As part of the 'Sectarianism and Religiously Motivated Violence' Masters course which I run at ANU's National Security College, students were asked to write a post on a contemporary sectarian conflict. This piece by Sophie Wolfer was judged the best of those submitted.

The end of a 40-year sectarian struggle that has taken the lives of over 150,000 Filipino citizens is finally in sight, with President Benigno Aquino urging members of the Philippines Congress to 'swiftly enact a law granting autonomy to the Muslim region of Mindanao'.

An agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could not have come sooner for Australia, as fears continue to rise that 'festering resentment among the religious minority could be used by extremists such as the Islamic State group to recruit new fighters'. 

A poster drawn by 13-year old Julia David on child soldiers in Bangsamoro, 2014.

Traditionally governed in accordance with Islamic law and principles, the independence of the Mindanao region (referred to by its inhabitants as Bangsamoro, meaning ancestral homeland) has been contested by Muslim Filipinos since the Spanish first colonised the region in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Whilst the Moro people successfully defended the territory of Bangsamoro throughout the Spanish invasion, American occupation and war fatigue soon turned armed resistance into futile independence struggles.

When the US began to prepare the Philippines for self-rule in the mid-1900s, Mindanao was placed under the administration of Manila and assimilation programs were encouraged with the goal of 'Filipinising' the remaining Muslim rebels. This remained the status quo until the 1990s and 2000s, when new developments emerged for the possible independence of the Moro homeland.

Although recent events seem to suggest that autonomy is on the horizon, the journey has been anything but smooth sailing. Years of frustration over exclusionary policies and attitudes implemented by various governors of the Mindanao region, particularly in the post-colonial era, have stirred decades of insurgency and violence throughout the Philippines.

The 30 years preceding the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 1990 were marred by bloodshed, triggered in part by the Jabidah Massacre of 1968. A number of Moro recruits who were being trained to retake Sabah coveretly by the Philippine military were murdered when they attempted to escape. The massacre became a linchpin for Muslim grievances in the region and led to the formation of the Muslim Independent Movement which called for jihad (holy war) to defend the Bangsamoro homeland. 

The possibility of ongoing violence from Islamic extremists in this region presents a significant threat to many neighbouring states, particularly Australia as a key middle power in the region.

Although the current mouthpiece of the independence struggle, the MILF, has clearly stated that it does not condone or participate in Islamic extremism, the continued existence of splinter groups with ties to al Qaeda, such as the Abu Sayyaf movement, is concerning. In its heyday, Abu Sayyaf frequently carried out kidnappings, beheadings and bombings, in addition to providing sanctuary to terrorists such as the perpetrators of the 2002 Bali bombers, an attack which took the lives of 88 Australians

Regional terrorism represents a real national security threat to Australia, particularly in light of recent threats from the Islamic State and the potential for Muslim Filipinos frustrated and disenfranchised by lengthy peace negotiations to find common cause with such extremist groups. This has been highlighted in recent days by the activities of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway group that has publicly declared its allegiance and support to the Islamic State and has been disowned by the MILF. It is is suspected of being responsible for the homemade bomb that killed three and injured 22 in North Catabato province on 23 November, an attack seen as a protest against the pending peace deal between the MILF and Philippines Government. 

Much is riding on the success of the recent Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro, agreed upon by the MILF and Philippines Government on 27 March. Pending approval by the Philippines Congress, the agreement provides for a 'transitional process from the current Autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao to a new autonomous entity to be called Bangsamoro'.

The region would have a 60-seat regional parliament, control over finances (including taxes), a separate police force and the right to apply Sharia law to Muslim residents. Non-Muslims living in Bangsamoro (approximately 5% of the region's population are Christians) would continue to be governed by Manila. The Bangsamoro Basic Law has been introduced in Congress to establish governance for the proposed autonomous region and has been subject to scrutiny in a series of consultative meetings. These public hearings are scheduled to conclude by 17 December 2014, allowing the Government to ratify the bill by March 2015. 

Only time will tell if these provisions are enough to quell sectarian conflicts that have dominated the region for decades. It is crucial that the Australian Government continue to support the Bangsamoro peace process, as its success is likely to be a key factor in the ongoing battle with regional extremists.

Photo courtesy of OPAPP.