KASAMA Vol. 10 No. 3 / July-August-September 1996 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Retrospect and Prospects:
Toward a Peaceful Mindanao

This is a modified version of a paper delivered at the Seminar-Workshop for Journalists, the Military, NGOs and Rebel groups on the theme "Media Reportage on the Peace Process" held at the New Astoria Hotel, Zamboanga City, Philippines, January 26-27, 1996. The seminar was sponsored by the Jesuit Communications Foundation in cooperation with the Alliance of Peace Communicators. Originally printed in Moro Kurier Vol. 10 No. 1, Jan/March 1996.

by Rufa Cagoco-Guiam

Part One

Assalamu Alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuhu!

A pleasant afternoon to all members of both the print and broadcast media represented in this gathering. I would like to thank the organizers, the members of the Jesuit Communications Foundation, for contributing their time and energies to this important seminar and for making me a part of it. Peace is always a collective concern, and as such needs our collective efforts to be achieved. And the media, being society's purveyors of information, have a crucial role to play in all our collective efforts to achieve a genuine and lasting peace for all in our beloved Mindanao.

I have been tasked to give you a brief peace situationer of Mindanao, with emphasis on how the different groups of Moro revolutionaries came about. This is no easy task, considering that I am with a group whose members can rightfully claim they know Mindanao more than anybody else. After all, as reporters covering the Mindanao beat, you are confronted daily with a barrage of raw data on the latest body count of the most recent skirmish, rido fighting, ambushes, and what have you. Reporters and journalists in general are veritable reservoirs of information because the public expect them to be so.

But I will not bore you with a repetition of such facts. In this paper, I want all of us to transcend the usual reportorial grind of just getting plain facts. I want to lead you into a journey of the past to help us understand the seeming incoherence of present unpeaceful and unpleasant events in Mindanao. And I would like that this journey will be one of understanding the possible causes of the so-called Muslim-Christian conflict in Mindanao.

Mindanao images and realities: A historical journey

Mindanao has been popularly dubbed the "land of promise." This image of Mindanao evokes a land of milk and honey, a land where there is a cornucopia of opportunities for anybody wanting to have a share in God's bounties, for him/her to amass wealth in the process. But this image falls flat in the faces of those who see the stark realities of grinding poverty, political powerlessness of its millions of indigenous peoples, and the intermittent violence and lawlessness in its remote and hinterland areas. As the bloody history of Mindanao shows, such violence has managed to spill over to many of its urban centers, wreaking havoc on the lives of its peoples, both natives and migrants.

When the name Mindanao is mentioned, it is inevitable that the discussion will lead to the Muslim Filipinos, or what popular literature refer to as the Moro people. There is a pervading image of the Moro, or the Islamized peoples in Mindanao as lawless, if not outlaws (Bentley, 1992). Some writers refer to Mindanao as a "frontier" region, with the connotation of it being akin to early America's wild west. (See R.J. May, in Turner, May and Respall Turner, 1992). To a large extent, the violence spawned by the Moros' centuries-old fierce resistance against any form of foreign domination has helped mold this image of Mindanao as the Philippine version of the "wild west."

The Moros are the 13 ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao and Sulu whose ancestors accepted Islam as a way of life a century before Spain claimed to have "discovered" the Philippines in 1521. Islam came to the Philippines via the long distance international bulk trade of which Muslim Arab traders were active partners.

Of the thirteen groups, there are three which are the most numerous and more influential in both local and national politics. These are the Maguindanaons or the "people of the flooded plains" of the Cotabato River Basin, the Maranaws of Lake Lanao and the Lanao provinces, and the Tausug, or "people of the current," of the Sulu archipelago.

The rest of the Islamized groups in southern Philippines are the following: the Yakans of Basilan island, the Badjaw and Sama of Sulu, the Jama Mapun of Cagayan de Sulu island, the Palawani and Melebuganon of Palawan island, the Sangil of Saranggani, the Kalagans of Central Davao province, the Kalibugan of Zamboanga peninsula, and the Iranun of the borders of Lanao and Maguindanao provinces.

The word "Moros" was first used by the Spaniards to refer to the Islamized natives in the southern part of the archipelago. The fierceness of the Moros' resistance against Spanish/ Christian proselytization reminded the Spaniards of a similar group of people, the Moors of Morocco. The Moors had colonized the Iberian peninsula for seven centuries.

The Spanish government forces had fought costly and bloody wars against the Moors before they were finally driven out of Granada, their last outpost in Spain. Originally the epithet "Moros" as the Spaniards and later, as the Americans used it, had the following connotations: "savage-looking", "blood-hungry", infieles (infidels), and even juramentado (amok).

It was not surprising that the Islamized natives of southern Philippines did not like to be called "Moros" then. The name was widely perceived to be very derogatory, and therefore was a serious affront to their sense of personal dignity or maratabat. To this day, some Muslim Filipinos still disdain being called "Moros."

There is however a current trend among a number of both rural and urban-based Moros to use the term Moro or "Bangsamoro" (Moro people) to refer to themselves. This indicates an emergent consciousness of their being a distinct people, and a recognition of their common history of fierce resistance against foreign domination and Christian proselytization. The self-conscious assertion of the ideology of a Bangsamoro nation emphasizes the unity of the ethnolinguistically diverse Muslim groups in southern Philippines within the framework of a revivalist Islamic consciousness (Kiefer, 1987: 116).

From mid-15th century to the beginning of American rule in the Philippines, the Islamized natives had a relatively advanced form of social and political organization known as the sultanates. Among the more dominant sultanates were those of Magindanaw, Buayan and Sulu. The sultanates evolved as segmentary states whose controlled territories increased or decreased depending upon the overall abilities of their respective leaders, or sultans. The sultanates can also be considered "tributary formations" in which lineage and kinship interfaced with more elaborate and partly centralized organizations for production and defense (San Juan, 1988:1).

It is widely acknowledged that the roots of Mindanao's predilection for armed violence can be traced in the competition for its vast lands, and the race to capture the hearts and minds of those who live in these lands.

Indeed, since the time the Spaniards set foot on an already heavily Islamized Mindanao, armed strife has been the norm rather than the exception. As earlier noted, the Moro resisted fiercely against any Spanish incursion into the areas within the sphere of influence of the sultanates.

The Spaniards failed dismally to dominate and proselytize the Moro people. However, they paved the way for the eventual disenfranchisement of the Moros by putting effective naval blocks on the routes of the long distance trade which was the basis for the sultanates' social formation.

The lands of Mindanao and Sulu were not covered by the encomienda system and other Spanish land tenurial arrangements imposed in the Visayas and Luzon. But all these changed during the coming of the Americans. The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898 arrogated to the American colonial government not only the control but also the ownership of all lands in the Philippine archipelago. The colonial government's Philippine commission passed several legislations which concretized American hegemony in the country, especially with regards to land ownership. These laws were enforced in the Islamized areas of Mindanao and Sulu thus encroaching into the dominion of the sultanates. Consequently, these laws became the instruments to make the Moros and the other indigenous groups in Mindanao "resident strangers."

Some of these laws were the following: The Land Registration Act of 1902, the Philippine Bill of 1902, Public Land Act of 1903, and the policies implementing resettlement programs of Christianized Filipinos to areas in Mindanao once dominated by the Islamized natives. Such policies started to take effect in 1913.

The Land Registration Act of 1902. This law provided mainly for the systematic registration of land ownership under the Torrens system of land titling. This system contravenes the 'centuries-old customary law or adat among the Moros which is based on the notion that there can be no absolute ownership of land. Islamic principles also uphold this notion. Land and all of creation belong to God and human beings are only trustees or stewards of God's creation. In the precolonial everyday lives of the Moros, this principle was at work: land was held based on usufructory rights, with the sultan or datu exercising supreme stewardship of the lands or territories under his effective control. Because of this orientation, many of the natives refused or did not bother to register the lands they were cultivating. There were, however, several Moro datus and other members of royal families who took advantage of this law by registering vast sultanate or datu-controlled lands in their names. These datus were to become the ancestors of contemporary land-wealthy Moro elite families of today.

The Philippine Bill of 1902. This bill provided for the specific conditions of the disposition of public lands and set the limits on hectarage that individuals and corporations could acquire. The provisions of this bill were prejudicial to individuals: they could only own up to 16 hectares while corporations could own up to 1,604 hectares (see Dumarpa, 1984 and Silva, 1978).

The Public Land Act of 1902. Corollary to the Land Registration Act of 1902, this Act, provided among other things, that those lands unregistered in the previous year will automatically become public lands. These lands can then be sold to Filipinos, Americans, and other peoples, regardless of nationality. Under this law, the homestead system was introduced.

Policies establishing migrant colonies in Mindanao. In 1913, the colonial government began to implement a policy of establishing agricultural colonies in the south allegedly to encourage the landless farmers from both Luzon and the Visayas to immigrate to the less populous areas in Mindanao. From 1913 to 1917, seven agricultural colonies were opened in Mindanao. These were: Pikit, Silik, Paidu Pulangi, Pagalungam, Glan and Talitay in the former empire province of Cotabato, and Momungan in Lanao province.

In these colonies, the Christian settlers were mixed with the Islamized natives purportedly to promote "good working relations" between the two groups. Actually, the colonial government's aim in doing so was part of its divide and rule policy. First, it wanted to defuse an emerging peasant unrest in Luzon. Secondly, many of the volunteers to become beneficiaries of government-sponsored migrations to Mindanao were the "undesirables" and tough guys in some Luzon and Visayas communities. As Congressman Mike Mastura of Maguindanao's first district once remarked, "Mindanao is the promised land of the undesirables of Luzon and the Visayas." To top all the effrontery of the American colonial government moves against the Moros, the Christian migrants were entitled to larger tracts of land (sixteen hectares to the natives' ten, which were later reduced to eight). This is not to mention the use of a predominantly Christian Philippine Constabulary Force used to quell any form of dissent from the Moros. With these realities in mind, it is impossible to conceive of a native and migrant population living in peaceful coexistence, let alone have "good working relations" with each other.

The American government's grant of independence to the Philippines in 1946 gave birth to the Philippine nation-state. For the elite Filipinos, including the Moros, this was an opportunity to participate fully in the politics of self-rule, something denied them during the years of colonial rule. But for the grassroot Moros who were slowly marginalized and minoritized in their own homeland, the creation of such nation-state dominated by Christian Filipinos consigned to them the fate of eventually becoming "illegal" occupants of their own homeland.

The emergence of this new nation state was received with trepidation by many Moros, even among their elite. In 1935, a group of Maranaw datus petitioned for a separate state from President Roosevelt. Even earlier, some prominent Sulu sultans also made a "declaration of rights and purposes" asking for some independence for Sulu.

Perhaps, the Moro fears for being under a Christian-dominated government were well founded. The formation of a Philippine nation-state inevitably led to the entrenchment of a national identity based on a core of majority group values, i.e. Christian Filipino values. This identity was to become the new nation-state's definition of itself, one that is definitely not a product of autochthonous political evolution but rather an amalgam of colonially imposed values and concepts. As this definition was being forged, through gentle persuasion or outright coercion in the guise of nation-building, the identities of certain population groups become anomalous, thus making these people "resident strangers" McVey, 1984:12-13). As such, they are reduced to the peripheries of the political and economic spheres in the new nation-state set up.

As this new nation-state started building its foundations, Mindanao's social tensions and armed violence continued to escalate in various places. Many of these armed confrontations were the result of land conflicts and raiding of work animals and other crimes against property. These tensions were exacerbated with the rise of Moro elite "private armies". Like the American "wild west," the bounties of Mindanao belonged not to the faint-hearted: only those with guns and goons reigned supreme. And those who had these tools included both migrants and native elites.


About the Author:

Rufa Cagoco-Guiam
is the Director of the Institute of Cotabato and Sulu Cultures, Notre Dame University, Cotabato City.
Moro Kurier is published quarterly by the Moro People's Resource Center, Inc., Cotabato City, Philippines