BANGSA MORO SELF-DETERMINATION: A Review by E. San Juan, Jr.


 A REVIEW of Lualhati Abreu, BANGSAMORO SA MALAPITAN: Pagpupunyagi sa Sariling Pagpapasya (CENPEG 2011)

By E. SAN JUAN, Jr., Balay Kalinaw, UP, Diliman,Quezon City

With the re-start this February 2011 of the GRP-MILF Peace Process that was suspended during Arroyo’s ignominious regime, Filipinos and the world need a new reliable baedeker or guidebook to this contentious terrain. Abreu’s text responds to this need. Although there are now numerous essays and field manuals on the BangsaMoro struggle for liberation since the MNLF revolt against the Marcos dictatorship in the seventies, Abreu’s work stands out, first, for its use of an eloquent and graceful style in Filipino; and, second, for its wide-ranging and thorough exploration of BangsaMoro history and culture, as well as its complex relations with the Christian and Lumad communities and colonial (Spanish, U.S.) powers.

Abreu describes habitat, life-ways, ethos, shared experiences, modes of identity and belonging specific to various Moro communities. What connects her varied topics on ethnic characteristics of diverse Moro groups (Maguindanaos, Iranuns) and their political genealogies is their common fate or historical memory under Spanish, American and Christian-Filipino colonialism. In the process of rigorously compiling statistics, Abreu does not sacrifice the imperative of discovering or recognizing Moro agency behind the reified surface of customary laws, colonial legislation, and the routine operations of dominant bureaucratic apparatus. Thus the tyranny of the status quo is always challenged by what can be done, what the collective effort and organized will of the masses can make doable and realizable.

A bird’s eye-view of the contents will convey the ambitious and daring scope of the book. Beginning with a survey of the various Moro ethnolinguistic groups, including the Lumads, in southern Philippines, with special attention given to the Iranuns and Maguindanaos, Abreu moves to the controversial area of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. This is the germ of an emergent nation, however contingent and constrained. The controversial creation of Sharif Kabungsuan province triggers the inquiry into the concept of “ancestral domain”—not just a geographical referent but a political, moral-ethical and cultural discourse, with its evolving norms and signifying practices.

Space as communal place becomes the historical site of theoretical reflection and political antagonism. One can suggest that the whole book grapples with the resonance and implications of the notion of “ancestral domain” as the pivotal decisive term in the current peace negotations between the government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The prefatory note of Mohagher Iqbal, chief of the MILF Peace Panel, to this book indicates the book’s engaged position in the current national-international confrontation being held in Malaysia, with the participation of several states and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC).

Abreu respects the BangsaMoro privileging of Islamic law and the local adat without closing the inquiry within the boundaries of religious ideology. Her perspective is openly secular and historical-materialist; that is, she locates this specifically religious ideology within the history of Western colonialism and its impact on indigenous practices, including the basis of datu hierarchy in indigenous pre-Islamic practices. The political and cultural dimensions of Islam need to be distinguished carefully, what is believed merely and what actually happens on the ground.The pivotal role of the Iranuns is key to the reminder that long before the advent of Islam and Christianity, the southern Philippines was already settled by the Lumads. This explains her critique of CARP, the current land-reform measures being applied to the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur), which is a compromise body resulting from the 1976 Tripoli Agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front (headed by Nur Misuari) and the Marcos regime and its successors.

While the sequence of Abreu’s chapters may be somewhat arbitrary, one can discern the book’s salient thrust: to clarify the historical ground and determine who has the right to govern in the Moro homeland and shape its destiny. The issue of political power and its legitimacy becomes the focal concern, synthesizing the manifold strands of BangsaMoro culture, economics, and morality. Given the prevailing sectoral alignment of forces in the Philippine polity, the ill-fated Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain sponsored by the Arroyo administration (declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) could not resolve an issue that ultimately depends on consensus. Administrative fiat of the elite apparatus cannot replace consent and the pedagogical program needed to generate it. The hegemonic status of Christian neocolonial authority is evident not only in mass media and civil society but also in the State agencies: the military, court, and legislature. For any resolution of the conflict, the participation of all political forces is needed. Hence Abreu confronts the deep-rooted anti-Moro prejudice of the Filipino majority in Chapter 7, a social malady we have only begun to address, despite numerous ecumenical attempts since the Seventies. This is a problem that historian Samuel K. Tan also emphasized in his recent book The Muslim South and Beyond (2010), with particular reference to the failure of the Moro partisans to educate the larger society and reach out to those (apart from the Lumads and the NPA/NDF) who are stakeholders in the geopolitical fate of the region.

As integral aspects of the issue of “ancestral domain,” Abreu tackles the “women question” in the Moro community, the political dynasties symptomatic of the residual hold of indigenous customs and practices, as well as government attempts in “Datu Paglas” to institute cosmetic reforms that do not challenge the feudal landholders as well as foreign corporate investors. In exploring those topics, culture and politics again prove inextricable. Abreu ends with suggestive notes on the Abu Sayyaf, which to me holds the key to understanding why the United States, the neocolonizing power, utilizes it as the alibi to intervene militarily in Philippine affairs, given the “global war on terrorism” sparked by the 9/11 disaster and the ongoing wars against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It is also the reason why the U.S.-government-funded Institute of Peace has brokered and influenced, in various ways, the current talks in Malaysia. The role of the US as a declining super-power cannot be excluded in analyzing and evaluating the geopolitical ramifications of the conflict in Mindanao and Sulu.

Abreu adds other insightful materials, including her personal adventures into the area of fighting, the hazards she experienced, her own long-standing involvement in the Mindanao conflict, and a useful chronology of the peace talks beween the government and the two Moro groups, the MILF and the MNLF. This is the moment for me to enter a parenthesis here concerning my interest in this field of inquiry. During the anti-Marcos dictatorship campaign in the U.S. (1972-86), I became active in the Friends of the Filipino People and other progressive groups that sponsored educational programs on political prisoners, the Moro and NPA insurgency, military atrocities, and US support of authoritarianism. As a former U.P. student of Prof. Cesar Adib Majul, I helped him write his book on Moro history by providing him materials, including copies of Mahardika, and discussing with him a paper I wrote on Moro self-determination in the seventies—one of the first attempts to articulate this principle from a dialectical-materialist viewpoint. In the early eighties, while attending a conference against U.S. imperialism in Tripoli, Libya, I met briefly Abdurasad Asani and Hatimil Hassan, who spoke on the MNLF struggle before an international audience.

Apart from many international contacts interested in the Moro struggle, scholars like Kenneth Bauzon, Aijaz Ahmad, Sam Noumoff and others stimulated many of us to engage theoretically and practically with the BangsaMoro struggle for self-determination even after the fall of the Marcos regime. My latest interventions may be found in my book US IMPERIALISM AND REVOLUTION IN THE PHILIPPINES (Pagrave) and an article on the question of “critical universality” vis-à-vis the principle of self-determination, in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Social Transformation (Ateneo University). My book on the Abu Sayyaf is being prepared for publication next year.

We all were inspired by Prof. Majul’s generous vision of the BangsaMoro struggle as catalyst and motive for our collective project of contributing to social justice, equality, popular-democratic governance, and genuine sovereignty for all peoples living in the Philippines as a historically constituted society undergoing a process of revolutionary transformation. Based on this horizon of cooperation and mutual recognition, I submit that Abreu’s work is a signal achievement in contributing to what CENPEG’s Director Bobby Tuazon calls “empowering people” to gain a correct, rigorous multi-disciplinary assessment of this emergency situation in order to collectively realize a just and enduring solution that will benefit everyone—save milions of lives and preserve the ecosystem. It is a project to which every civic-minded responsible person anywhere should give solidarity and material support.–##

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SUMMING-UP

Abreu’s MORO UPCLOSE (Quezon City: CENPEG 2011) is an unprecedented achievement in engaged, praxis-oriented historico-political inquiry. Using a graceful, cosmopolitan Filipino never yet applied to this topic, Abreu offers a lucid and comprehensive account of the BangsaMoro struggle for survival, dignity and self-determination. Probing into deeply contentious and volatile issues , Abreu situates the central argument of the BangsaMoro claim to “ancestral domain” in the complex contexts of local-regional history and colonial diplomatic genealogy. Richly provocative and seminal are the sections on women, the Iranuns, and the Abu Sayyaf, which condense practically all the other controversial problems about Islam, separatism, and U.S. imperial intervention. This book promises to revitalize public interest in what I consider the most urgent inter-national dialogue of the 21st century for the Philippines and the whole Asian hemisphere: the GRP- MILF peace negotiations and its profound geopolitical consequences

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—E. SAN JUAN, Jr., fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University and director, Philippines Cultural Studies Center, USA

About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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