Custom and law in Jolo

No one can say for sure whether Jolo Bishop Benjamin de Jesus was killed to avenge a personal injury, or to relieve the fever of religious animosity.  It could be both, with either motive serving as the occasion, or condition, for the other.  But in a place like Sulu, where tradition keeps the modern State in check at every point, one doubts if a strictly legal investigation could ever yield a satisfactory account of motives.

In Jolo, while doing a documentary on the bishop’s assassination, I visited the detention center where the principal suspects are being kept.  I talked to both of them — Amman Hayudini, a former barangay captain, and his son Muammar, a college student at Notre Dame Jolo. They were wary of media.  They resented the fact that their status as suspects had been prematurely pronounced in an ABS-CBN report.

There was nothing in the interview that I had not heard before.  Father and son denied any motive for killing the bishop.  They paid homage to the good work that Bishop Ben had been doing for marginalized Muslims.

What gave me, however, a better glimpse of the culture that was at work in this place was a chance meeting with another inmate.  He had nothing to do with the Hayudinis or with Bishop Ben.  He was cooking lunch inside the cell, totally unconcerned with the morning disturbance our light and camera had brought upon his jail cell.  He looked young and bright, and I was curious to know what he was in there for.

Amil Saudi warmly smiled at me as the fish he was cooking sizzled on the frying pan.  He is 22 years old, married, and has a 2 year-old son. A high school graduate, Amil has been in detention for 2 months on a charge of illegal possession of firearms — a most unusual crime in a society like Sulu where people are known to carry guns as casually as Metro Manilans wear their beepers or cell phones.

“I didn’t have my paper at the time,” he said almost apologetically.  He was referring to that piece of paper known as a “mission order”, which people in many parts of Mindanao treasure more than their birth or marriage certificates.  Here, the “mission order” functions virtually as a license not only to possess but also to carry and use a firearm.

In Amil’s case, the firearm in question  was an old armalite with a defective sight.   Why would anyone bother to pick you up for lugging a rusty armalite, I asked incredulously.  “I had fired it,” he said. Immediately, I sensed that this was no ordinary case of illegal possession, as we understand it in Manila.

He was only 7 years-old in 1982, the year his uncle was killed by a man named Garam Uman.  The entire clan has since been hunting this man down.  It was his luck, Amil said, that he would bump into his uncle’s killer one day in December last year.  Like everyone else in the family, he had so memorized the face of this man that 15 years after the murder, he would instantly recognize him, and be so certain in this recognition as to shoot him without hesitation.

“Too bad I missed him,” he continued.  The police later arrested Amil, not for frustrated murder or homicide, but for illegal possession of a firearm – an implied recognition no doubt of the right and capacity of families to avenge personal injury, and the State’s minimal regulatory role in situations like this.

“To have thoughts of revenge and execute them means to be struck with a violent – but temporary – fever,” wrote Nietzsche.  “But to have thoughts of revenge without the strength or courage to execute them means to endure a chronic suffering, a poisoning of body and soul.” He was thinking of the ancient Greeks, and of revenge as an aspect of the old concept of justice, when he wrote these lines.

One wonders what collective fever may have gripped the family of Amil Saudi.  “That is how a real man should act,” he assured me, by way of explaining why a man like him should feel obliged to participate in what appears like an unending cycle of vendetta.  He wore a serene smile, his innocent eyes twinkled.  There was no trace of remorse about him.   He would shoot the man again and make sure he kills him this time, given another chance.  None in his family was willing to suffer what Nietzsche described as “the horrible torture of offended honor in the presence of the offender.”

No one knows the cultural sensitivities involved in police work in customary settings like this more than Sulu PNP Director

Charlemagne Alejandrino.  A Tagalog in Tausug country, a Christian in a predominantly Muslim community, an enforcer of national laws in a society whose balance has been maintained largely by local tradition – Colonel Alejandrino knows he has a grand puzzle in his hands as he looks into the murder of Bishop Ben de Jesus.

To this day, he remains convinced that Abu Sayyaf extremists are not involved in the bishop’s assassination.  But he is hard-pressed to explain why the men he has arrested – the Hayudinis – should have any reason to kill the good bishop.  He would have to demonstrate the presence of personal injury – one that entails the dishonor of the entire Hayudini family – to sustain a theory of personal vendetta.

If he succeeds in proving that the bishop’s death was the product of a purely personal grudge, whether real or imagined, he saves the day for Muslim-Christian relations.  But in the process, he may earn the enmity of a section of Sulu society that believes in the innocence of the Hayudinis.  Unless his investigation is fully supported by traditional authority, it would be very difficult for Police Director Alejandrino to conclude this case, and remain an effective police officer in a society still ruled by custom.


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