ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: The National Cultural Minorities of Mindanao and Sulu. A preliminary study (2)


2nd of seven parts

Historical Background

It cannot be overemphasized that once upon a time Mindanaw and Sulu were inhabited solely by people who, now, through no fault of their own, constitute a dispossessed, underprivileged and suffering minority. The majority are those who, also through no fault of their own, shifted their habitat, or were forced by circumstances at home to shift their habitat from Luzon and Visayas to Mindanao. The meeting between two cultures, as it were, brought about a series of other problems which now can be simplified into the majority-minority problem, the effects of which are keenly felt by both sides; but more so by the minority. What happened and how this happened are important questions to answer, if we are to comprehend with some depth the majority-minority situation. The reader must be warned, though, that the constraints brought to bear upon this study allow us only a tragically brief account of what happened and how it happened.

When the Spaniards came, they soon became aware that these were Moros in the archipelago. It was not so much because these people were Tausug, Maguindanaw or Meranaw that they captured the attention of the Spaniards. It was because of Islam. Back home, the Moors, who also with belief in Islam, were the most bitter enemies of the Spaniards. In the Philippines, these indigenous people’s being Muslims also qualified automatically as Spanish enemies. Thus, for nearly three and a half centuries, Spanish efforts in Mindanaw, whether military or missionary or both, were ever aimed at reducing these Moros to their knees. But, thanks to Islam and to Spanish determination, the Spaniards failed. Islam gave them organization and ideological unity; Spanish determination made it clear to them that they must be equally, if not more, determined, if they had to survived.

But what made these events tragic for us Filipinos is that while the Muslim Filipinos in the south struggled to keep their freedom, their lowland brothers in the north lost theirs and more. They accepted Christianity and all the appurtenant institutions that made them colonial subjects. They were no longer masters of their destiny. They absorbed the values and outlook in life of their masters, including the Spanish propaganda that the Moros of the south were enemies. They fought admittedly, without their consent, but still they fought on the side of their Spanish masters to exterminate their brothers in the south. Thus, contrary to what many Philippine historians would like us to believe, that the Spaniards unified this country through Christianity and their colonial institutions (in Luzon and Visayas perhaps), these very institutions in fact brought division and conflict of a much deeper character into these islands. At this stage of our historical development, the 1970s, this line of historical interpretation is becoming less and less difficult to prove. There is so much mutual prejudice, there is so much mutual suspicion, there is so much mutual hostility (now not necessarily because of religion, but that was how it started), that one begins to wonder how long the present conflict is going to last.

Among the majority, one manifestation of this deep-seated prejudice is the accusation that the Muslims are backward, the implication being that their being Muslim made them so. Many times this accusation is used to cover up for many anomalous acts perpetrated by many members of the majority to the disadvantage of the Muslim victims. No one denies this backwardness. Even the Muslims would not deny it. But what is questionable is the premise behind the conclusion. That must be some more valid explanation.

During the Spanish period, while the Christianized groups of the north learned ways of living at quickened pace, the Islamized groups of the south were continually engaged in war. Cesar Adib Majul who put out his classic Muslims in the Philippines in 1973 summarized the events of three and a half centuries in these words: “The history of the Philippine Sultanates has been one of war. If they were not fighting to extend their spheres of influence over neighbouring non-Muslim peoples, they were up in arms against Spanish attempts to subjugate them. In times of relative peace with the Spaniards, they pitted their energy against one another for the control of territory or for the right to levy tribute. But clearly, their main pre-occupation was resisting not only Spanish incursions into their territories but also attempts to wean away the tribute-paying peoples from them. In comparison with that of other groups in the Philippines, their resistance was relatively more successful. The Sultans were always careful to note and remind their followers how easily the peoples of the Visayas and Luzon had fallen under Spanish rule and how eventually their former datus ended up paying tribute to, or rowing for, their conquerors. With good reason the sultans and datus looked themselves and their ancestors with pride”(underscoring supplied). It must be pointed out, too, that at the coming of the Spaniards, the most advanced communities in the archipelago in terms of political organization, trade and others, were the Islamized groups of the south. In fact, this was the very reason our Muslim brothers were relatively more successful in their resistance against foreign invasion than those communities in the north.

Moreover, the Christianized northern people accepted unquestioningly the Spanish propaganda that the Muslims occasionally invaded the northern coastal communities were pirates. Jose Rizal, in his time, was perceptive enough to see through this propaganda. Referring to the Muslim raids, he point out that either “because they considered it necessary in order to preserve their independence to weaken the Spaniards by reducing the number of the subjects or because they were animated by a great hatred and profound resentment against the Christian Filipinos who, though belonging to their race, served and helped the foreigners to deprive them of their previous liberty”. (Jose Rizal, “The Indolence of the Filipinos”, 1890).

Quite obviously, painful though the fact may be, the Christian Filipinos, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed greatly to the making of the backwardness of the Muslims of the south. This should not be difficult for any self-righteous Christian to admit because historically, we were all victims of forces bigger than ourselves.

The Mindanaw drama that was started during the period of Spanish colonization was carried over by the American colonizers to the 20th century. Again, Christian Filipinos with consent or without, figured prominently in the so-called Muslim pacification campaigns. But the Americans went one step further than the Spaniards. Once Mindanaw was pacified, they directly encouraged Christian migration into Mindanaw; they just could not resist the prospect of exploiting the rich lands of Mindanaw. It was bulging with potential wealth and it appeared ripe for development. But in the development of Mindanaw, the American colonizers did not include (with that purview) the development of the Muslim people, nor of the other indigenous population. In simple terms, no provisions was made to protect the indigenous people from possible displacement. And so, when it came to pass that the northern settlers were migrating into Mindanaw, thousands of local people were dispossessed. Note that the Muslims of Sulu did not suffer the general land displacement experience in Mindanaw. Many of them fought back. For defending what they considered to be theirs, they were branded as outlaws, trouble-makers, etc. The police, the constabulary were then called in to maintain peace and order – for the settlers of course. This very same standpoint was carried over to the Commonwealth, then to the Republic. Now, patching up the holes of the past, when we realize that an error has been made, has come formidable and a seemingly impossible task.

If matters had been difficult for the Muslims, it was more so with the highlanders. Their village level social organizations prevented them from offering anything more than token resistance. In most cases, they found themselves withdrawing further into the hills from the waves of settlers. The presence was just too much for them. It came in many forms: the police, the constabulary, the settlers, the landgrabbers, the land speculator, the logger, the planter owner. In the past, the word highlander would be inaccurate, for many occupied the lowlands. Now, it is the more accurate term to describe them in relation to their present habitat.

What advantages supported the early Christian settlers? First, he had the support and protection of the government, the military included; secondly, he brought the concept of land as private property and the knowledge of how to acquire it, how to use it more productively, and how to protect it, with a land title. If he were a poor settler and had never owned land back home, he then developed the aggressive drive to own land. These factors, in addition to the fact that he never came alone, were enough to dispossess the less sophisticated and poorly equipped natives.

Gradually and systematically, then, the indigenous people were reduced, to their present status with all its concomitant disadvantages –a minority in what was once their own land.

Following are some lengthy reactions from the side of the minority, from a German-Tausug mestizo in 1932. Theodore Garang Schuck wrote “The Moro Problem” and was published in the Philippine Free Press, November 1932:

“Although the Moro has outwardly recognized and accepted the present government, in his heart… there is a resentment against it which is only expressed in low tones to his most intimate associates. The average Moro cannot understand why Panglima Jaji, for instance, can no longer settle his troubles as the Panglima used to do in the days of his father, and why he has to pay an infidel lawyer to deal out to him a justice which he considers questionable. To him the present government is a money business and a man without money is sure to get the worst of any deal he has with it. The days of his father when there were no tax collectors to disturb the serenity of his thoughts are still fresh in his mind.

“Be a Moro for a while and imagine yourself living in a comfortable place near a spring. In front of your house is a wide grassy plot of land where your cattle grazed. Behind your bamboo shack, a few yards away is a forest where you hunt wild deer for your family and wild pigs for your dogs. Your ancestors lived there long generations before you. They have handed down to you the prairie, the forest, and the spring that supplies you with water. The very atmosphere vibrates with their spiritual presence. You are filled with content and sense of security.

“Then one morning when you awake your chop, chop, chopping in the forest. There are strange voices. Strange persons cutting down the trees that you have always though were yours. You inquire why, and you are made to understand that the forest is no longer yours. By some mystic means, it has slipped away from you to the stranger. You turn to the prairie. Then you see another stranger driving away your herd of cattle and surveying your land without your permission.

 “You go to your Datu, your Panglima or your maharajah in your trouble. But you find that he has no more understanding of what is taking place than you have. In the same mysterious way he has been stripped of his power and his infallible counsel. You cannot read, you cannot reason out why this is so. You begin to wander from place to place with a desire for vengeance stirring in your heart. Or, if you have remained in your piece of land, you must work as you have never worked before to make payments to some demanding individual who cannot explain his demands to your satisfaction.

“The Moros are a law-abiding people, provided, however, they feel that the government that rules them is their own. They look upon it as something that has been imposed upon them. They have the feeling of being conquered, and proud and resentful, they struggle for freedom. They have never felt themselves a part of the Philippine islands or of the Philippine government and until they are made to feel this, resentment and resistance will continue. To be sure, a few educated ones have learned the purpose and ideals of the present government and share with the Christian Filipinos the desire to become a united and independent nation. But the educated ones are a mere drop in the bucket.”

This is a featurized, romantic presentation of how Muslim reacts to the new situation in which he finds himself and which he hardly understands. But the message is clear.

A similar tone is re-echoed by a Magindanaw of South Cotabato in 1973 and is printed by the Sta. Cruz Mission Report, 1973, of the Prelature of Marbel, South Cotabato. He says: “I want to tell you that I am feeling. Many years ago, the Christians came here to our place. They made many promises and encouraged us to join them, to unite and cooperate with them. They paid money to the Datu and they claimed our land. I hope you can understand. Our lands are all sold or mortgaged to the Christians. Now we do not have any land on which to work. This is where we need help in solving our land problems. We try to organize and to work but what can we do with no land?”

Some parts are obviously exaggerated, but the feeling of frustration and disappointment with the Christians is unmistakably clear. Exaggerated or romantic, seen within the context of our historical experience, the accounts are still an accurate portrayal of the inner struggles of the Muslim people throughout Mindanaw and Sulu, which have many times found expressions by spontaneous shows of force. In fact, this was how the Muslim problem was born. Strangely, and it is quite tragic, it seems that it never occurred to the somewhat self-righteous Christians who pretend to be constantly searching for solutions to the Muslim problem that they are the Moro’s problem, as much as they are the problem of the other indigenous people of Mindanaw.

Exactly the same plaints can be heard from the highlanders. Following is the account of a Bla-an of South Cotabato in 1973, also printed in the same Sta. Cruz Mission Report: “I want to tell you about our people as they were before the settlers came. We are the largest number of people then. We lived in the wide plains of Ala and Koronadal Valleys. It is true that we were not educated but then we were happy; we made our own lives, we lived in our own way.

“The settlers came, our lives became unhappy. We ran to the mountains because we were afraid of the settlers. Even today, the Bla-an people are scared of the government officials. Our lands were taken away because of our ignorance. Now we are suffering. We have been forced to live in the Roxas and General Santos mountain ranges. Now we have only a few hectares flat land to grow our food. And even with this little land, the government is running after us and they tell us the land is not ours, it is the government’s. They say the lands belong to the Forestry. They will put us in jail. Truly we do not think that we are part of the government.”

These voices can be multiplied with as many as there are indigenous ethnic groups in Mindanao and Sulu, with as many as there are victims of the same or similar circumstances in each group. And they will lead to one conclusion: that they have been deprived or the basic necessities of survival in a way so systematic yet so complex that one would wonder whether these people were recognized as human beings possessing just as many rights as anyone. Once they did not have to bother where or what portion to cultivate because there was land in abundance; there is very little cultivable land area left to them. Once they did not have to bother about how much land they till, how they till it, and how much harvest they got; the forests and rivers around them had everything they needed, from wild games to fishes to forest products; these are practically gone. Perhaps, matters would not have been so bad, if the change in life style brought about by the majority had not come so fast. It was not so much because they had backward life styles, as many are in the habit of explaining, as that they were caught culturally unprepared to meet these new challenges. This is borne out by the observations of the Santa Cruz Mission (for the cultural minorities) of the Prelature of Marbel, as follows. It was pointed out that “each minority tribe in our Prelature has its own peculiarities. But certain problems they have in common. First, there is the whole range of old-age (sic) problems of poverty, ignorance, and diseases… There is evidence that in many instances they are worse off now than they were some thirty years ago. (Underscoring supplied)

“There are new threats now. First, of seeing the many advantages that modern technology can bring… and suffering the frustration of having these advantages virtually unattainable to them.

“Secondly, there is the much more fearsome problem of disenfranchisement. The minorities seeing their ancestral territory quickly becoming the possession of the more economically sophisticated settlers who have marvelously, to the minds of the natives, turned fields of talahib grass which was formerly theirs into bountiful harvests.”

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A peace specialist, Rudy Buhay Rodil is an active Mindanao historian and peace advocate.)

Tomorrow: Manobo