With a population of 94 million inhabitants, the East-Asian archipelago of the Philippines is the 7th most populous nation in Asia and 12th in the world. Despite this, developments in the Philippines rarely feature in Western news cycles, until recently. An oft-cited reason for the Philippines’ huge and ever expanding population is that 80% of the country is Roman Catholic and, although it is overpopulated to the extent whereby shanty towns in Manila house up to 90,000 people within a half a square kilometre, the Filipino government fears losing support if it promotes contraception.
Religion has held a prominent place in the politics of the Philippines ever since it became part of the Spanish East Indies in 1565. The 300 years of religious conversion that would follow Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s arrival are still felt in the political climate of the Philippines today, no more so than in the predominantly Islamic southern island of Mindanao, where a sectarian conflict that has displaced 250,000 and killed two million has been a consistent factor since 1976. Just as Catholic principals have a stranglehold on government policy in the north, the determination of Muslim militant groups to establish an independent Islamic state Mindanao has dominated the south.
The Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, negotiating on behalf of the five million Muslims living in the Philippines, recently agreed to end sixteen years of on-off peace negotiations on 15th of October this year. The crux of the negations is that the Muslim population will hold a plebiscite on the establishment of a Muslim area, under Sharia law, called Bangsamoro.
Incidentally, term ‘Moro’ is derived from the Spanish colonists’ derogatory name for Mindanao Muslims. It seems that even if plans to establish an Islamic utopia in the southern islands do come to fruition, years of colonial obsession with religion will remain as much a factor in the Philippines’ future as it has been throughout its history.