A royal past eroding

MANILA, Philippines – The standoff in Sabah that turned violent on Friday, March 1, has made Malacañang reiterate its order for the Filipinos who are claiming the territory to come home and surrender. It has also fueled reports that security might be tightened in Muslim communities here. The idea of their communities being closely watched by the authorities would be reminiscent of the aftermath of the bloody Bicutan siege almost 8 years ago, when 22 inmates, almost all of them Muslims, were shot and killed by cops allegedly for trying to escape. How do they feel about the inordinate focus on them?

We are re-publishing this story from the May 9, 2005 issue of Newsbreak to give you an idea. Interestingly, one of those interviewed for this article was the wife of Sultan Jamalul Kiram, the oldest living descendant of the Sultan of Sulu and Borneo, and whose brother is now leading the Filipinos who are standing their ground in Lahad Datu. Kiram at the time was President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's adviser on Muslim royalties concerns.

 

“We buried them because nobody else would. They were fellow Muslims.”

That is what any resident of Barangay Maharlika in Taguig City would say about the 22 inmates who were killed at the Metro Manila District Jail (MMDJ) in March. The jail is in Barangay Lower Bicutan, Maharlika’s neighbor to the east. It holds 134 suspected terrorists, most of them Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members.

Barangay chair Erlinda Pangandaman said jail authorities called her on March 15 to instruct her to claim the bodies. “They didn’t bring the bodies here. They asked us to fetch them.”

For seven hours the following day, volunteers in Maharlika dug for the graves of their departed brothers in the faith and the two Christians who died with them. The bodies lay side by side in a corner that looked like a garbage dump, beside a swamp, at the Imam Muh Kusin Memorial Park.

Either because the dead didn’t have relatives in Maharlika, or because these relatives were afraid to show up and claim them, the village leaders and volunteers had to take care of them. It didn’t follow, residents say, that they condoned the terrorist acts for which the inmates were charged.

The Bicutan incident inevitably trained the spotlight on Barangay Maharlika, the biggest Muslim community in Metro Manila with a population of 18,406.

Its residents have mixed sentiments about the Abu Sayyaf, the attempted escape of its members, and how lawmen assaulted them.

Some say they didn’t mind having Abu Sayyaf escapees killed, because they were terrorists anyway, but are alarmed that most of those killed were Muslims being tried for other crimes. Some say only Abu Sayyaf leaders Alhamser Limbong (alias Kosovo) and an inmate named Lando were planning to escape, but police shot at the legless Ghablib Andang (alias Robot) and at Nadzmie Sabtullah (alias Global), who was waving his white underwear to signal his surrender.

Residents say the assault was premeditated by the authorities to silence the Abu Sayyaf commanders who were planning to talk about their connivance with the military in kidnap-for-ransom activities. Others talk in whispers about Abu Sayyaf relatives who are indeed staying in the area, and who had sent the inmates mobile phones through a uniformed man that they had befriended.

The diversity of their views reflects the different backgrounds and status of residents in various clusters of the barangay. Within this community, which at some point had risen above the negative stereotype of Muslims, there appears to be divisions, too.

The balanced views and thoughtful arguments about the whole Muslim-terrorist affair come from the neighborhood of well-off and educated Muslims. Elsewhere in the barangay, in the clusters of cramped mass housing units occupied by poorer families, biases are so strong and discussions so passionate that many even defend Muslims who resorted to terrorism.

In 1974, President Ferdinand Marcos set aside 30 hectares of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Officers Village to become a subdivision for Muslims. He called it Maharlika Village and meant it to be a showcase of government concern for Muslims. (“Maharlika” means royalty or of noble origin.)

It was intended to give Muslims a respectable place to dwell. After all, some 20 families, led by an imam named Muhammad Kusin, had illegally put up their lawanit huts in the area since 1964. (Since the 1950s, they had requested the government to award them five hectares of the land so they could establish a community. President Diosdado Macapagal rejected the request.)

Its main mosque used to serve some 5,000 Muslims, most of whom lived in other parts of Metro Manila. The mosque was surrounded by parks where Christian families, in the 1980s, went for weekend picnics. The village had sports facilities that were open to residents of neighboring barangays. It had a large swimming pool meant to train Muslim youth to become Olympic-caliber athletes.

The original settlers comprised 480 families. They included descendants of royalty, businessmen, government officials, military officers, ambassadors, bank presidents, university professors. They may be considered the Muslim elite.

Malacañang created beside Maharlika Village two sitios for more Muslim settlers. These were called Imelda Romualdez Marcos and Bandara-Ingued. The three areas were eventually grouped into a barangay, which the government also called Maharlika. The barangay occupies 54 hectares, home to 2,745 households.

The peace and order problems in the area started in 1996, when Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim evicted many Muslim squatters from the city. They were given temporary shelter at the abandoned dormitory in Maharlika Village. The dormitory was originally for students from Mindanao who didn’t have relatives to stay with while studying in Manila.

The 350 families at the dorm were to be transferred to the seven medium-rise condominiums, which had 420 units, that the government constructed in the village. Only 89 Muslim families were relocated. The rest of the units, residents say, were sold to “whoever could pay more.”

The dorm has since been occupied by new batches of squatters, and so is a bunkhouse nearby.

The squatters’ area is aptly called Quiapo Dos—after the district where they came from in Manila, and after the image of cell phone-snatching, drug-pushing image of Muslims that Quiapo connotes.

Barangay leaders say that the lawless elements are in Quiapo Dos. Yet the twice-a-month police raids for robbers and drug pushers lead to houses and units in the supposedly peace-loving sitios of the community.

Long-time barangay chair Pangandaman, a Muslim convert from Ilocos who resides in Bandara-Ingued, argues: “We live here. Why would we create trouble in our place?”

She complains that the ones engaged in unlawful activities in the village are a few Muslims and Christians who are military assets and who misuse their specially licensed guns. She’s referring to members of the Task Force Vanguard and the Bantay Bayan.

But in parts of the barangay where members of these organizations go on security patrols, residents say peace and order is maintained.

Celia Kiram, president of the Maharlika Village Homeowners Association, says than since the Abu Sayyaf problem surfaced, the police and military had conducted raids in the village based on poor intelligence reports. This resulted in alleged human right violations, and caused trauma to residents, including two pregnant women who nearly suffered miscarriage.

Terrorism-related raids have been conducted in different parts of the barangay at least once a year.

The police and the media are not helping correct Maharlika’s image, Kiram laments. “Whenever a crime is committed in surrounding barangays, they say it happened in Maharlika, and therefore done by a Muslim.”

Kiram is particularly alarmed by the misconception that those reports propagate—she is one of the homeowners in the elite part of the community. A Muslim convert, and a retired bureaucrat, she’s married to the oldest living descendant of the Sultan of Sulu and Borneo. Her husband, Sultan Jamalul Kiram, is President Arroyo’s adviser on Muslim royalty.

But the frequent reference to suspected criminals and Maharlika Village could be because Quiapo Dos is just behind the well-off neighborhood in the village.

Pangandaman says that some Quiapo Dos residents threaten the safety of the villagers because they harbor “wanted” criminals. Residents of Quiapo Dos even openly talk about drug pushers and suspected terrorists from other Muslim communities in Metro Manila running to them for shelter when raids are conducted in their respective neighborhoods.

Community leaders are now urging authorities—the local government and the PNP—to implement a strict ID system in their area. This way, the non-residents who are out to commit unlawful acts will be prevented from entering.

But even with the lessened incidence of crime, Barangay Maharlika is faced with a peace and order problem that Muslims cannot blame on anything but their own tradition. Rido, or clan wars, that started in their homeland in Mindanao are continued in Maharlika. “Ubusan ng lahi,” or a threat to wipe each other out, is still the battlecry.

Taguig City, according to Mayor Sigfrido Tinga, had wanted to “create a good story” of Muslims being considered assets in a predominantly Christian community. The local government had succeeded so far. There are three Muslims in among every 100 residents in the city. The local government employs more than 70 from this populace—a considerable leap from only three in 2001.

His father Dante, now a Supreme Court justice, used to play basketball in Maharlika. They never lost an election there, although the barangay chair is with the opposition.

That story took an ugly twist with the Bicutan incident.

In 2001, Tinga’s administration, together with the Maharlika residents, protested the Supreme Court order to transfer a suspected Abu Sayyaf to the MMDJ. The city council then—which included the son of BJMP Director Arturo Alit—expressed in a resolution what Maharlika residents feared: that the detention of a suspected terrorist in the city might turn their area into a recruitment haven.

Kiram said they also feared that the community would be suspected of coddling ASG members and supporters.

Given that tag, she said, the neighborhood would witness more raids, suspects in crimes committed near the village would be automatically labeled as “taga-Maharlika,” and village residents would be subject to unnecessary searches in public places.

Thus, said Tinga, transferring the Abu Sayyaf suspect to Bicutan would be “like throwing gasoline into a flame.” But more suspected  terrorists have since been committed to the Bicutan jail. The Taguig city council has just passed another resolution protesting the detention of terrorism suspects in their area.

Tinga says Taguig could be the next economic hub in Metro Manila, but fears that the frequent mention of the terrorists and Taguig in the same breath in the news might scare away investors.

“If we do Maharlika right, we will attract even Islamic investments.” And to accomplish that, he says he will propose to President Arroyo to take out of Taguig not the Muslims, but the jail that holds the terrorists; to kick out not the legitimate Muslim settlers, but the squatters who have been pressuring her to award them properties that could otherwise be turned into economic zones.

Then, perhaps, Maharlika will have the chance to regain its royal past. – with reports from Marlene H. Elmenzo and Lyn Rillon in May 2005/Rappler.com