations from rebel attacks and business establishments from revolutionary taxation.  Unlike the regular CAFGU whose subsistence allowance and firearms are funded through the budget of the AFP, the expenditures of these Special CAFGU Units are shouldered by the entities that requested to have them formed.  The fact that their allowance and upkeep are  not funded by the AFP makes the loyalty of Special CAFGU Units suspect.

Disciplining “volunteers” tend to be a problem too.  The trouble is that the CAFGU, as with other paramilitary forces, tend to attract thugs and the opportunists.  Poorly trained and paid, but heavily armed, it would not take long before many of these Special CAFGU Units are transformed into private armies of local political warlords. 

The decades-long insurgency in Mindanao has made it the most violent area in the country.  Over the years, many policies and agreements have been proposed by both the contending parties to end the conflict.  But to this day, the area continues to be a hotbed of terror and lawlessness, displacing the lives of Christians and Muslims alike.  Non-government organizations (NGOs) vary in their estimates of the socio-economic cost of the Mindanao conflict.  Conservative estimates placed the total number of casualties at 120,000 and the total number of displaced persons or refugees from 700,000 to 2 million — the highest in the world.  The “direct” economic cost of the conflict for the period 1971-2001, alone, is estimated to be US$2-3 Billion, a huge amount which could have otherwise been used to improve the lives of Muslim Filipinos.

Mindanao may be the richest in terms of its vast natural resources, but 14 of 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines can also found there, with Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and Maguindanao topping the list of provinces with the “worst quality of life.”  “Muslim ghettos” have also mushroomed in various cities in Mindanao and Metro Manila, causing resentment among local residents and fueling animosity between Muslim and Christian Filipinos.

The “indirect” economic cost and social damage from the conflict cannot be precisely quantified, but they certainly dwarf the US$2-3 Billion in “direct” economic cost:  wasted lives, capital flight, lost revenues, investment deflection, lost time and opportunities and a host of all other “peace dividends”.      

It is against this historical and tragic background that the entire nation (and the rest of the world) was shocked by the Maguindanao massacre.  The authorities and the media quickly tagged the massacre as an “election-related” violence, but only because the tragedy occured during an election season. 

Many other localities in Mindanao, I fear, are tragedies waiting to happen.

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 01 December 2009

Related photos

The Maguindanao Massacre

The gruesome murder of 58 civilians by some 100 paramilitary troops believed to be under the control of former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr. and his son, former Datu Unsay mayor Andal  Ampatuan, Jr. (photo cfredit: 

Former Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the prime suspect in the Maguindanao Massacre

Former Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr. (in handcuffs), the prime suspect in the Maguindanao Massacre (photo credit:



Muslim secessionist rebels in Mindanao

Muslim secessionist rebels in Mindanao (photo credit:

Communist rebels in Mindanao

Communist rebels in Mindanao (photo credit:

CAFGU in Mindanao

Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (or CAFGU), a paramilitary auxiliary force of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Mindanao (photo credit:



Nur Misuari, founder of the MILF

Nur Misuari, founder of the Muslim secessionist movement Moro Islamic Liberation Front (photo credit: