About Ancestral Domains
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - September 29, 2008 - 12:00am

Whiny matrons flipping through a news magazine at the hair salon asked themselves, “What’s Ancestral Domain? Not one more of Imelda’s mansions!” Bored, anxious men in a lotto queue on a sidewalk nudged their companions with a familiar curse about misbehaving mothers, “Did you hear what the Moros want now? That thing about Indigenous Peoples’ something?”

My granddaughter, freshly turned out from art school with a limited vocabulary asks, “What’s ‘from time immemorial,’ Lola? I keep seeing it in those big ads in the paper about MOA and AD?” I gather my wits and reply, “It means way back, long before anyone can remember.” 

“So, what’s the problem?”

“It’s land down south in Mindanao that the Moros say has been theirs since forever and want turned over to them now.”

“Cool! Just like that? And they’re getting it?”

That’s the problem, I say, and she loses interest.

But a few weeks ago nobody was feeling anything like “cool” about it. When a partial text of a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain was disclosed the day before it was going to be signed at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia by General Esperon and his peace freaks and the representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in the presence of the Foreign Affairs Secretaries of the Philippines and Malaysia and the US, Japanese and Australian Ambassadors, everybody went up in flames.

The senators and the lawyers went to the Supreme Court and got a temporary restraining order. The media ran out of pejorative adjectives and adverbs. Mass hysteria overcame the Opposition. The retired military officers, politicians, NGOs, luminaries of every kind went full throttle at the idea of such ham-fisted, bare-faced treason. Fury was the order of the day.

Revive the Sabah claim! Esperon should be shot at dawn! Expel the US ambassador! It’s really a US conspiracy! They’re dismembering the country! Creating a state within a state! Impeach Gloria!  

Meanwhile, half a million innocents were made homeless by military action. Hundreds were killed, thousands injured and traumatized. Blood ran in the streets and business evaporated.

I took refuge in ancient history. I have always felt safer inhabiting the time before the Romans began to throw Christians to the lions. I sought answers from books. The basis for the Moro claim is premised on “Ancestral Domain” (or territory owned and controlled by progenitors and forefathers), “Indigenous People” (or the original inhabitants of a designated place), “from time immemorial.” All three key phrases are copouts, begging the question and historically wrong.

So, who were the first people in this archipelago? Archaeology maintains that the first human beings in what is now the Republic of the Philippines lived some 22,000 years ago. A fossilized skull, rather thick, with a sloping forehead and wide, heavy cheeks was found in 1962 in the Tabon Cave, in a cliff facing the China Sea in Northern Palawan, and named by international scholars the Tabon (or Palawan) Man. Actually a woman’s remains (an omen of Philippine matriarchy?), it was surrounded by the bones of three other humans, flake tools and fossils of bats, birds and a primitive deer (a housewife preparing a meal for her prehistoric family?). Scientists classified her “a negritoid.” Historians concur. Most of them, including our most illustrious history professor, Horacio dela Costa, have declared that the only indigenous people in this land are the Aetas: the slight, short, dark-skinned, frizzy-haired hunters and gatherers, now almost extinct, but who are still found in the hills of Zambales, or the preserved rain forests of Subic and the Cordilleras whom the early Spaniards called Negritos.

All the rest of us, inhabitants of this archipelago, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who began to populate this land as early as the Late Paleolithic Age, 13,000 to 500 B.C. when Malayo-Polynesians migrated from the Asian mainland. Dela Costa wrote “When the Han were founding an empire in China and the Romans one in the Mediterranean (200 B.C. to 300 A.D.), another people came to the Philippines by sea. The sea-faring Malays took the lowlands and rich valleys for themselves, driving the little black people to the hills of the hinterland.” They were the ancestors of today’s Filipinos, who became Tagalog, Bisaya, Pampango, Bicol, Ilocano, organized into fiefdoms under kinglets called datu.

The ancestors of the people represented by the Bangsamoro and the MILF migrated to this archipelago centuries later, at the end of the 15th century. Their “ancestral domain” does not lie in Mindanao, Sulu or Palawan, but in Sabah, Brunei, Johore, Malacca, where their ancestors came from originally. They are not “Indigenous People” because they are not Aeta. They are expats descended from expats who came from neighboring countries and settled in this archipelago. That rhetoric about “from time immemorial” that the MOA regurgitates is absurd. Scientific evidence and unflinching scholarship have documented the ethno-history, linguistics, archaeology and geology that put precise time frames on Asian-Pacific history.

An actual document records the time, at the end of the 15th century, when Sarif Kabungawan, the grandson of the Sultan of Johore, beat Magellan to the draw by only a few decades, when he landed in Maguindanao from Malaysia and founded a farming community headed by a datu. Chinese or Islamic chronicles record Arab missionaries calling at Sulu. They were always antedated and outnumbered by the Lumads and the people from Luzon and the Visayas.

No one stole land from the Moros, except maybe their own sultans and datus who continuously deeded or leased territory to Englishmen or Spaniards, or their very own Moro political leaders who kept them in feudal misery. For instance, Sultan Ali Mudin of Sulu, who was liberated from a Spanish jail in Manila in 1775 by the retreating British forces at the end of the British Occupation and the Seven Years War in Europe, is said to have given away to the British East India Company’s agent, Alexander Dalrymple, all his possessions in North Borneo, Palawan and “the islands in between.”

The Bangsamoro notion of being the First Nation in this archipelago is largely indefensible. The Tagalog, Pampangos, or Batangueños, Filipinos who hail from the cities and provinces in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao have every right to live, work, own land and prosper anywhere in this archipelago which exists as the only Juridical Entity, (since that is the preferred Bangsamoro term for a nation-state) called the Republic of the Philippines. And although they too are descendants of immigrants they came to this archipelago at least as far back as 500 years before the Moros’ ancestors. They were organized into, first, the juridical entities of their ancient pre-Spanish societies under datus, later, taken over by the single unit of the Spanish Colonial government, the First Philippine Republic, later sold to the American Occupation forces and still, the same juridical entity finally arriving at the internationally recognized, viable Independent Republic of the Philippines which exercises sovereignty over the whole Philippine archipelago.

The Philippine Republic has, incidentally, tried everything to integrate and accommodate the Muslim part (only about eight percent) into its body politic. Equal rights, protection, basic needs, development under its Constitution and system of laws and regulations. Special subsidies, programs and projects were granted over and above those given to other sectors, although armed prosecution of law-breakers and other outlaws was enforced. And finally, it set up the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) sanctified by a fair and honest plebiscite which received a mandate for only four provinces, Tawi-tawi, Sulu, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao.

The record of ARMM is, sadly, the surest test of the viability of the MOA-AD for the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.

During the first six years of its existence, the ARMM received from the national budget an annual subsidy of P615 million, plus internal revenue allotments, congressional initiative allocations, and countrywide development funds, or a total of P1 billion a year. It employed, by choice, 19,000 staffers (more personnel than most nationwide agencies like the Department of Agriculture, which employed only 13,231 people). It created 14 more regional departments than were allowed by law.

During Pangandaman’s term, 14 of the key officials were close relatives: his wife Ester, three nephews, 11 cousins and in-laws, and one son-in-law put in charge of public works. Six of his appointments violated the Constitution, his office was charged with issuing permits to transport illegally-cut logs, and local contractors rose against the practice of all public works being awarded to one Manila contractor. Candao was accused of “making a killing” in construction deals, barter trade, usury and of making off with office equipment and vehicles.

Both administrations were accused by auditors of lack of planning, “absence of records” and “unavailability of inventories” and of so deep an “organizational incompetence” that personnel were not paid on time and had to resort to loan sharks.

The life expectancy in the region was below 60 years where the national average was 69.9. Little wonder because ARMM has spent, for social services for Sulu, only 1.82 pesos per capita, while Lanao del Norte, for instance, which is outside ARMM, spent 62.88 pesos per person. The ARMM’s one achievement, the highway connecting Lanao del Sur to Cotabato, had to be completed under direct orders and financial support of Malacañang. (Data from the Center for Investigative Journalism.)

If the best years of self-rule in the smaller region of Muslim Mindanao were such a miserable failure, can we, the citizens of this secular, decidedly modern, legally and internationally sanctified, if sometimes shaky, Republic of the Philippines, expect anything better than the dismal ARMM record from the Moro Islamic Liberation Force?

After I thought I had finished this article, I received a gift package from Santanina Tillah Rasul, an old friend who is descended from Muslim royalty. It contained two copies of her new book, Iqra (Read) about her advocacies for the Muslim community, an invitation to its launch in Baguio and a letter thanking me for the foreword that appears in her book. I was reminded that in the late 1970s when Santanina and I were both members of the Commission on the role of Filipino Women, I had turned over my entire allocation for an eco-project for Metro Manila to Santanina’s project of publishing a primer, Magbassa Kita, which would teach adult Muslims how to read and write, because I felt sorry that Muslim areas in Mindanao had the lowest literacy in the country.

The last time I had lunch with former Senator Rasul, she had tried to persuade me that one of my dearest heroes, Lapu-Lapu of 16th-century Mactan, had been really a Muslim warrior called Datu Pula. Lapu-Lapu, she had claimed, had killed Magellan as part of Moro resistance to Spanish rule.

Utterly confused and ill-used, I have decided to take matters into my own hands. My clan of indios who owned and occupied parts of Ermita, formerly Bagumbayan, along Manila Bay for uninterrupted generations along with the Carmelo and Casas clans (documented direct descendants of Lakandula) will seek recognition as an Indigenous People with a bona fide Ancestral Domain. We shall do this with the blessings of our patron saint, Ntra. Sra. de Guia, whose figurine was found in a shrine on the Ermita beach on June 24, 1571 by Legaspi’s soldiers. The icon, dressed in a sarong, had been in our possession around the time Sarip Kabunsuwan landed in Magindanao from his home in Johore in Malaysia.

The indios of Ermita/ Bagong Bayan had resisted the Spaniards, the mestizos, the Americans, the Protestants as well as the British and the Japanese. We had also been maltreated and oppressed for ages, by the Kapampangan, Visaya, Bantagueños and Caviteños who had occupied Malacañang.

We shall claim our right to become a Juridical Entity substantiated by tradition since Time Immemorial. The territory of our reborn state shall include the US Embassy, the Luneta, Rizal Park, and all government buildings belonging to the Philippines (the Post Office, the PGH, the National Museum, etc.).

We, too, deserve our long-delayed freedom and independence by imposing taxes and our own legal system, political ambitions and cultural taboos on the present interlopers like the bankers, international hotels, entertainment and call centers... Or else!

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