PEACETALK: Rethinking the Mindanao Divide

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/07 November) — In Mindanao aboriginality is distinguished between Lumad and Moro. The latter is a term derived from the English word, Moor, which the Spanish used to disparagingly and collectively refer to Muslim natives during their colonial reign in the Philippines.

Interestingly, from this unusual polarization arose the tri-people imagination of Mindanao’s modern population─1) Christian majority who descended from migrant settlers from Luzon and the Visayas approximating 72% of Mindanao’s population; 2) Moro or Muslim minority comprised of 13 ethno-linguistic sub-groups making up 20% of the census; and, 3) Lumad minority covering 18 or so ethnic tribes that collectively make up 5 % of the region’s population.

The goal of this categorization is to recognize and accommodate the differences between the current inhabitants of Mindanao. Sadly however, it also remarkably echoes the Spanish colonial classification of the natives as Christian, Moro and Non-Christian (with lumads falling under the last category).

But this archaic grouping has become untenable because non-Muslim indigenous tribes in Mindanao are now asserting their own narrative amidst the noise and notoriety generated by the campaign for the enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

For its promoters, the BBL is both a manifestation of the Muslim minority’s right to self-determination and the culmination of a laborious peace-process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Note however that non-Islamized ethnic tribes in Mindanao have expressed categorical opposition to being part of the Bangsamoro territory contemplated in the BBL.

Moreover, Lumads in Mindanao who have remained true to their indigenous practices are now loudly demanding state response to their own issues such as the encroachment of mining companies on their traditional lands and the disruption of their way of life due to the militarization of their communities.

The tragedy is non-religious Lumads continue to suffer in the fringes when it comes to development because state attention and resources seem to be directed primarily to the creation of a segregated Bangsamoro area within Mindanao.

This therefore beggars the question- Should this anachronistic view of its population then be challenged to achieve a more inclusive development of Mindanao?

First and foremost, a shift in outlook would paint Mindanao as an island amalgamation of different ethnic groups and not an essentially divided region of two religious faiths.

This alternative approach is actually more consistent with the secular regime in the country wherein all religions are guaranteed the freedom to exercise their rituals and to perform rites in the expression of their faith for as long as these acts do not violate state law and the constitution.

More importantly, this means the state is not an arena where the various religions compete for control. It is a neutral ground where any faith can lay claim to its own space. And any problems concerning the right to practice one’s religion automatically become a Constitutional issue with the courts as the only available recourse.

Furthermore, abandoning the religious overtone in the Mindanao narrative is largely relevant to the most important concern in the development discourse for this region—i.e. the adjudication of claims pertaining to traditional lands.

In a 1987 public lecture, well-respected Mindanao historian, Professor Rudy B. Rudil, asserted that the 13 different ethno-linguistic Muslim communities and the various Lumad tribes are the only groups of indigenous people in Mindanao who can make an ancestral domain claim.

Correspondingly, neither the MILF nor the projected Bangsamoro parliament can justify claims over traditional land rights in Mindanao. In this regard, the rethinking of the tri-people approach clearly places the premium on the capacity of each of these indigenous groups in Mindanao to assert their respective cultural identity and history in their very own terms.

Finally, this alternative picture of Mindanao can better facilitate a collective view of it, both as a territory and as a community of Filipinos. This may sound cliché but inculcating this kind of community mindset can overcome the prevailing “us against them” paradigm that has long fuelled the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao.

A wholistic view of Mindanao is indeed more appropriate in light of the fact that the entire region is considered the poorest in the Philippines. In effect making the tri-people division irrelevant given that a huge majority of Mindanao’s inhabitants are all struggling with poverty. Pertinently, the biggest problem afflicting Mindanao right now, power outages, does not discriminate among its population at all.

Indeed, a paradigm shift in plotting the development of Mindanao has already begun. According to the Mindanao 2020 Peace and Development Framework Plan (2011 – 2030), “the desired outcomes for Mindanao will not come from without – particularly not from the central government, the national capital nor the rest of the country – but will be achieved through the collective efforts of Mindanawons themselves, acting in unity and harmony”.

The caveat here is that simply adopting this integrated perspective in socio-economic development planning for Mindanao is not a sure-fire cure for all the region’s problems. Obviously, there are deeply-rooted political issues, such as the proliferation of local dynasties for instance, in the area that require further remedial measures.

More importantly, regardless of the strength of this inclusive approach to unlock the development potential of Mindanao, the self-determination aspiration of Muslim Filipinos still has to be respected. Therefore, the Bangsamoro campaign just cannot be abandoned full stop.

Nevertheless, as their self-imposed deadline to enact a new regional autonomy law looms, Congress should seriously revisit the view that creating a segregated Muslim territory in Mindanao is the only means to meet the self-determination demands of Muslim Filipinos.

In development parlance, Mindanao when viewed as a huge integrated market demands a coordinated and comprehensive strategy involving all stake-holders in the region. Ostensibly different to the one implemented now as a consequence of the splitting-Mindanao-into-two development model inadvertently promoted in the Bangsamoro campaign.

And while the Constitution calls for the creation of an autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao, Filipino Muslims are not automatically bound by this particular local autonomy regime.

At the very least, other political measures and governance devises more consistent with the goal of fostering “unity and harmony” amongst all the inhabitants of Mindanao has to be explored.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is presently completing a Masters of Law and Development in Melbourne Law School. He recently published a book entitled, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.)