Solidarity amid difference

If you were a Moro who grew up in Mindanao, you would be telling stories of how your ancestors defended their homes against waves of invaders who tried to subjugate them and take away their lands.  If you were a Filipino, you might have been told stories of how your ancestors tried to protect their communities against foreign invaders but failed in the face of superior arms.

The Moros have not forgotten their struggles against outsiders because they have always resisted being ruled by others.  Filipinos on the other hand have generally forgotten that they became Filipinos in the context of colonial subjugation.  This is the basic difference between our two nations.  One imagines itself permanently engaged in a battle to remain free.  The other takes for granted its sovereignty over the territory left behind by the former colonial rulers.

We Filipinos tell the story of our nation as a narrative of resistance, subjugation and oppression, and revolt and emancipation.  Moros tell theirs as a narrative of relentless resistance.  In their eyes they have always been free and self-governing.  It is ironic that we persist in treating them as an inferior people even as we sometimes draw from the richness of Moro culture to define the roots of our pre-colonial being.  They know that though we may be sprung from the same racial stock, we are the cousins who fell under colonialism and whose children were formed in the image of the colonizers.   History made us different from each other, and today we continue to fight over how we should live together.

Through 300 years of Spanish presence on these islands, the Spaniards put up garrisons in key centers and maintained the fiction of Spanish sovereignty over the entire archipelago.  But they knew better than to test the reality and extent of this sovereignty in Mindanao.  They assumed it, and the Moros spent three centuries proving they were wrong.

With superior weapons, the Americans were more resolute and successful in their drive to conquer Mindanao.  They exploited the internal rivalries among the various leaders, and created a Moro Province that they managed separately from the rest of the Philippines.  Even as they mobilized tens of thousands of troops to pacify this province, they forged peace agreements with the sultans in their effort to bring the benefits of stability and social development to Mindanao’s people without destroying their religion.

The first governor of the province, General Leonard Wood, fancied himself as a protector of the Moros as a distinct people, and kept a watchful eye on the ambitions and interests of their Christian neighbors.  The Moros welcomed this attitude, and it did not surprise the Americans that the Moros would oppose integration into the Filipino republic when the question of independence was being discussed.

Occupied by the urgent goals of nation-building, Filipino leaders saw Mindanao merely as an unfinished task in the agenda of national integration.  Having brought in a few Muslim personalities into the convention to draft the 1935 Constitution, they thought they had thereby fulfilled the requirements of just representation.  Like the Spaniards who equated sovereignty with building garrisons in Mindanao, our leaders mistook the flying of the Filipino flag in Muslim areas as acceptance of the authority of the new Philippine republic. They were wrong.

The paradigm of integration and pacification continued to dominate Filipino sensibility about Mindanao after World War II.  Fierce opposition to Filipino rule flared up in Sulu, Lanao, and Cotabato almost as soon as the new republic was proclaimed.  For every Muslim politician co-opted by Manila, tens of other Muslim leaders emerged who took up arms against the Philippine government.  We called them bandits, forgetting that in an earlier time our own ancestors who resisted Spanish rule were tagged as “tulisanes”.

The most “notorious” of them was Kamlon.  As a lowland Christian grade school pupil in the early ‘50s, I formed my early images of the Moro out of the official propaganda that demonized Kamlon.  Like all Moros, he and his men were depicted as fierce incorrigible warriors who refused to work, pagans deeply suspicious of Christians, totally untrustworthy, and inclined to run amuck in the face of problems. One can only imagine how the Moros in turn thought of us while Filipino soldiers bombed their communities in the pursuit of so-called “bandits”, and when Christian settlers and big land-grabbers moved into lands previously occupied by them.

Such negative images are not erased in one or two generations. They are the sticky residues of socio-historical contingencies that for a long time will continue to haunt our efforts to live peacefully with one another.  But is it too much to ask that our leaders rise above these images, or that they be aware of the dangerous impulses and stereotypes that tend to shape our dealings with the Moro nation?

The Moro problem is not a problem of political integration and social assimilation.  It is rooted rather in our failure to recognize difference, and to multiply those opportunities in which we can mutually think of one another as sharing similar intentions in a land that by accident we commonly inhabit.  This is a slow painstaking process.  We cannot begin to solve the problem by self-righteously asserting the inviolability of our constitution and proving this by the might of our army.  Our constitution has not protected or benefited the Moros; they are right to reject it.  And no army can end this problem unless it is prepared to commit genocide.


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