PEACETALK: The Moral Imperative of Congress to Muslim Filipinos

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/06 February) — It is very unfortunate indeed that some lawmakers have chosen to join the populist bandwagon against the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in the aftermath of the Mamasapano tragedy. It makes me wonder if our legislators actually recognize the historical obligation they carry in deliberating the BBL. Are they even aware of the harsh legacy attached to the institution they represent in relation to the history of Mindanao?

Nobutaka Suzuki is an associate professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of University of Tsukuba in Japan. He wrote an article published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (2013, Vol. 44, No. 2) entitled, Upholding Filipino nationhood: The debate over Mindanao in the Philippine Legislature, 1907–1913. I will quote the abstract verbatim because it clearly expresses the moral imperative owed by Philippine legislators to ALL Muslim Filipinos and not just those who are part of armed insurgency groups:

Christian Filipino legislators in the bicameral US civil administration played a hitherto unacknowledged role in pushing for the colonisation of Mindanao, as part of the Philippines, by proposing a series of Assembly bills (between 1907 to 1913) aimed at establishing migrant farming colonies on Mindanao. This legislative process was fuelled by anger over the unequal power relations between the Filipino-dominated Assembly and the American dominated Commission, as well as rivalry between resident Christian Filipino leaders versus the American military government, business interests and some Muslim datus in Mindanao itself for control over its land and resources. Focusing on the motives and intentions of the bills’ drafters, this study concludes that despite it being a Spanish legacy, the Christian Filipino elite’s territorial map — emphasizing the integrity of a nation comprising Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao — provided the basis for their claim of Philippine sovereignty over Mindanao.

I have written elsewhere that despite the Moro Wars narrative that Filipinos have been accustomed to, the calculated destruction of Muslim communities actually came with the successor of Spain as the colonial ruler of the Philippines.

The United States (US) initially capitalized on the segregation of Muslims in Mindanao by approaching them as allies against Filipino armed resistance at the onset of the Philippine-American War, with a high-ranking general even entering into a treaty with the Sultan of Sulu. But as the war waged on, the Muslims in Mindanao became more inclined to join the fray than to be on the side of another foreign aggressor. The Americans responded with unbridled ferocity against them. And needless to say, the military superiority of the Americans (with a lot of help from their new native allies) quashed all Muslim opposition in Mindanao.

A vital component of the American approach to govern Mindanao was to encourage Christian immigration to the region. The noted historian Thomas M. McKenna in his book, Muslim Rulers and Rebels, Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines, quoted the words of the American governor responsible for the area in justifying this scheme, which I am reproducing in toto in order to express the colonial government’s motivations as they were originally conveyed:

The problem of civilization of Mindanao and Sulu according to modern standards, or as it may be termed, ‘Philippinization’ of the Mohammedan and pagan regions which comprise almost the entire territory of Mindanao-Sulu, has its most expeditious and positive resolution in the movement under Government direction to the territory of sufficient numbers of the Christian inhabitants of Visayas and Luzon.”

This patently racist policy was implemented through several legislations that effectively opened lands in Mindanao to investors and developers. And as asserted by Professor Suzuki above, legislators from Luzon and Visayas were intimately complicit in the passage of these laws. Indeed, “colonial” lawmakers are principally responsible for paving the way for the colonial government to gain access to prime farming lands in Mindanao for big agricultural plantations and for the resettlement of Christian settlers from Luzon and the Visayas.

These US-mandated laws passed by the colonial master’s “little brown apprentices” in the Philippine Assembly consequently disrupted the traditional mode of ownership practiced by Muslims and lumads in Mindanao. And eventually this state led resettlement scheme caused most rural Muslims to become, what McKenna described as, “peripheralized” in Mindanao. A dire reality exploited by then President Marcos to legitimize his declaration of Martial Law. A regrettable and terrible burden many Filipino Muslims still suffer today.

Ultimately then, the moral imperative of the present day Congress is to remove the conditions that continue to “peripheralize” Muslim Filipinos. And deliberating on the BBL is just one of many undertakings that senators and members of Congress need to do to achieve this purpose. Indeed, the enormity and seriousness of this mandate is undeniable. It is just unbelievably ridiculous that we still have to reckon with flip-flopping lawmakers who are still gripped by the “colonial” mentality characteristic of Manila politicos of old. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism)