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Arts and Culture

Letter from Cotabato

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

I was in Cotabato City recently to attend a meeting of young Maguindanao leaders who planned to set up a political party in preparation for the autonomy that is being planned under the agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It was the first time I visited Cotabato since the Fifties when I was all over the place. Cotabato was not divided then and was one of our largest provinces. In recent times, I have visited Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Jolo, and Zamboanga and noted how these cities have developed. I was surprised to see that Cotabato — yes, it had grown, too, but not in the scale of Davao or Cagayan de Oro.

Again, the ancient question: Is it because Cotabato is almost totally Moro while Davao and Cagayan de Oro are not? This question was answered with what I first saw of Buluan, in Cotabato in the Fifties and yet again in the Sixties. Buluan, a Moro town, had remained almost unchanged while Marbel and Tacurong became prosperous. Is it because they were Christian? This is the facile and ready answer. It is incorrect though — the pioneering and immigrant spirit developed Tacurong and Marbel, the same spirit which enables the Moros to progress in non-Moro environment.

Perspectives change with the geography. What we consider a normal reaction in Luzon takes a very sharp turn in Moro country and we immediately understand the need for looking at the age-old problems there in a different light from what we in Luzon and other parts of the country regard as conventional wisdom. Take, for instance, that deadly havoc that Nur Misuari inflicted in Zamboanga more than a year ago. Misuari is not in hiding. According to so many in Mindanao, he is out there mingling with his own people, revered — rather than shunned — because he defied the government and damaged a large part of Zamboanga. He is a hero in Mindanao — the mythologized warrior, not a villain.

In Mindanao, the political campaign and its expensive preliminaries always conform with the hierarchy of families, the relationships between the powerful datus and their followers, the panoply of privilege which they built for themselves. All of these factors guarantee the patronage that goes with the system. For this reason, the hiring of ghost employees is far more bloated among the Moros than among the non-Moro politicians. And it is not considered graft — it is a necessity almost.

And finally, security. During election time, this is very important. Politicians are threatened not just by political opponents but by traditional clan conflicts that have sowed disharmony and violence for generations. These vicious clan wars explain the Ampatuan massacre four years ago. 

Although I haven’t visited Cotabato for decades, old friends like Michael Mastura and the late Alunan Glang often drop by my shop with tidbits of what is happening in Moroland.

On this visit to Cotabato, Fr. Eliseo Mercado Jr., head of the Notre Dame University in Cotabato City, was my host and tourist guide. His university has the biggest enrollment of all the Notre Dame universities in Mindanao and Sulu. His Order of Mary Immaculate (OMI), one of the biggest Catholic congregations, has missions in Canada, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and 120 missionaries in the Philippines. It is regarded as a newcomer here, having arrived in 1939. Fr. Mercado hails from Bulacan and has served in Mindanao for decades. He is a persevering believer of autonomy for the Moros and he has high hopes that this new peace agreement will succeed.

He took me around Cotabato, to the headquarters of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which will be the headquarters, too, of the new autonomous government that the peace agreement will set up. From there, he took me to the beautiful new mosque so far out of town near the sea. The mosque was donated by the Sultan of Brunei.

Fr. Mercado regretted very much that many of the metal skills of the Moros, particularly in Jolo, have died. They don’t forge anymore those beautiful blades, the kris, the barong. How wonderful if such skills could be revived the way the Toledo blades in Spain have survived all these years even though they are now simple letter openers.

On the plane back to Manila, I struck a very interesting conversation with my seatmate, a Maguinadao housewife. She said the last attack in the city happened the other year at the corner close to the hotel where we stayed. Scores were killed, including women and children. Was the MILF responsible? She stoutly defended the organization, that it was very religious and wouldn’t do such a thing. In fact, she said, if the Moros followed the teachings in the Koran, she could leave her shop in the city open and no one would steal from it.

We talked about Moro education. She said all her children went to Catholic schools. There are many rich Moros, why haven’t  they set up a Moro university?

We talked about ethnicity, the differences between the three major groups, the Tausugs, the Maranaos, and the Maguindanaos. There are loud voices raised in Sulu against the MILF dominating the new ARMM that will be set up. The Tausugs say they don’t want to be dominated by the Maranaos or Maguindanaos — they are known as the best fighters in Mindanao.

She readily agreed about how fractured the Moros are.

Of her three children, she said, she didn’t want any of them to marry either a Maranao or a Tausug — “they look down on us.” She preferred a Christian as an in-law — he/she will be converted to Islam anyway. She would have no problem with Christians.

When I visited Mindanao and Sulu in the Fifties, Moro women did not wear the veil — they dressed like other non-Moro women. Through the years, however, the dress code in Mindanao, particularly in those areas where the Moros are dominant, has changed. It is not unusual to see a woman in Moro Mindanao now totally draped in black, her face covered except for the slit of the eyes.

A Maguindanao woman explained that this manner of dressing is useful. She says that in the town, she goes around with her face completely exposed just like Christian women. But when she ventures into areas where she is not known, she wears the veil as a protection against sexual assault. Rape, she says, often happens but is unreported because of the stigma that goes with it.

With the new technologies in communication, a very porous border with Indonesia and Malaysia, and so many Filipinos travelling all over the world — radical Islam cannot be dammed from seeping into the ranks of our Moros, many of whom are susceptible to easy conversion and indoctrination. We have seen how Al Qaeda got into Mindanao and Sulu and degenerated into banditry, as epitomized by the Abu Sayyaf, how Indonesia and Malaysia have influenced developments in Mindanao. Fortunately, such influence has not always been negative and there, in fact, is so much that Indonesia — one of the largest Moslem countries in the world — can teach us, how to rein in its radicals. Indonesia is growing more democratically ever since Suharto was deposed.

The new Islamic radicalism that is sweeping the Middle East provoked new military response from the United States and its NATO allies. It could spread in Mindanao to muddle the ongoing dialogue between the government and MILF.

Whatever measures the government will take, we should not forget that the Moro problem will not go away, and will linger far into the future. Minority problems, it must always be remembered, are never fully resolved. Racism in the United States, for instance, still hobbles that country although it has gone a long way since the days of segregation in the Fifties and Sixties. But even with a black President Obama who has been patient and cool to so much provocation, racism still persists.

Much of the solution — if there will ever be one — resides in the Moros themselves, in accepting so many harsh realities about themselves and their place in Philippine society. They must abandon their sense of isolation strengthened by their belief that they have never been conquered. They know that if the Commonwealth government decided to bring them to heel by force, it could have done so, with the aid of the United States, that even now, if the government decides to overrun all of the Moro “forts,” it can do so and succeed. But at what cost? Is the government and the Moros themselves prepared to pay that cost?

If and when Congress approves the Bangsamoro law, so many processes have yet to be made. The peace will be fragile. It will take just one careless incident, warned former President Fidel V. Ramos, to bring down the whole structure.

As a minority problem, it will be with us for a long, long time and we just have to work at seeing to it that it does not impede progress in the region, that it does not break into a shooting war. To do this, the Moros must also alter so many of their own attitudes — not religion.

For instance, they must be more industrious, particularly in developing their own lands. They must also learn to trust one another, to do away with the clan wars first and foremost, batter down the rigid social hierarchies, the datu system.

The way out is for us to work towards the abolition of poverty and ignorance in Mindanao, and, of course, in all regions of the country, to see to it that political power — and the largesse that goes with it — is devolved and given to the regions and not be confined to imperial Manila. When this happens, the fractured Moro tribes will also be united not just among themselves, but with the Filipino nation.

COTABATO

COTABATO CITY

INDONESIA AND MALAYSIA

MANY

MINDANAO

MINDANAO AND SULU

MORO

MOROS

ORO

UNITED STATES

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