Historical truth and Bangsamoro autonomy | Inquirer Opinion

Historical truth and Bangsamoro autonomy

“BANGSAMORO,” oil on canvass      photo:A. SAKILI, 1986

“BANGSAMORO,” oil on canvass. PHOTO by A. SAKILI, 1986

As the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law continues to be discussed and debated upon, it is important to substantiate the discussion with historical and factual data.

On the supporters’ side, newspaper columnist Conrado de Quiros describes its signing by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a landmark event. “What the signing achieved,” he writes, “was to signify the breaking down of distrust … Trust is what makes for peace” (Inquirer, Oct. 16, 2012).


For his part, economist Cielito Habito raises “hopes and points to the economic potentials that the agreement could bring, particularly to the BIMP-Eaga, East Asian Growth Area regions.”

While the expressions of support by a number of columnists are in general positive, declarations from international leaders like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are more promising.


Opposition against the agreement ranges from direct contempt to outright rejection.

Nur Misuari, founder of the Moro National Liberation Front, has denounced the agreement as a “vicious conspiracy between the Philippines and Malaysia” (Inquirer, Oct. 16, 2012). Rigoberto Tiglao writes that “the agreement is “a curse to the nation” (Inquirer, Oct. 25, 2012) and (a scheme) “for PH (Philippine) dismemberment” (Ibid. Oct. 17, 2012).

A careful reading of the agreement, however, does not affirm such opposition’s views. On the contrary, the agreement continues to uphold and maintain the Philippine territorial integrity and national sovereignty (Artemio Panganiban. Inquirer, Oct. 21, 2012).

‘Bangsamoro problem’

In the Framework Agreement, Bangsamoro is recognized as the identity of “(t)hose who at the time of conquest and colonization were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands, including Palawan, and their descendants (and spouses) whether of mixed or of full blood.” (…Article II, Section 1)

The Philippine Muslims or Bangsamoro in Mindanao, with a total population of about four to five million people, constitute a nationality, culturally distinct from and historically older than the Filipino nationality.

Nationality or ‘bangsa’


“Nationality” (or bangsa) is technically defined as “a people who because of their belief in their common descent and their mission in the world, by virtue of their common cultural heritage and historical career aspire to sovereignty over a territory or seek to maintain or enlarge their political or cultural influence in the face of opposition.” (Wirth, “Types of Nationalism.” 1936: p. 723)

Considering the complexity of the “Moro problem,” the underlying root of this multidimensional system problem is the fact that the Muslims in the Philippines constitute a nationality or a bangsa that is culturally distinct from and historically older than Filipino nationality.

Poverty, criminality

The Philippine Muslims today, as a misunderstood bangsa or people who, because of their continuing struggle for freedom and social justice, continue to bear the burden of poverty and the deteriorating peace and order condition, and rising criminality in their midst, particularly in their designated region of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The ARMM has the biggest percentage of poor people (63 percent) in the country. Four of its provinces are on the list of the Top 10 poorest provinces in the country: Sulu ranked first, Tawi-Tawi third, Maguindanao sixth and Lanao del Sur seventh. Tawi-Tawi ranked worst in terms of some of the population not surviving to age 40 and of the percentage of population without access to improved water resources.

Low employment rate and few economic opportunities in the ARMM aggravate poverty problems (Philippine Human Development Report, 2002). The recorded human development indices of the ARMM fall below the national average.


Viewed as effects of the so-called Moro problem, this multidimensional  problem needs to be understood comprehensively and dealt with positively.

Structurally and administratively, the unitary or highly centralized setup of the Philippine government has been inappropriate in administering peoples of different cultures with different historical experiences, such as the Islamized and Christianized peoples of the Philippines.

Politically, the unitary setup of the Philippine government has been less responsive to the needs of the Muslims for political empowerment and for adequate representation in the multitasks of governmental functioning and management.

On the sociopsychological problem of Muslim-Christian relations, the persistence of the negative Moro image in the minds of many, if not most Christian Filipinos, continues.

PH history as construct

Mainstream Philippine history has been socially constructed and tied to the structure of power. As a construct, its language and texts are framed and carefully selected to correspond to the culture of power operating in the sites of the production of knowledge.

The reconstructed Philippine history is without significant meaning to the Muslims because an essential portion of the past, that of the history of the Muslims in the Philippines, has been exteriorized, if not excluded in the mainstream writing of Philippine historical narratives.

As expressed by McM Santamaria, thus: “Our apparently biased dominant Christian discourse seems to disable us from recognizing the great achievements of the (Moros)—the setting up of state organizations beyond the level of the barangay and the maintenance of military might with the well-tested capability to resist the West.” (Business Mirror, July, 16, 2008)

History of sovereignty

The Philippine Muslims had, for centuries, maintained their sovereign independence. An account in Book Three of Blair and Robertson (p. 190) reveals that the Spanish accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries readily acknowledged that the Muslim rulers in Mindanao and Sulu “unlike those of Luzon are accustomed to power and sovereignty.”

One Muslim polity, the Maguindanao Sultanate, reached the zenith of its glory during the time of Sultan Kudarat in the 1630s and 1640s when it had controlled most parts of Mindanao.

As to the Sultanate of Sulu, it was the richest settlement in pre-Spanish Philippines. Sulu’s strategic location and possession of rich maritime and forest resources made it a primary center of international trade. At the height of its glory, the rulers of Sulu controlled vast territories, including parts of Borneo, such as Sabah and Kalimantan.

In international relations, the Sulu Sultanate signed several diplomatic treaties with foreign powers—Spain, Great Britain, France and the United States. What the Sulu leaders signed “was a treaty, strictly so-called that is one between two sovereign and independent states, each is recognized as such by the other,” a Jesuit scholar wrote in 1935. (H. de la Costa S.J. 1935/1965. p. 97)


How the Muslims lost their lands to the settlers is described by Dr. Peter Gowing: “The Muslims have been protesting against the sending of settlers into their territories … They resented the steady occupation  of (their) fertile lands by (these newcomers). In some cases, powerful business interests or wealthy Christians, in cooperation with corrupt bureau officials, took advantage of Muslim’s ignorance or indifference to Philippine land laws and grabbed from them large tracts of their best lands” (Gowing. 1978. p. 190).

In 1963, the Senate committee on national minorities reported that “lands applied [for] by the natives were awarded to Christians and that government surveyors do not pay attention to the minorities.” (Philippine Senate, 1963. p. 4)

In 1971, the Senate committee on national minorities reported that “Through either indifference, insincerity or lack of foresight, the seeds of discord were sown when the Commonwealth Government embarked on a policy of bringing settlers from Luzon and Visayas to Mindanao without a parallel program of helping the natives legitimize their landholdings … (and) the prior rights of the natives were disregarded and even trampled upon.” (Philippine Senate, 1971. pp. 22-23)

‘Anomalous’ treaty

Aside from land grabbing (Gowing. 1978. p. 190), another critical point of historical injustice was the Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898. The “anomalous” incorporation of the Muslims into the Philippines through this treaty is an ugly chapter in Philippine history.

In this regard, Dr. O.D. Corpuz writes: “In Paris in 1898, when Spain and the new imperialist United States were selling and buying a country and people, Spain sold something it did not own or possess” (Corpuz. 1989. p. 507). It was through this unjust and anomalous treaty that Muslim Mindanao was forcibly incorporated into what is now the Philippines.

Another reflection of this unjust colonial transaction is presented by a Mindanao scholar as follows: “[T]he supposed transfer of the Spanish possession to the Americans by the Treaty of Paris and the further transfer of the same by the Americans to the Republic of the Philippines is an exercise of the Regalian Doctrine, plain and simple … (F)or the Republic of the Philippines to base its possessory rights from the Americans is [a] complete disregard of the historical realities before them. The Philippine possession is to sustain the Regalian Doctrine and uphold colonialism. Worse, this colonial act is enshrined in the Philippine Constitutions of 1935, 1973 and 1986” (Rodil. 1987. p. 28).

This historical wrong is being remedied by minimum concession through the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Nation-state construct

The idea of the nation-state’s “territorial integrity” or “national sovereignty” held to be “unnegotiable” could be reassessed and reconsidered in light of history and contemporary experience with this constructed unit of the international system. The nation-state construct was a creation of the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, to end the 30 years of religious wars between the Protestants and the Catholics.

The construction of the nation-state system did not take into consideration the importance of other people’s history and culture, more so of the Muslims, in delineating territorial boundaries.

Causes of Mindanao problem

As a structural construct or “work-in-progress,” which is neither universal nor sacred, a nation-state could still be refined, or its national frontier adjusted to accommodate historical truth and cultural reality to bring about genuine international peace and social justice, in such areas as the Muslim ancestral domains in southern Philippines.

The factors that cause and sustain the Mindanao problem are the following:

Lack of cultural awareness by the majority of the Muslims’ way of life.

Exteriorization of Philippine Muslim history in texts of mainstream Philippine history.

Unitary setup of the Philippine system, which has proven to be inadequate in administering peoples of different cultures and histories.

Unleveled playing field in Philippine sociopolitical and economic affairs, and the inadequate representations of Muslims in the running of government.

Economic problems that have reduced Muslim areas into the “poorest of the poor” provinces.

Land problem caused by unjust government land and resettlement policies; and

Persistence of the negative “Moro image” in the national psyche, as shown by attitudinal surveys conducted by social scientists and researchers.

Extraordinary measures

Considering the complexity of the Mindanao problem, solving it according to former Sen. Wigberto Tañada requires “extraordinary measures.” He urged the Philippine government “to take the lead in enlightening people about the historic roots of the Mindanao problem and (explain) why the rectification of the historical wrongs inflicted on the Moro people requires extraordinary measures (Today, July 3, 1996. p. 11).

For his part, historian Dr. Samuel Tan says: “This is not the time to hide the (historical) facts … This is the time to tell the truth to make us free indeed.”

Now, a new experiment—the  BBL—will hopefully be affirmed by the Philippine Congress in its wholeness, so that what the Philippine government and its peace partners tirelessly built through a negotiated peace agreement would not be stripped of its potentials for making peace.

Indeed, the Mindanao peace that continues to be illusive may spring from  a rational and sound government policy choice that would finally do justice to the history and human rights of the affected peoples of southern Philippines—especially Muslims and indigenous people, who are directly or indirectly suffering from the menace and inhumanity of war imposed upon these innocent victims.

(Abraham P. Sakili Ph.D. is a professor of Humanities and Islamic Art History at the UP College of Arts and Letters, Diliman. He is the author of “SPACE AND IDENTITY: Expressions in the Culture, Arts and Society of the Muslims in the Philippines,” published by the UP Asian Center in 2003.)

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TAGS: Bangsamoro Basic Law, Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari
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