China Denied Moro Request for Aid

The Philippines' proximity to China was obviously a factor in Datu Matalam's request for military aid for the Muslim secessionist movement in 1971. (Source:, CIA 2003)

Editor's Note: In the wake of the Zamboanga disturbance a few weeks ago that was attributed to Nur Misuari and the remnants of MNLF, here's a historical vignette.

A wary Chinese government in 1971 turned down a request made by the patriarch of the Moro independence movement for political and military support. The move illustrated Beijing's layered approach toward that era's revolutionary surge.

The disclosure was made to a Maoist Philippine delegation assigned to procure weapons from China for the rising armed struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. As deputy head of the mission authorized by the Communist Party of the Philippines to represent the armed resistance of the Left, I listened to a ranking official say that Datu Udtog Matalam, founder and chairman of the Mindanao Independence Movement, had conveyed the written request during the early part of 1971.

Geng Biao, secretary of the International Liaison Department and Central Committee member of the Communist Party of China, said they were clueless on the MIM, beyond receiving news of a Muslim rebellion advocating a separatist nationhood from the Philippine government.

Datu Udtog Matalam (seated left), founder and chairman of the Mindanao Independence Movement, asked China for political and military support for the Muslim secessionist movement in the early '70s and was ignored. (Source

The arms procurement mission, which included delegation head Ibarra Tubianosa and secretary Rosario Ramirez Malay, was officially received by Geng Biao and other senior officials shortly after its arrival in Beijing in July 1971.

Matalam is considered the father of the Moro secession movement, which spawned major organizations led by the Moro National Liberation Front and, subsequently, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MIM's fighting arm, Bangsa Moro Army, became a thorn in the side of the Marcos dictatorship. It made headlines when security forces gunned down its recruits in an uprising known as the Jabidah Massacre.

Matalam obviously had in mind China’s eminent position in the global revolutionary movement, if not its geographical proximity to the Philippines, when he invoked Chinese assistance.

"As a revolutionary country, we support progressive struggles all over the world," Geng Biao, who later became defense minister, told us. "But we didn't know much about the Muslim Independence Movement, much less about Datu Matalam. So we quietly ignored their request and never heard from them again."

Matalam obviously had in mind China's eminent position in the global revolutionary movement, if not its geographical proximity to the Philippines, when he invoked Chinese assistance. He passed away in the seventies, during which a Muslim activist named Nur Misuari, whom he had influenced, consolidated the MNLF.

Nur Misuari consolidated the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) after the death of Datu Matalam. (Source: Al Jazeera)

Misuari, who was close to Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Ma. Sison during their University of the Philippines days, soon disengaged himself from the prevalent Maoism of the sixties and embraced the ideology of an independent Moro state. 

But left unsaid by Geng was another reason for China's reticence on the MIM proposal. With Chairman Mao Zedong at the helm, the People's Republic actively fueled revolutionary struggles throughout the fifties and sixties, the notable exception being the pro-autonomy rebellions in certain countries. With its own Taiwan independence threat and ethnic-based uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang, it clearly wasn't in Beijing's interest to stoke the Moro separatist sentiment and cast doubt over its non-interventionist policy.

To this day, Beijing maintains a hands-off policy vis-a-vis the Moro autonomy problem — in contrast to America's overt and covert efforts to help navigate a quasi-independence-based solution.

Geng Biao, then a top ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party, revealed that Datu Matalam's request for Chinese support in 1971 was ignored. (Source:, photo by Ron Wood)

While Geng insisted to us that his country did not "export revolution," the fact remains that China did ship weapons to the New People's Army in 1972 and 1974 per our delegation’s request. Both ended in failure, leading Vice Premier Deng Xiaobing to criticize his Philippine comrades for their "clumsiness" in handing the project. The wrinkle ruffled fraternal ties that had been ushered and bloomed in the late sixties. The Chinese party broke off relations with the CPP in the early seventies as Philippines-China state relations warmed with the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two former ideological enemies.

As a footnote, the CPP leadership based in the Netherlands has rebuked the Moro National Liberation Front for partnering with the U.S. government toward their goal of self-governance. For erstwhile allies in the anti-colonial struggle, the subtext delineates the complex issues underpinning the Mindanao secession struggle.

Dick Malay

Dick Malay

Dick Malay was a Manila Chronicle reporter covering foreign affairs and Malacañang before joining the global anti-Marcos movement in the early seventies.