At the end of the day, what exactly is ‘the Philippines’ to begin with? The way things are going, it seems it will remain no more than the bunch of tropical islands around which the 16th Century Spanish crown drew a ring and named after their king. To this day, Filipinos suffer from the same identity crisis they have suffered for the last 400 years. What does it mean to be “Filipino” anyway?
The question of what being “Filipino” means is relevant today in light of the 27th anniversary of the 1986 Edsa People Power “revolution” which, true to form, is being put up as the most relevant thing to reflect upon this month. Never mind that the long “dormant” issue of the Philippines’ long-standing claim on the Malaysian state of Sabah has come to the fore again thanks to a hundred-odd armed Muslim-Filipinos supposedly representing the Sultan of Sulu who are currently in a standoff with Malaysian government forces there.
The Filipinos are calling themselves “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army,” according to a report from the Malaysian news portal The Star Online.
They claim to be followers of “a descendant of the Sultan of Sulu” and are demanding that the subjects of the Sulu Sultan in Sabah not be deported to the Philippines, the report said.
A Philippine military officer interviewed by Reuters also said the men were followers of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu – an island group off the southern Philippines – who had been invited to Sabah by a Malaysian opposition politician to discuss land issues.
The Sulu sultanate, first founded in the 1400s, was once a regional power center, controlling islands in the Muslim southern Philippines and parts of Borneo including Sabah until its demise a century ago.
Malaysia pays a token amount to the Sultanate each year for the “rental” of Sabah state – an arrangement that stretches back to British colonial times.
The Philippine government had late last year entered into an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) effectively creating an “enlarged Bangsamoro” autonomous region in Mindanao which will encompass the prior-existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and parts of Lanao del Norte and Cotabato among others. The new autonomous region will be allowed implementation of Muslim Shari’ah Law.
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The creation of what is tantamount to an autonomous Islamic state within Philippine territory (a nation supposedly governed on secular principles) as part of a “peace process” the Philippine Government had initiated with the terrorist MILF raises the question of what exactly qualifies claim of any territory within the Philippines to independence from the Manila government. Is it the claimants’ capacity for violence and armed aggression? That the creation of the “enlarged Bangsamoro” was part of a peace deal implies that continued war was the only alternative.
Perhaps then, this is the key to salvation for the embattled followers of the Sultan of Sulu currently besieged in Sabah. If they can demonstrate a convincing capacity for violence — like the MILF had — then a “peace deal” with the Philippine and Malaysian governments could earn them the same prize. Indeed, as part of the first stage of the implementation of President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III’s “framework agreement”, members of the MILF armed command and their families will enjoy first crack at the dole-out of government “development assistance”….
Ochoa said Administrative Order No. 37, which President Aquino signed on February 13, will ensure that development projects and programs are implemented in Bangsamoro, a new autonomous region that will be established in Mindanao, for MILF combatants and their families as well as communities that will be affected by the framework agreement signed in October last year.
The task force, according to Ochoa, is mandated to develop and implement programs that will respond to the health, education and livelihood needs of MILF priority beneficiaries and poverty-stricken communities throughout Mindanao.
Violence, it seems, does pay in the Philippines.
This could be an important point to mull over for the Sultan of Sulu’s loyal followers. It is interesting to note, as a matter of fact, that this “loyalty” is unabashedly for the Sulu Sultanate and not, explicitly, for the “Philippine” Nation. Indeed, the positions on the matter of both the Philippine and Malaysian governments are framed by artifacts of the legacies of European colonial domination of both countries. This makes the Sulu Sultanate’s fundamental interests and its notional future on those bases incompatible with either one as the underpinnings of their claim pre-date the Spanish and United States’ Philippine colonial government and the British Empire’s administration of their Malayan colonies.
Indeed, step back further, and we will find that not only does the Bangsamoro and the Sulu Sultanate have a strong claim to autonomy from imperial Manila (and any foreign government that is a product of European imperialism) but much of the rest of the Philippines as well. Ignoring for a while the strength and endurance of Europe’s colonial legacy in the Far East and the administrative concepts it created such as “the Philippines” we can find straightforward sense in award-winning intellectual David Martinez’s provocative proposal articulated in his book A Country of Our Own; that…
The country […] comprises five regions (â€œnationsâ€): Cordillera, Luzon, The Visayas, Mindanao, and Bangsamoro. He proposes holding legally binding referenda in each of these places to determine whether those who live there wish to remain inside the Philippines or form their own independent country.
The former countries of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and now internally-unstable Rwanda, come to mind when one thinks of what the Philippines is all about â€” an agglomeration of fiefdoms that remain stuck together for the purpose of keeping alive nostalgic relics of 19th Century â€œnationalistâ€ thinking and not for any real practical or measurable ends befitting a modern 21st Century society.
Are the citizens of the Sultanate of Sulu really serious about asserting their right to exist as a nation? Perhaps it should reconsider remaining in bed with the Philippine government and go for the gold. After all, with regard to the effort to come to terms with the question of what it really means to be “Filipino”, even the brightest amongst our self-proclaimed “thought leaders” continue to scratch their heads.
[Photo courtesy The Australian.]
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.