Column: Is Mindanao part of the Philippines?

Column No. 150, published on July 6, 2010.

The first news reports about Bong Naguiat’s return to Pagcor, this time as President Aquino’s appointee as chair, failed to capture the sense of relief that many employees of the gaming agency felt, now that the Genuino nightmare had come to an end. A Pagcor source wrote me: “His return is a vindication for him, and more importantly, for most Pagcorians. You should have seen the happy faces and the tears of joy that met him last Thursday.” Now there’s a story.

* * *

Former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. has come under fire, lately from Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, for lacking the necessary neutrality we should expect in the chair of a Truth Commission. I disagree. As Davide has demonstrated before, especially during the country’s first-ever impeachment trial, he has both the necessary detachment and the essential gravitas to conduct a public and committee-driven investigation. It is Jinggoy, I think, who is incapable of neutrality on the issue.

* * *

In one of only eight English passages in his inaugural address, President Aquino staked his claim to peace in Mindanao. “My government will be sincere in dealing with all the peoples of Mindanao. We are committed to a peaceful and just settlement of conflicts, inclusive of the interests of all—may they be Lumads, Bangsamoro or Christian.”

That this restatement of a commitment was said in English proves that the constituency for the “peaceful and just settlement of conflicts” in Mindanao involves not only the people resident on the great island, but other stakeholders as well, including the countries that deployed troops to monitor the ceasefire between the government and the MILF, the Malaysians who broker the on-again, off-again peace talks, the Americans who shadow the negotiations like a guilty conscience (or an interventionist fantasy).

All of them, without exception, should profit from a close reading of the prolific Patricio N. Abinales’ latest work of scholarship. (Who is Jojo Abinales? I hope the following anecdote will suffice. At a Southeast Asian studies conference I attended in Singapore last month, I was deeply impressed by the insights of a Yale-educated academic who teaches at the National University of Singapore; his grounding in the classics of Southeast Asian scholarship was profound. When I had the chance to compliment him, he demurred and then said, “But I’m small-time compared to Patricio Abinales!”)

Abinales has written many other books, including “Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State” and “State and Society in the Philippines,” co-authored with Donna Amoroso. His latest carries the rather formidable title “Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim-Mindanao Narrative”—scholastically sexy to some ears, off-putting to others who may prefer the sonorous sweep of a title like, say, “Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao,” by Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria. But there is plenty of nuance and resonance in “Orthodoxy and History,” starting with its fundamental stance. It confronts the prevailing view of Muslim Mindanao as the site of a tradition of resistance to a Manila-centric state, whether run by the Spaniards or by Filipinos—this is the “orthodoxy” at the heart of the book—with an alternative (and heavily documented) perspective.

“The essential error here,” Abinales writes in the second chapter, “From Orang Besar to Colonial Big Man,” “is in accepting the Philippine frame as a ‘given’ … The nationalist imagination that underpins most of the scholarship is based on this orientation. Yet, if one stands on a hill in Cotabato and turns one’s back on Manila, one is drawn into an expanse in which the colonial Philippines was but a minor cog—the Southeast Asian trading zone Anthony Reid calls ‘The Lands below the Winds.’”

In other words, for the history of Muslim Mindanao to make sense, it must also be understood as a Southeast Asian society. (Among other benefits, this framework allows us to intuit the reasoning behind the Abu Sayyaf raid on Sipadan.)

Seeing the “Muslim-Mindanao narrative” in this light makes better sense of the complicated relationship between the elites of the “Moro Province” and the American colonial governors; of the rivalry between Leonard Wood (“Datu Wood” to Muslim leaders) and Manuel L. Quezon, who believed the Muslims were “partners in colonial politics”; even of the fraught relationship between “Muslim local power” and their poor constituents. There is, for instance, a revealing quotation from former Sen. Salipada Pendatun, describing his own people as “still ignorant. They are not in consonance with the progress of civilization.” (As it happens, that quote, which Abinales uses as one of five epigraphs, was sourced from a 1971 article written by Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, the Inquirer’s editor in chief.)

Most of the seven papers in the book have seen print before, but some have been revised, and all reworked, into a compelling meditation on Mindanao as part of the Muslim umma. Abinales suggests that “Mindanao in the Developmentalist Fantasy” is the one chapter that is “probably … out of synch” because it treats “Mindanao as island,” but I thought its richly detailed survey of the evolution of “the state’s imagination of Mindanao as frontier” was necessary, as a counterpoint. It grounds the question which Abinales teased college students with last December: Is Mindanao, in fact, part of the Philippines?

We do not know to what extent President Aquino shares the confrontationalist view of his running mate, Mar Roxas, when it comes to the peace process. We can only hope it is a view that is informed, as is Abinales’ bracing new book, by a deeper appreciation, not so much for orthodoxy’s rhetoric, but for history’s evidence.


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