Postmodern bandits

There was a time in the history of the Sulu Sultanate, roughly towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, when slave raiding became a popular means of acquiring valuable workers.  Jolo flourished as the center of a large and active slave market.  The slaves, known as “banyaga,” were taken from various islands of the archipelago, and occasionally included Europeans and mestizos.

They were used as farmers, fishermen, rowers, craft workers, boat builders, tutors, domestic help, and as mistresses or attendants to the datus.   Sometimes, victims were seized for the main purpose of obtaining ransom, as in the case of religious missionaries.  “There was a standard scale of ransom fees by 1800,” says James Francis Warren in his book The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898.”  The prize catch was the friar who was valued at about 2000 pesos, followed by the European who would fetch 300 pesos.  Male Filipino slaves, on the other hand, could be had for 30 to 50 pesos each.  “The ransoming of priests and other Europeans at Jolo was a common practice in the 18th century, and the Sultan took an active part in such negotiations, especially in cases that involved the Governor of Zamboanga.” Warren estimates that as many as 300,000 slaves could have been imported into Sulu during the period 1770-1870.

The Spanish Navy spent much time and effort to crush the backbone of the slave trade.  Special attention was paid to the Balangingi Samal, the most ferocious of the slave-raiding tribes.  This group ironically came to include among its members a great number of former slaves.  But a more astonishing fact, recounts Warren, “is that captives or captives’ descendants came to constitute fifty per cent or more of the population of the Sulu archipelago by 1850.”

Who knows? Commander Robot and his overnight recruits into the Abu Sayyaf may well be the great-great grandchildren of the original Sulu kidnappers of the 1800s.  For 130 years, the world forgot about them, and traces of the terror they once inflicted on settled populations have been erased from the national memory.

Successive colonial administrations consigned their communities to a poverty and cultural marginality.

Mindanao has seen many rulers and many flags.  Migration, the mass media, and the modern market have effaced the old identities.  But the slave-raiding “meme”, a cultural “gene” from a bygone age, appears to have survived mightily.  It seems to have found a fertile soil in which to multiply in the wasteland that Muslim Mindanao has become.  (The concept “meme”, introduced by Richard Dawkins as the cultural equivalent of the biological gene, refers to fashions, traditions, moral rules, or worldviews transmitted from one generation to another by social influences.)

The “prahu” and the “garay” – those swift raiding ships that the Sulu slave-raiders used in their expeditions are now mostly artifacts of a distant past.  Today’s raiding boats are smaller but faster.  Volvo engines power them and they do not require rowers.  Yet the actors themselves appear onstage like vaguely familiar ghosts from some remembered tale.  The Abu Sayyaf raiders of today seem to pulsate with the same centuries-old “meme” that once animated their slaveraiding ancestors.

Nothing is more striking than the figure of the Abu Sayyaf bandit who wears a ski mask under Ralph Lauren shades, brandishes an automatic weapon, and communicates ransom demands by a satellite mobile phone.  He speaks a mix of Islam, ethno-nationalism, and anti-modern shibboleths.  He talks to media with the smoothness of a politician, negotiates with diplomats and public officials, but takes a third wife by abduction.  He accepts ransom in foreign currency, to be paid in cash or by digital transfer to a numbered bank account.  He talks of settling down in an orange plantation in his backyard, while his comrades plan future raids on foreigners holidaying in island luxury resorts.

Strictly speaking, he does not belong to an army.  He is a micro warrior in a ragtag band commanded by an adventurer, who enters into short-term joint ventures with other “lost commands.”  The associations formed from these “lost commands” are not permanent and hierarchical armies; they are provisional and modular.  Their line of march is not toward integration or unity, but toward proliferation.

In their separate ways, Misuari and Salamat tried to change this legacy of piracy and banditry.  They sought to transform the Moro warrior into a disciplined fighter for the cause of a stable Moro nation. Misuari used the language of secular nationalism, while Salamat leaned toward Islamic nationalism.  Misuari’s project quickly vanished into the quicksand of a graft-ridden bureaucracy, while Salamat’s army has been dispersed by superior military force.  An early ideological version of the Abu Sayyaf, led by Abdurajak Janjalani, offered a radical alternative to the Moro youth, but this ended with the death of its founder.  Its remnants have turned to banditry.

In the wake of these debacles, the fragmented Moro warrior has found resurrection in the theater of postmodern banditry.  Now armed with lethal weapons and rendered more mobile by modern communications and transportation, with nothing to guide him but sheer instinct, impulse and will — he discovers a world made complacent by prosperity and more vulnerable to predation.

Either by design or by ignorance, the government has given life to a complex menace it cannot handle.


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