Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bangsamoro Republik? Philippine Separatists Seize Territory (map)

Zamboanga City in the southwestern Philippines came under rebel attack last week, with insurgents seizing and occupying several neighborhoods. Because the fighters are from a rebel group that declared independence in August, their newfound territorial control might technically be considered the birth of a new breakaway state. Details and discussion below!

Map of territory in the Philippines and Malaysia claimed by the Bangsamoro Republik, plus territorial control by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNFL) as part of the Zamboanga crisis.
Claims and territorial control of the MNLF rebels/Bangsamoro Republik. Map by Evan Centanni.
Moro Rebellion
The southern Philippines is home to a long-running rebellion in the name of self-rule for the Moro people. The Moros are distinguished from other ethnic groups in the Philippines by their history as subjects of the Muslim kingdoms called sultanates, which ruled the southwestern islands until the late 1800s. Moro people today are typically Muslims, whereas the majority of Filipinos are Catholic.

Resistance to outside control of the southern Philippines goes back at least to the Moro Rebellion against U.S. occupation 100 years ago; but the modern insurgency began with Nur Misuari's founding of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1969. After 20 years of fighting between the MNLF and the Philippine government, an agreement created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and in 1996 the MNLF declared an end to the war. After that, a Moro-led insurgency continued, but at the hands of another group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Flag of the Bangsamoro Republik and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels in the Philippines Country Name:  
• Bangsamoro Republik
Official Name:  
• United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik (UFSBR)
Capital: Davao City (claimed)
Bangsamoro Republik
Today the ARMM's self-rule provisions still haven't been fully implemented, and with the Philippine government in the process of arranging a separate peace agreement with the MILF, some MNLF members have become disillusioned with their own deal. Last month, a faction of the MNLF joined the organization's original founder, Nur Misuari, in declaring an independent country called the Bangsamoro Republik.

"Bangsamoro" is a traditional name for the homeland of the Moro people, and the declaration of independence claimed the Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan regions of the Philippines for the new country. Though the founders of the republic are Muslims, they're not Islamists: the MNLF says Bangsamoro will be inclusive of all ethnic groups and religions in the region. But for all its talk of independence in August, the Bangsamoro Republik didn't actually control any territory at all - until this week.

Battle for Zamboanga
Two weekends ago, unarmed MNLF members began arriving in the city of Zamboanga, outside the boundaries of the ARMM, for a planned demonstration against the Philippine government. But when armed fighters started landing in boats that Sunday night and Monday morning, allegedly with plans to raise the Bangsamoro flag in the city's main square, they were engaged by the national military. The MNLF fighters, said to be from Misuari's pro-independence faction, soon claimed to have seized seven neighborhoods of Zamboanga City from the government (though official statements put the number at only six).

The situation has since escalated into a drawn-out standoff, with the army reluctant to charge into the rebel-controlled areas for fear of harming civilians, who the rebels have taken hostage as human shields. But the Philippine military has gained some ground. By Sunday, the government claimed the rebels only remained in two neighborhoods, though fighting reportedly continued in at least three. On Monday the government announced that it had taken back 70% of the area the rebels controlled a week before. However, by Tuesday evening the story had changed, and officials were again acknowledging rebel control in pockets of five or six neighborhoods.

A Real Breakaway State?
Rebel control of these few neighborhoods might technically be considered the birth of the Bangsamoro Republik as a real breakaway state. The republic still isn't recognized by any other countries, but since it now has both a declaration of independence and a territory under the control of its forces, it may qualify as a de facto sovereign state like Somaliland or Transnistria. In fact, Wikipedia editors have already added it to the encyclopedia's list of sovereign states.

However, it seems unlikely the standoff will develop into any kind of long-term occupation under a rebel administration. What's more, it's actually not completely clear who the fighters are representing. As expected, leaders of MNLF factions other than Misuari's, including the government of the ARMM, have condemned or distanced themselves from the attacks. But more surprising are claims by the mayor of Zamboanga City that Misuari himself, who led the declaration of independence, has denied sanctioning the attacks. Whether this is correct remains to be seen; other Philippine government and military figures continue to believe that Misuari is responsible. The leader of the rebel forces on the ground is Habier Malik, an MNLF commander with close ties to Misuari.

Claims to Malaysian Borneo
Flag of the Philippines Country Name:  
• Philippines (English)
• Pilipinas (Filipino)
Official Name:  
• Republic of the Philippines (English)
• Republika ng Pilipinas (Filipino)
Capital: Manila
The MNLF's website claims that the Bangsamoro breakaway state is to include not only regions of the Philippines, but also the Malaysian state of Sabah. Sabah was historically part of the Sultanate of Sulu, a Muslim kingdom based in the southwestern Philippines, and earlier this year was the scene of clashes with rebel forces claiming to represent the sultanate's surviving royal family. Jamalul Kiram III, the leading contender for the throne of Sulu, argues that Sabah was only rented to Malaysia, and should still belong to his kingdom (and by extension to the Philippines).

Kiram's position on the Bangsamoro Republik is that the breakaway state has no claim to Sabah, but that its declaration of independence is otherwise valid - however, he won't support the creation of the state by military force. Meanwhile, Nur Misuari's legal counsel has been quoted saying that even the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak is claimed by the Bangsamoro Republik. But this claim has not been confirmed by Misuari himself, and appears not to be supported by information on the MNLF's website.

Basilan and Cotabato Attacks
Last week two additional battles began in Basilan province, an island located just across a narrow strait from Zamboanga. The attackers are also Moro fighters, but their actions are apparently not connected to the siege of Zamboanga - they might just be taking advantage of the distraction. Though some of the militants attacking Basilan's Lamitan City are said to be members of the MNLF, most of them appear to be from Abu Sayyaf, a more extreme group known for its attacks on civilians and ties to international terrorist organization Al Qaeda.

Also last week, a separate attack was carried out in Cotabato province by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), another rebel group with no direct relation to the declared Bangsamoro Republik. Unlike the Bansamoro Republik's MNLF rebels, both Abu Sayyaf and BIFF want to implement Islamic law  in the Moro homeland.

Followup article: Philippine Rebels Defeated

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Graphic of the Bangsamoro Republik flag by Jaume Ollé/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA; source). Graphic of the flag of the Philippines is in the public domain (source).