Bangsamoro is an autonomous territory mostly inhabited by the Moro people in the southern Philippines, consisting of the western region of the island of Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu Archipelago. Bangsamoro consists of the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and 63 villages in Cotabato province (Mindanao island) and the provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan (except Isabela City) in the Sulu Archipelago. Bangsamoro is the only Muslim-majority territory in Christian-majority Philippines. It is one of the most impoverished regions and has one of the lowest human development indices in the Philippines.
Bangsamoro maintained for centuries its independence from the Spanish colonisation of the rest of the Philippines as several local Islamic sultanates, the main ones being those of Maguindanao and Sulu, survived until the end of the 19th century.
After the end of the Spanish colonisation (1898), the Moro people staged some 15 uprisings against US domination during the first four decades of the 20th century. After independence (1946), the Philippine government went deeper into the colonisation of the lands of Mindanao by Christian Filipinos from outside the island, a process that had begun during the American era with the so-called Homestead Program. As a result, the Moro became a minority in Mindanao (20%) and were dispossessed of many lands; at the same time, the Philippine government excluded them from political power and marginalised their languages and cultures.
In 1968, an armed pro-independence Moro revolt broke out against the Philippine state. Two major groups led the fight since then, both of which originally demanded full independence from the Philippines but later settled for autonomy: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, founded in 1969), and its 1978 split, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which became by far the largest armed group in Bangsamoro. Other groups with a strong Islamist inclination would later appear.
These events marked the beginning of an armed conflict between the Philippine army and the Moro armed groups, which is currently in the process of being settled. The conflict has claimed at least 120,000 lives. The Philippine government and the MNLF agreed on a peace deal and an autonomous system for Bangsamoro in 1996 (Jakarta Agreement), which was later replaced by another pact with the MILF (Framework Agreement, 2012).
Bangsamoro is a very diverse territory as regards language, with at least 15 of them spoken there. The largest ones include Maguindanao (1.3 million speakers, mostly in the province of the same name), Maranao (1.2 million, mostly in Lanao del Sur), and Tausug (1.1 million, in the Sulu Archipelago). Other languages are Yakan, Iranun, Chavacano —the only Spanish-based Creole in Asia—, Cebuano, Tiruray, and Sama.
The identity of the Moro people is based, above all, on the profession of Islam, on an own institutional history linked to the sultanates, on a tradition of struggle against foreign, colonial domination —European or Philippine—, and on the defence of their right to land in the face of dispossession.
However, the Moro people is made up of at least 13 different ethnolinguistic groups, each one with its own identity and separate institutional tradition. The most remarkable differences are found between the groups on the island of Mindanao, on the one hand, and those in the Sulu Archipelago, on the other.
In addition, several non-Muslim indigenous peoples, collectively known as Lumad, live in Bangsamoro —as well as in the rest of Mindanao.
Politics and government
Following the 2012 Framework Agreement, the Philippine Parliament passed the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2018, which establishes a devolved system of government for the territory, the so-called Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), from 2019. This one replaces for all purposes the previous autonomous government of Bangsamoro (the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM), which was in operation between 1989 and 2019.
The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region has legislative, executive and judicial autonomy in many areas, including agriculture, language, culture, education, health, social services, human rights, tourism, commerce, industry, urban planning, and labour, women’s and indigenous people’s laws. Powers can be overseen by the Philippine presidency. Bangsamoro also has financial autonomy, since it is allowed to collect its own taxes. The Organic Law also stipulates the allocation of an annual grant block, paid by the Philippine treasury. The BARMM also has its own judicial system, based on the Philippine Constitution and Shari’a law. Shari’a law is not applied when, in a court case, one of the parties is not a Muslim.
Regional authorities include the 80-member Bangsamoro Parliament, elected by universal suffrage every 3 years (the first election is scheduled for 2022); the Bangsamoro Cabinet, appointed and headed by the chief minister, who is elected by the Bangsamoro Parliament; the Council of Leaders, which has an advisory role; the wali, who is the ceremonial head of the autonomous region and is also elected by the Bangsamoro Parliament from a list of names proposed by the Council of Leaders; and the Shari’a High Court, the highest judicial authority of the autonomous region.
A Bangsamoro Transitional Authority is in place for the period 2019-2022, which includes an interim government, an interim parliament —with 51 per cent of the members appointed by the MILF and 49 per cent by the Philippine presidency—, and an interim wali. Following the consequences of the Covi-19 pandemic, the Philippine government decided to extend the term of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority until 2025.
As explained, the Philippine government has signed peace agreements with the two largest armed groups: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). According to the Armed Conflict Survey 2020 of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2019 the MILF had over 30,000 combatants, who must undergo a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process until 2022. The MILF has its main supporters among the Maguindanaos. Its leader, Murad Ebrahim, is the current provisional chief minister of Bangsamoro. The MNLF has fewer than 10,000 combatants, some of whom are led by its historic leader, Nur Misuari, on the island of Sulu.
Outside the peace agreements with the Philippine government remain four Jihadist armed groups, which advocate the independence of the Moro people under an Islamic State-style caliphate, an organisation with which they maintain links. These groiups are the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), with 300 combatants; Abu Sayyaf (ASG), with 400 combatants in the Sulu Archipelago; Ansar Khalifah (AKP), with 50 combatants in southern Mindanao, outside the borders of the BARMM; and the Maute Group (MG), with 25 combatants in Lanao del Sur.
(Last updated November 2021.)