Sunday, September 22, 2013

Introducing the Bangsamoro Republik—but for How Long?

Here at “Springtime of Nations,” we endeavor to bring you the latest declarations of independence, notably in the last couple years the Free Sate of Australia, a tiny Russian Democratic Republic near Moscow, the Independent State of Azawad in Mali, Al-Serw in Egypt, the Sovereign State of Biafra in Nigeria, the Republic of Bakassi along Nigeria’s border with Cameroonthe Sultanate of Sulu in the Philippines and Malaysia, Puntland (almost?), and the State of Palestine’s admission (sort of) to the United Nations.

Added to this mixed list (Palestine thrives and moves forward and Puntland’s greatest hour may come soon, while the Azawadi independence bid has been violently snuffed out and Biafra’s was simply ignored) we can add the newest member of almost-existent nations: the United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik (with Republik usually, in press reports, spelled with a final k instead of a c).  Its independence was declared, without action, on August 12th on the island of Sulu by the Moro National Liberal Front (M.N.L.F.) and then put into concrete form on September 9th with the M.N.L.F.’s forcible takeover of Zamboanga City, on the island of Mindanao, and the raising of the Bangsamoro flag.

Map showing Zamboanga City on the island of Mindanao
At the time of this writing (September 22nd), the battle has come to a kind of standstill.  The M.N.L.F. still controls parts of Zamboanga (pop.: ca. 800,000) and some nearby villages, but key parts of the city have been retaken by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (A.F.P.), with President Benigno S. Aquino III making a dramatic, defiant stand within the embattled city itself.  The M.N.L.F.’s founder and commander, Nūr Miswāri, who is from Sulu, is in the city as well and is believed to have about 300 remaining supporters.  As far as is known, 113 people have been killed (92 of them rebels), but tens of thousands have been displaced.  111 rebels have surrendered.  Reports depict Zamboanga as an eerily empty ghost town.

Map showing the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao
Conflict in the southern Philippines is long-standing.  By the time Ferdinand Magellan claimed what is now the Philippines for Spain in the 16th century, there was already a divide between a mostly Muslim south with close cultural and economic ties to what is now Indonesia and a north, including what is now Manila and the bulk of the islands’ population, more traditionally more tribal and with more ties to China and other Asian cultures.  The Spanish Christianized the north but were never able to fully colonize and subdue the south.  The United States conquered the Philippines in the Spanish-American War but had no intention to keep it on as a fully occupied colony like other new acquisitions such as Puerto Rico.  Zamboanga seized independence briefly as a Republic of Zamboanga during the chaos of that war, in 1899.  As the U.S. began to usher the Philippines toward home rule in the 1920s, leaders in the southern Sulu Islands petitioned to remain under U.S. rule, worried about the fate of a Muslim minority in a new nation governed by a northern Roman Catholic majority.  Moros are only about 5% of the population but cover a much larger share of Philippine territory.  Speaking many languages, Moros are no a unified group—they were dubbed Moros by the Spanish, for whom all Muslims were essentially “Moors”—but a Moro national consciousness gathered momentum with Philippine independence in 1946.

The flag of the original Republic of Zamboango, in 1899
The Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), later renamed the Mindanao Independence Movement, referring to the Muslim region’s largest island, was founded in 1968, aiming to establish an Islamic Republic of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan.  Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine dictator and U.S. ally, was opposed to the rebels’s Communist and Islamist tendencies and cracked down brutally in the 1970s, which only intensified Moros’ desire for independence.  The M.N.L.F., originally a MIM offshoot, became more prominent after Marcos’s declaration of a state of emergency in 1972, with calls for a Bangsa Moro Republic (variously spelled).  After Marcos’s fall in a people-power movement in 1986, the government’s approach to the insurgency shifted radically.  An Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was established in the following year.  Warfare continued, however, with holdouts still demanding a fully separate state.

An old flag of the original Sultanate of Sulu, of which the modern M.N.L.F. flag is a modification
Last year, Manila negotiated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (with its unfortunate acronym MILF) to replace the ARMM with an expanded and more autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro.  But the M.N.L.F. was unsatisfied and refused to disarm until independence was achieved.  The M.N.L.F. also threw their weight behind a recent quixotic attempt (reported at the time in this blog) by followers of a self-proclaimed successor to the Sultanate of Sulu to retake Malaysia’s nearby province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, which was a former possession of the sultanate (and the source, during the Marcos era, of a territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia).

“President” Nūr Miswāri (with microphone)
Miswāri, who styles himself president of the new republic, says its territory includes the islands of Basilan, Mindanao, Palawan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, while his legal counsel, Emmanuel Fontanilla, says Bangsamoro also includes not only Sabah but also the large Malaysian province to its west, Sarawak, which never belonged to Sulu’s sultan.  That discrepancy has yet to be sorted out.

The claimed Bangsamoro Republik in dark red, with additional possible territories claimed in pink.

But that question may be moot.  Soon, undoubtedly, Zamboanga will be fully retaken, and the cause of Moro autonomy, let alone independence, will have suffered a great setback.  (Or I could be wrong.)  Watch this space for updates.

The Philippine flag still flying over Zamboanga’s city hall,
next to a statue of the Philippine national hero, José Rizal
[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013 or 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]


  1. Interesting topic, but there are a couple of errors/misrepresentations:

    1. The MNLF militants in the current fighting never controlled the majority or the center of Zamboanga City, but rather only one sector of it. See the map I published on my site earlier this week:

    2. The attack on Zamboanga is not an action of "the MNLF" as a whole - the majority of MNLF factions, including the government of the ARMM, have denied responsibility. Nur Misuari is widely believed to be behind the attack, though the mayor of Zamboanga claims that even Misuari denies sanctioning it.

    Otherwise though, keep up the good work! This is the best online source I've found for keeping track of all separatism-related events going on in the world.

  2. Interesting and well-written article. "Bangsamoro Republik" (with a "k") is actually a Malay term for "Republic of Bangsamoro"


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