The ARMM spans two geographical areas: Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao (except Cotabato City) in southwestern Mindanao, and the island provinces of Basilan (except Isabela City), Sulu and Tawi-Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago. The region covers a total of 12,288 km².
For the most part of Philippines' history, the region and most of Mindanao have been a separate territory, which enabled it to develop its own culture and identity. The region has been the traditional homeland of Muslim Filipinos since the 15th century, even before the arrival of the Spanish who began to colonize most of the Philippines in 1565. Muslim missionaries arrived in Tawi-Tawi in 1380 and started the conversion of the native population to Islam. In 1457, the Sultanate of Sulu was founded, and not long after that the sultanates of Maguindanao and Buayan were also established. At the time when most of the Philippines was under Spanish rule, these sultanates maintained their independence and regularly challenged Spanish domination of the Philippines by conducting raids on Spanish coastal towns in the north and repulsing repeated Spanish incursions in their territory. It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that the Sultanate of Sulu formally recognized Spanish sovereignty, but these areas remained loosely controlled by the Spanish as their sovereignty was limited to military stations and garrisons and pockets of civilian settlements in Zamboanga and Cotabato, until they had to abandon the region as a consequence of their defeat in the Spanish–American War.
The Moros had a history of resistance against Spanish, American, and Japanese rule for over 400 years. The violent armed struggle against the Japanese, Filipinos, Spanish, and Americans is considered by current Moro Muslim leaders as part of the four centuries long "national liberation movement" of the Bangsamoro (Moro Nation). The 400-year-long resistance against the Japanese, Americans, and Spanish by the Moro Muslims persisted and morphed into their current war for independence against the Philippine state.
In 1942, during the early stages of Pacific War of the Second World War, troops of the Japanese Imperial Forces invaded and overran Mindanao and the native Moro Muslims waged an insurgency against the Japanese. Three years later, in 1945, combined United States and Philippine Commonwealth Army troops liberated Mindanao, and with the help of local guerrilla units ultimately defeated the Japanese forces occupying the region.
In the 1970s, escalating hostilities between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front prompted Ferdinand Marcos to issue a proclamation forming an Autonomous Region in the Southern Philippines. This was however, turned down by a plebiscite. In 1979, Batas Pambansa No. 20 created a Regional Autonomous Government in the Western and Central Mindanao regions.
The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao region was first created on August 1, 1989 through Republic Act No. 6734 (otherwise known as the Organic Act) in pursuance with a constitutional mandate to provide for an autonomous area in Muslim Mindanao. A plebiscite was held in the provinces of Basilan, Cotabato, Davao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Palawan, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur; and in the cities of Cotabato, Dapitan, Dipolog, General Santos, Koronadal, Iligan, Marawi, Pagadian, Puerto Princesa and Zamboanga to determine if their residents wished to be part of the ARMM. Of these areas, only four provinces — Lanao del Sur (except Marawi City), Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi — voted in favor of inclusion in the new autonomous region. The ARMM was officially inaugurated on November 6, 1990 in Cotabato City, which was designated as its provisional capital. Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act No. 42, enacted on September 22, 1995, sought to permanently fix the seat of regional government at Parang in Maguindanao, pending the completion of required buildings and infrastructure. However the move to Parang was never made. Until the passage of Republic Act No. 9054 in 2001, which directed the ARMM Regional Government to once again fix a new permanent seat of government in an area within its jurisdiction, Cotabato City remained the de facto seat of ARMM's government, and remains so at present.
A new law, Republic Act No. 9054, was passed by the Congress on February 7, 2001 with a view to expand the territory and powers of the ARMM by amending the original Organic Act (R.A. No. 6734) and calling for a plebiscite to ratify the amendments and confirm which other provinces and cities would like to join the region. RA 9054 lapsed into law on March 31, 2001, without the signature of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. A plebiscite was held on August 14 in the provinces of Basilan, Cotabato, Davao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Palawan, Sarangani, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga Sibugay, and the cities of Cotabato, Dapitan, Dipolog, General Santos, Iligan, Kidapawan, Marawi, Pagadian, Puerto Princesa, Digos, Koronadal, Tacurong and Zamboanga. In the plebiscite, a majority of votes cast in the original four provinces were in favor of the amendments; outside these areas, only Marawi City and the province of Basilan (excluding Isabela City) opted to be included in the ARMM.
The ARMM's sixth province, Shariff Kabunsuan, was carved out of Maguindanao on October 28, 2006. However, on July 16, 2008 the Supreme Court of the Philippines voided the creation of Shariff Kabunsuan, declaring unconstitutional Section 19 in RA 9054 which granted the ARMM Regional Assembly the power to create provinces and cities. The Supreme Court held that only the Congress of the Philippines was empowered to create provinces and cities because the creation of such necessarily included the power to create legislative districts, which explicitly under the Philippine Constitution was within the sole prerogative of Congress to establish.
On July 18, 2008, Hermogenes Esperon, peace advisor to former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in his talks with Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in Malaysia, revealed the planned expansion of the region. The deal, negotiated in secret talks with the MILF and subject to approval, would give the ARMM control of an additional 712 villages on the south west portion of Mindanao, as well as broader political and economic powers.
Massive protests, however, have greeted the move of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and MILF panels in signing a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain as a majority of the Local Government Units where these Barangays are connected have already opted not to join the ARMM in two instances, 1989 and 2001.
On August 4, 2008, after local officials from Cotabato asked the Supreme Court to block the signing of the agreement between GRP and MILF, the Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order against the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the Philippine government and the MILF rebels in Malaysia. Several lawmakers had filed petitions with the Supreme Court to stop the Philippine government from concluding the MOA-AD due to lack of transparency and for MILF's failure to cut ties with the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah, which aims to establish a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia using MILF camps in south western Mindanao as training grounds and staging points for attacks.
On October 14, 2008, the Supreme Court of the Philippines, by a vote of 8–7, declared “contrary to law and the Constitution” the Ancestral Domain Aspect (MOA-AD) of the Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001 between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The 89-page decision, written by Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales ruled: “In sum, the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process committed grave abuse of discretion when he failed to carry out the pertinent consultation process, as mandated by EO No. 3, RA 7160, and RA 8371. The furtive process by which the MOA-AD was designed and crafted runs contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise thereof. It illustrates a gross evasion of positive duty and a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined.”
Due to the failure to establish the Bangsamoro entity in the administration of former president Noynoy Aquino after the clash in Mamasapano, President Rodrigo Duterte announced his intent to establish a federal form of government which would replace the unitary form of government used since the First People Power Revolution. In his plan, ARMM, along with the areas that voted to be included in ARMM in 2001 plus Isabela City and Cotabato City, will be a federal state of the incoming federation. Nene Pimintel Jr., Duterte's ally and the mind behind the federal movement in the Philippines, said in an interview that Isabela City, Basilan, Lamitan, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi may be a single federal state, while Lanao del Sur, Marawi, Cotabato City and Maguindanao may be a single federal state as well because the Muslims of the Sulu archipelago have a different heritage from the Muslims in mainland Mindanao and that the Muslims of the Sulu archipelago 'do not like' the Muslims of mainland Mindanao and vice versa.
The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao consists of 2 component cities, 116 municipalities and 2,490 barangays. The cities of Isabela and Cotabato are not under the administrative jurisdiction of the ARMM.
The region is headed by a Regional Governor. The Regional Governor and Regional Vice Governor are elected directly like regular local executives. Regional ordinances are created by the Regional Assembly, composed of Assemblymen, also elected by direct vote. Regional elections are usually held one year after general elections (national and local) depending on what legislation from the Philippine Congress. Regional officials have a fixed term of three years, which can be extended by an act of Congress.
The Regional Governor is the chief executive of the regional government, and is assisted by a cabinet not exceeding 10 members. He appoints the members of the cabinet, subject to confirmation by the Regional Legislative Assembly. He has control of all the regional executive commissions, agencies, boards, bureaus and offices.
The executive council advises the Regional Governor on matters of governance of the autonomous region. It is composed of the regional governor, 1 regional vice governor, and 3 deputy regional governors (each representing the Christians, the Muslims, and the indigenous cultural communities). The regional governor and regional vice governor have a 3-year term, maximum of 3 terms; deputies' terms are coterminous with the term of the regional governor who appointed them.
The ARMM has a unicameral Regional Legislative Assembly headed by a Speaker. It is composed of three members for every congressional district. The current membership is 24, where 6 are from Lanao del Sur including Marawi City, 6 from Maguindanao, 6 from Sulu, 3 from Basilan and 3 from Tawi-Tawi.
The Regional Legislative Assembly is the legislative branch of the ARMM government. The regular members (3 members/district) and sectoral representatives, have 3-year terms; maximum of 3 consecutive terms. It exercises legislative power in the autonomous region, except on the following matters: foreign affairs, national defense and security, postal service, coinage and fiscal and monetary policies, administration of justice, quarantine, customs and tariff, citizenship, naturalization, immigration and deportation, general auditing, national elections, maritime, land and air transportation, communications, patents, trademarks, trade names and copyrights, foreign trade, and may legislate on matters covered by the Shari’ah, the law governing Muslims.
RA 9054 provides that ARMM "shall remain an integral and inseparable part of the national territory of the Republic." The President exercises general supervision over the Regional Governor. The Regional Government has the power to create its own sources of revenues and to levy taxes, fees, and charges, subject to Constitutional provisions and the provisions of RA 9054. The Shariah applies only to Muslims; its applications are limited by pertinent constitutional provisions (prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment).Basilan — Gov. Jum Akbar (Liberal)
Lanao del Sur — Gov. Bai Soraya Alonto Adiong (Liberal)
Maguindanao — Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu (Liberal)
Sulu — Gov. Toto Tan (Liberal)
Tawi-Tawi — Gov. Rashidin Matba
On June 16, 2012, the registration of 1,778,817 voters of the municipalities/cities in the ARMM was voided by a joint resolution of both Houses of Congress and approved by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. The joint resolution mentioned the “presence of hundreds of thousands of illegal and fictitious registrants in the ARMM which needs to be deleted.”
The region is one of the most impoverished areas in the Philippines. It has a per capita gross regional domestic product of only ₱3,433 in 2005, 75.8 percent lower than the national average of ₱14,186. It is the lowest among the Philippines' 17 regions, the second lowest region has a per capita income almost double the ARMM's. ARMM has a population of 4.1 million based on the 2007 census. It is the country's poorest region, where average annual income was just ₱89,000 ($2,025) in 2006, less than ⅓ of Manila level.
Poverty incidence in the region is a high 45.4 percent in 2003, almost twice the national average of 24.4 percent. Significant progress has been made in reducing poverty in the region, which was reduced by 10.5 percent from the 2000 figure, only the Caraga region has a higher poverty incidence in 2003. Lanao del Sur reduced its povery incidence by as much as 26.9 percent, placing itself as the 12th most successful province in poverty reduction. Tawi-Tawi and Sulu have reduced their figures by 18 and 17.6 percent, respectively. In 2000, all the four provinces of the ARMM were among the 10 poorest in the Philippines. By 2003, Lanao del Sur, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi were out of the bottom 10, leaving only Maguindanao, which remains to be the second poorest or the second with the highest incidence of poverty among the Philippines' provinces.
Despite the autonomy, ARMM receives approximately 98% of its operating revenue from the National Government of the Philippines, and has yet to create significant, viable sources of additional revenue. Perhaps for this reason, the per capita spending on such vital services as education and infrastructure are among the lowest in the Philippines, and the five provinces of the ARMM continue to be ranked consistently on the lower rungs of economic development within the country. The per student expenditure on education, for example, is less than $100, with the result that students within ARMM schools generally score poorly, in comparison with other provinces, on standardized achievement tests administered throughout the country.
ARMM is one of the country's top producers of fish and marine resources, particularly seaweed, which is used in some toothpastes, cosmetics and paints. It has large mineral deposits, including copper and gold.
The native Maguindanaon and other native Muslim/non-Muslim groups have a culture that revolves around kulintang music, a specific type of gong music, found among both Muslim and non-Muslim groups of the Southern Philippines.