Despite its volatile political situation and advice from Western governments to avoid travelling to all of Mindanao, much of the island is safe for foreign travellers. However, you should always check the current situation before travelling and read our advice on trouble spots. Politically the situation is fluid and confusing, with a number of factions and splinter groups calling for varying degrees of autonomy from Manila.
The thorniest issue involves Mindanao’s Muslims (also known as Moros), who are seeking self-determination. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started a war for independence in the 1970s that dragged on until 1987, when it signed an agreement accepting the government’s offer of autonomy. As a result, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, was created in 1990, covering the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, plus Marawi City. The more radical Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) splintered from the MNLF in 1981 and refused to accept the 1987 accord. It has since continued fighting and making uneasy truces, broken many times. In 2008 MILF broke the latest ceasefire after the Supreme Court ruled that a government deal offering them large areas of the south went against the constitution. At the height of the fighting, more than 750,000 people were displaced, and about 400 people killed. At the time of writing things appeared to have calmed; President Benigno Aquino had reopened negotiations with the MILF, proposing a wider Muslim ancestral homeland in Mindanao.
Mindanao’s problems don’t end with the MILF, however. One disaffected group of fighters formed Abu Sayyaf, whose centre of operations is largely Basilan Island, off Mindanao’s south coast. Abu Sayyaf, whose name means “Bearer of the Sword”, is said to have ties to a number of Islamic fundamentalist organizations including al-Qaeda. The group finances its operations mainly through robbery, piracy and kidnappings. They are believed to have been responsible for the bombing of Superferry 14 in February 2004, which sank off the coast of Manila with the loss of 116 lives. In 2006 the group’s leader, Khadaffy Janjalani, was shot dead in an encounter with government troops. However, kidnapping remains a threat.
And then there’s the communist rebels (aka New People’s Army), who have also been fighting since 1969 for the establishment of a communist state in Mindanao; they remain active in remote parts of the island.
Finally, much of the ARMM remains dangerous territory thanks to private armies aligned to corrupt local politicians. In 2009, 57 men and women (including 34 journalists) were tortured and brutally murdered in what was dubbed the Maguindanao Massacre, apparently for attempting to register a rival candidate for the upcoming elections; the perpetrators were a private militia controlled by the powerful Ampatuan clan (who were arrested and tried in 2010).