DIGGING UP BONES:
The Moro Struggle for Self-determination
By Atty. Nasser Marohomsalic
Federalism is a pretty nebulous concept, multifaceted as the countries that flaunt it as an ideal mode of government.
Although federalism is a preferred intellectual dish in confabs and gabs and in cafés and clubs nowadays, the subject is still an oneiric entity. But as early, its powerful sinisterist-detractors wish that it will never see light and, if it does, it will come off as an amorphous stillbirth.
I am not intimidated of them. I feel broad and wide with optimism that federalism will go through the political and legal rigmarole with President Rodrigo Roa Duterte at the forefront for its passage. But whelming over this vicarious delight in the policy stance of the top man of the country is the grief that gnaws inside me at the thought that our struggle for self-determination has gone over a long haul and still without sight of shore. If we reckon from 1899, the end of the Moro-Spanish War and the beginning of the American occupation of Moroland in pursuit of the 1898 Treaty of Paris where Spain ceded the whole country to America, the Moro struggle has gone on for 117 years.
Today, from all indications, the Bangsamoro will most likely settle their political destiny with the Philippine polity under a federal set-up. This political arrangement is a goodly expression of self-determination, though a lesser recompense for the sacrifices of our heroes and heroines, our martyrs and champions.
In my book, Aristocrats of the Malay Race: A History of the Bangsa Moro in the Philippines, I celebrated the indomitable spirit, especially the martial tradition of our ancestors in defense of the integrity of their society against the foreign white men who came for mercantilism, colonialism and evangelism. The forebears of the Bangsamoro did the unthinkable to secure a life of freedom and felicity for their race. It behooves the present generation to guard the legacy, this spiritual inheritance, by their hands and speech. And the professionals among them especially occupy a vantage point from where to engage and beat the enemy-desecrators off.
Sadly, most of the Moro intelligentsia of the 20th Century did not measure up. During the Philippine Commonwealth (1935-1945), they did not carry on and contribute to the Moro struggle. So, in this lecture, let me write out their portion. Many of them were then in the seats of power and policy and could have bear on government for Moro self-determination. But they did not. With legal training and education and knowledge of international politics and the global order, not to mention their facility in the language of international relations and diplomacy, they could have also used the United Nations their stage to plead for the Bangsamoro cause. But they did not. Obviously, they were lethargic utterly to nip-up from the soporific comforts of power and privilege. Ironically, only those untutored to the Western ways made a stir. The Lanao datus, for example, sent two (2) petitions to the 1934 Constitutional Convention tasked to draft the Philippine Constitution seeking American protectorship over inclusion in an independent Philippine State. Collectively known as the Dansalan Declaration, these documents were not read into the proceedings of the convention.
In the international arena, the road then towards self-determination was wide for passage, so to speak. In the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations was established in 1945, and decolonization was pursued broadly. Although the deligitimization of colonization had for its object the state and its whole population, without application to the cultural minorities therein, the case for the Bangsamoro could come as an exception or a special case.
Malay sultanates under British colonial rule were confederated into the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Seven years after, 1957, the federation was granted independence by Great Britain. In 1963, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah joined the union to form the Federation of Malaysia. In 1965, Singapore seceded.
The Sultanic States in the Malaysian Federation were then very much like the reigning Sultanates of Mindanao, namely: The Sultanate of Sulu, the Maguindanao Sultanate, the Sultanate of Kabuntalan and the Confederation of Lanao. In fact, they were then better situated politically. During the American colonial period (1899-1945), Moroland was treated as a separated province from the rest of the country and ruled by American military governors who were tolerant of the authorities of the local structure of power in the exercise of their traditional functions as long as these did not disrupt the peace. Later, its governance was centralized in a political agency called, the Department of Mindanao and Sulu.
In 1926, American Representative Bacon filed a bill in the U.S. Congress to formalize the political status of the Moro Province as a protectorate under the trusteeship of the United States. On the strong lobby of the Philippine Commonwealth, however, the bill only gathered dust on its shelf, nipped in the bud.
Nevertheless, unlike the Malayan Sultanates the Moro Sultanates missed the bus of independence of the United Nations. The failure of Moro leaders at that time to jump at the earliest opportunity and participate in the decolonization regime of the world organization closed any second chance at the process. Early on, what political issue there was for ethnicity simply got entangled in the politics of Cold War between the victorious powers. In order to secure the allegiance of newly independent states and continue with their economic stranglehold over their erstwhile colonies, the Western Powers played up to them and turned deaf ears to the importuning of cultural communities for self-determination and separation from their mother states, which were ruled by despotic and undemocratic governments. In the meanwhile, the principle of equality of states that underwrites the United Nations would take hold as of some bedrock with the burgeoning expansion of its membership with the newly independent states outnumbering the organization’s original membership of 51 countries.
In 2007, the General Assembly issued the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples to define the scope of the right to self-determination, mandating states to grant self-government short of independence to their insurgent cultural communities. Hitherto, the issue of self-determination and its application with reference to the decolonization declaration of the United Nations was a hot subject of debate among international law experts and writers, majority of whom were not disposed to include the cultural communities within its objective definition.
With the portal of decolonization in the world body closed to indigenous peoples, what remains for the Bangsamoro is to play the seeker Diogenes who held a torch to light his way in daylight to find the truth and his place in the sun.
Indeed, the experience of the past tells us that the quest for self-determination by our people is not only an arduous task but seemingly an endless journey, with a jingoistic Philippine government and the majority population of the country standing in the way.
In 1961 and however late in the day, Sulu Representative Ombra Amilbangsa tried his luck and filed his bill to separate the Sulu Sultanate from the country as an independent state, to no avail. Raucous assertion for self-determination across Moroland through the period did not pry out as well positive concern from the Philippine government.
At the closing run of the decade, issues came to a head. And with no avenue left for a peaceful political resolution to the Moro Question, the Moro youth chose the Jacobin path to settle score. Dismissing the pharisaical support of some Moro traditional leaders, they took a firm grip on the revolution which came by as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Later, the religious among them broke away and founded their own separate revolutionary organization and called it, the Moro Islamic federation Front (MILF), to accentuate their Islamic objectives.
Early in the 70s, government resorted to emergency rule to quell the Moro insurgency at its nascency. And the country witnessed the bloodiest and scariest episode in the contemporary history of the country as government forces and Moro rebels engaged each other in brutal warfare through the decade that broke all rules.
In this chapter in our quest for self-determination, most of the traditional Moro leaders placed all their eggs on the side of government. Despite the latter’s offers of appeasement, they put a spoke on the wheel, so to speak, to dilute, as they did, the efforts and obviate the dictatorial regime from going the distance for Moro self-determination. As you know, what obtains now for the Bangsamoro is an experimental autonomy, if not farcical.
I have dredged up the past. Every time in affairs like this, I would refer to the past in pertinent glimpses. I just hope, its constant dinging into our ears will not dampen our sense of outrage against colonialism. Federalism, like some visitant from the Other World, has reached us today, because we remember.
At this juncture, it is apposite to quote President Obama’s words from his book, Dreams from my Father, which is a quote from American writer and Nobel Peace laureate in literature William Faulkner –
The past is never buried; it is not even past.