Ten years ago, I had an amusing experience at the Philippine embassy in Yangon, Myanmar.
I was registering for the 2010 elections and the officer in charge of the task asked me to go behind the booth so I can find my hometown myself. I told him I was from Cotabato City, a chartered city listed under Region XII. He said he tried every option for the province (Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani) but he could not find Cotabato City on their Municipalities and Cities line. I took the mouse and changed the Region to ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), clicked Maguindanao as a province, and right there at the top of the list goes Cotabato City.
I gave him a sheepish smile and said that this usually happens.
When the ARMM government was put in place in 1989, Cotabato City voted “no” to its inclusion. Ten years after, the ARMM conducted another plebiscite for the amended ARMM law. Again, Cotabato City said no.
It is thus understandable that Cotabato City’s “yes” vote for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is considered monumental and historic.
But what is it about Cotabato City that makes it contentious and so desired? (READ: Why Cotabato ‘yes’ vote matters)
Heart of Central Mindanao
Before it was even proclaimed a chartered city under RA 2364 in 1959, Cotabato City’s history stretches back centuries ago – even before the arrival of the Spaniards in the archipelago of what is now Philippines.
The city traces its name to the indigenous word Kuta Wato, which means “fort of stone,” in reference to a limestone hill that was the highest elevation overlooking the swampy area around its proximity and the great Pulangi river at a distance.
The hill, which was originally named Tantawan, is now called Pedro Colina Hill (PC Hill). And the Pulangi river is now listed on maps as the Rio Grande de Mindanao. Kutawato had also made its way in cartographers and historians’ documents under its hispanized name Cotabato.
Modern-day Cotabato was built during the reign of Sultan Makakwa (1857-1884), when the Spanish-Politico Military Government of Mindanao declared it as a Central District along with Polloc in 1860. The Sultanate of Maguindanao’s centuries-old resistance against the Spanish simmered in the late 1880s, when the ruling Sultans at the time decided to enter into peace agreements with the Spanish government.
Upon the defeat of the Spanish in the hands of the Americans during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Spanish colonialization of the Philippines ended. Consequently, the Spanish Politico-Military Government evacuated Cotabato in 1899 and left a triumvirate in charge of the town: these 3 figures are Roman Vilo, a native soldier, Celestino Alonzo, a Chinese convert, and Datu Piang as the Moro representative.
In the early years of the Republic of the Philippines, Cotabato expanded from a village into a municipality. Later on, the province of Cotabato was also established.
As such, there were two political entities called Cotabato in the early 20th century: the province of Cotabato stretching from Buldon in the North to Upi in the Southwest, to as far as Polomolok in the Southeast and Makilala in the West, and the capital of the province, the municipality of Cotabato.
Cotabato province would later on be divided into 4 provinces (South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Maguindanao) and the municipality of Cotabato will become what is now Cotabato City.
By 1960s, Cotabato City was an economic powerhouse in Central Mindanao.
History took a dark turn in the 1970s with the ubiquitous hostilities done under the Martial Law regime of Ferdinand Marcos and the advent of the Moro separatist movement. Mindanao was in turmoil.
Despite the spread of violence, Cotabato City was spared from the atrocities of war. This can be attributed to the fact that the city is protected by large military detachments in its fluvial borders: Tamontaka in the South and Matampay in the North.
Nonetheless, the city was not immune to violence. Crimes and violent clashes between feuding political families marred the city’s streets. Furthermore, the city felt the tremors of the war in the places surrounding it.
The city suffered through numerous IED explosions and consistent threats of violence. Furthermore, the economy was on a standstill. The insecurity in the area prompted entrepreneurs and potential investors to leave.
One of the immediate results of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement is the stabilization of the security situation in the area. Investments flooded along with the hope of a secure environment. The empty marshland in Governor Gutierrez was converted into a compound for the Regional Commissioner of the ARMM.
The city enjoyed a period of relative peace until it was disrupted again during then-president Joseph Estrada’s all-out war in 2000.
As it was before, security and investment climate changed for the better following the implementation of the peace process. The ARMM regional Board of Investment based in Cotabato City cites an accumulated P20 billion worth of investments following the peace process between the MILF and the Government of the Philippines in 2012.
Suffice to say, Cotabato City has reaped the fruits of the peace processes in Mindanao.
Despite its independent stature, Cotabato City is highly affected by the instability of its neighboring areas. As such, the city cannot divorce itself from the concerns of areas that surround it.
With a difference of 11,698 votes, Cotabateños had voted “yes” to the BOL. The BOL is but a framework and the regional laws that will define the region are yet to be made. Despite this, the seat of the regional government will most likely be in Cotabato City.
A lot will be expected from this city of 299,438 people. What does this mean for Cotabateños?
At most, it will be the face of the BARMM. Uncertainties abound and fear seems a logical response.
Lead the way
This is the chance for Cotabateños to rise up. We have long enjoyed the privilege of good education, decent health and welfare, and a stable economy compared to our neighbors. This is an opportunity for us to rise to the challenge, to be an example, and to lead the way.
There will be overwhelming changes, and Cotabato City needs to stick to its essence of what made the city as it is: the home of Muslims and Christians. Every person who was born and raised in Cotabato City refers to themselves first as a Cotabateño, regardless of indigenous and settler origins.
The city is an anthropological goldmine and its rich multicultural history is apparent on the name of its streets; the use of “Tagalog” as the primary language so as to provide a common medium in response to the many regional languages that thrive in the area; the harmonious coexistence between people of different faiths where you hear the bell tolls of the Cathedral along with the azan (call to prayer) of the neighborhood mosques; and the absence of ghettoization as indicated by the nonexistence of a Chinatown despite the significant Chinese population in the area.
Cotabato City will not degenerate. It is not in the nature of this city to do so. Like its persistent nature, Cotabato City will rise to the challenge. The torch is lit, and we now hold the responsibility to carry it.
As a Cotabateño, I am optimistic and excited for what lies ahead. Like the tagline we so proudly say, “Sigay ka, Cotabato City.” We shall lead the way so that no one will be left behind.
As eternally embodied in the lines of the city’s hymn, Awit ng Cotabato:
Kristiano’t Muslim ang nagsikap
Na ito ay mapaunlad
Kotabato buhay ka’t lakas
Nitong bansang nagliliyag
It is about time we give back. – Rappler.com
The author has been a peace and conflict resolution practitioner in Mindanao since 2010.