Tuesday, July 17, 2018
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Kris-Crossing Mindanao

Erroneous history in political discourse

Neither once nor twice, but many times have we heard it spoken extemporaneously on many a presidential trip to the provinces. Each time it is said, the applause cannot be ignored, but those who can spot the difference probably cringe on their seats. The gist of the statement goes this way: Islam came to Mindanao during the Srivijayan Empire.

The redundancy takes on an imperious character because the facts are easily at one’s fingertips. First of all, what was the Srivijayan Empire (also written as Sri Vijaya)?

Srivijaya was a thalassocracy that flourished in Sumatra, Indonesia, from the seventh century to the 12th. “Thalassocracy,” from the Greek word thalass which means sea, refers to a city-state with a maritime realm. In the case of the Indonesia-based Srivijaya, its seaborne mercantile influence gave rise to a hegemon over much of Southeast Asia.


That Srivijaya rose to become a hegemon also means that the context of its influence was not only merchandise. Trade ties were cemented by political allegiances so that the Maharaja of Srivijaya rose to prominence from around what is today the city of Palembang in Sumatra.

By suppressing neighboring kingdoms, the empire controlled trade in the Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait, South China Sea, and in the Java Sea. Having controlled those choke points, it also transported its ritual culture. The Srivijayan kings were instrumental in spreading Vajrayana Buddhism, an esoteric system of beliefs that traced its roots to medieval India.

Its name may sound Sanskrit; but Srivijaya was not ruled by overlords that subscribed to the Hindu religion, although its brand of Buddhism came from India.

Recent archaeological finds indicate that there was a density of Buddhist temple-sanctuaries in Srivijaya. The ritual religion of Srivijaya, therefore, was definitely not Islamic. In the Philippines, however, where Srivijaya influence primarily took root through trade, Buddhism was not effectively transferred pervasively, although a few material traces may exist.

Srivijayan prestige and fortune declined in the 12th century, including in Palembang. The last king to rule from there was its king in 1156.

What followed was the rise of one of the greatest and most powerful empires in Southeast Asia, the Majapahit Empire. Based in Java, Sumatra’s longtime rival, the Majapahit was another thalassocracy of tributary states that included present-day Sulu, Southern Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore (erstwhile known as Temasek), Brunei and East Timor.

Its rule began in the year 1293 and ended around 1500.

From the time it began, Majapahit was a Hindu kingdom. But because of vigorous trade, there was the conspicuous presence of Arab and Muslim Indian traders in some of its cities. In the late 15th century, the Majapahit ruler converted to Islam.


As trade was the impetus for the conversion of the Majapahit Empire into Islam, so was it in the Philippines. The first mosque in the Philippines, in the island of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi, was built in 1380; today it is indicated by a marker of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines as officially declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines.

While Islam reached parts of Luzon, many other areas of the archipelago were never Islamized. One of them is Northern Mindanao, which was only a tributary
under Sultan Kudarat.

I wish I could write broadsheet historiography as stimulating as my friend Ambeth Ocampo does, but I wish to make a political point when we hear redundant errors stated and watch the tragedy of people believing in them.

The powers of the Philippine presidency, it goes without saying, are immense. They include the commissioning of good and honest research by whoever occupies Malacañang. An error in data, no matter how trifling, is unforgivable.

There are those who postulate that the message is more important than the messenger. But what if the message is wrong Miseducation is a serious error in governance.

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