On Jamalul Kiram III, Nur Misuari and colonial mentality

Cesar Suva
Kiram's death, the Sabah standoff and the Zamboanga siege serve as reminders of how colonial our mentality about our nation can sometimes be

CANBERRA, Australia – The death of Jamalul Kiram III, the most public claimant to the Sultanate of Sulu on October 20, the raid in his name on Sabah, Malaysia in February, and the Zamboanga raid by Nur Misuari’s men in September served as painful reminders, to Filipinos, of a long-lingering colonial legacy.

But this legacy is not that which you usually hear about Mindanao. I am not referring to the narrative that describes an age-old “struggle” against colonialism that the Filipinos of the Visayas and Luzon lost, and those of Mindanao sustained. 

Perhaps a deeper and more resonating legacy, that also affects the modern manifestation of conflict in the southern Philippines, is the very way Filipinos think about their nation.

We sometimes forget that, although sophisticated societies had existed in the Philippines for over a thousand years before, the ideas about Filipino identity and the delimitations of the nation, physical and conceptual, are only just over a hundred years old. Often, our concept of “colonial mentality” is reduced to either liking or disliking products or ideas. If we like foreign clothes, music, products, we have colonial mentality. If we patronize and celebrate the local, we are nationalistic. It certainly is not, however, as simple as that. How we have imagine ourselves as Filipinos is part of this colonial mentality. Assumptions we make about what a nation and Filipinos should be like, are a product of the period we spent under Spanish and American rule.

Misuari and Kiram have recently reminded us of how colonial that mentality about our nation can sometimes be.

Sidelined by colonizers

Prior to the arrival of Spain, the Philippines was part of an incredibly cosmopolitan, mobile, Malay world that saw the foreign and the local blend constantly together as Southeast Asia became a vast commercial zone in the first half of the previous millennium. The borders of the nations of Southeast Asia, including that of the Philippines, were the product of the agreements between European empires that began arriving in the 16th century in an effort to stabilize each others’ territorial ambitions.

Caught on the frontiers of these colonial states were societies like that of Sulu, Aceh and Makassar in Indonesia, the Karin in Burma, the Pattani Muslims in Thailand and the Cham in Vietnam. During the 20th century, these colonial territories were transformed by independence into the nation states we know today. The borderland communities above presented an awkward, anomalous situation to those states in the process of conceiving of and defining new nations.      

The formation of a nation state, as articulated by Ben Anderson over 30 years ago in his seminal Imagined Communities, is in essence an act of creativity. It can re-contextualize the past and peoples into something politically relevant and meaningful to the nascent state, to unify and homogenize. For Filipino society and others around Southeast Asia colonized by outsiders, that re-contextualization had to factor in the perceptions and prejudices held by their rulers. As Edward Said pointed out in his discussion on Orientalism, colonizers would often define their own identities against those of their colonial subjects, where their ‘primitiveness’ helped emphasize western ‘civilization’ and ‘modernity’. 

In the Philippines, by the time the Americans arrived, they found what seemed to their 19th century understanding of social evolution, a hierarchy of civilizations.  While they would place themselves at the ultimate end of the path to modernity, serving to justify their rule, all Filipinos in Luzon, the Visayas, Mindanao and Sulu, were not yet “intelligent” enough to run things themselves.

For the Americans, Jose Rizal, educated in Spain and well-versed in the concept of the nation states and modern nationalism, and other ilustrados, were closer to modernity than the Moros. Moros, while exhibiting what Americans thought were raw qualities which brought success to their own pioneers hundreds of years prior, were nonetheless at a stage of social ‘evolution’ behind that of the north, requiring so much more guidance that they had to be separated from the rest of the Philippines and monitored under the Moro Province, under a military regime. 

This is all despite the fact that Filipino politicians in the north were already being elected and running things at a local level for the Spaniards for almost 50 years, and that societies in Butuan and Sulu had thrived for hundreds of years before the United States had even begun to be settled by Europeans.

Emphasizing Filipino backwardness helped justify to anti-imperialists in the US, the most famous of whom was Mark Twain, that the subjugation of Filipinos was a noble endeavor. That developing the Filipino, making him and her ‘better’ or “more Western” was a manifestation of the benevolent mission of the United States. The building of the Philippine nation as we know it today happened under these conceptualization. Our collective amnesia of the societies that were in Sulu, Mindanao, Visayas and Luzon before the arrival of the Spaniards, as well as the notions of our relative positioning vis-a-vis the path to modernity are legacies of this colonial framework.  The bifurcation of the nation between “Filipino” and “Moro” begun under Spain, and was institutionalized under the US.

Like America, like Manila

It is old hat, however, to keep pointing the finger at Spain and America.  Filipinos, from the north as well as from Mindanao and Sulu, bought into the colonizers’ mentality, and kept it going long after they left. Many of us still think in these terms. If the Philippines were more like America, it would be better.  If Mindanao were more like Manila, it would be better.

SULU'S 'SULTAN.' Jamalul Kiram III (C) at his home in Manila on March 7, 2013. AFP file / Jay Directo

Moros, just like other borderland communities in Southeast Asia, were reduced by the homogenizing impulses of national identity building into an anomaly that had to change to fit into the concept of a modern nation state with fixed borders and common language, history and culture.

Naturally, Muslim Filipinos, like the Tausug of Sulu, took exception to this ‘need to be more like us’ pressure and led by men like Misuari, rebelled, leading to almost half a century of conflict. While more recently a greater recognition of the diversity of the Philippines has been growing and epitomized in gestures such as the celebration of Islamic holidays and reference to Moros as ‘our Muslim brothers and sisters’ in official press releases, the lingering effects of that division persist.

Misuari and Kiram, on the surface, seem to represent opposite poles in how this duality has plagued the Philippines.  Kiram’s family, to historians, represents the ultimate buy-in to the nation (albeit out of an impulse to survive in the new American order).  Jamalul Kiram III is the direct descendant of Jamalul Kiram II, the Sultan absorbed into the new American colonial state in 1899, then divested of all his temporal powers in 1915. His grand-nephew, Jamalul Kiram III, was one of six current claimants to the Sultanate. But via his raid on Malaysia last February to reclaim Sabah, a part of Sulu his ancestor, Jamalul Azam, leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878, Kiram III became the Sultan of Sulu in public consciousness. While the raid on Sabah was based on his family’s historical claim, the rhetoric from him, his articulate daughter Jacel and wife Celia used emphasized that it was Filipinos in general that had a right to that territory.

Misuari, on the other hand, is the irreconcilable rebel and Moro Nationalist who had declared independence from “Filipino colonizers” again last year. A former lecturer at the University of the Philippines, Misuari was spurred into action by dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ execution of Tausug operatives in 1968, who were being trained for the invasion of Sabah. He led the armed Moro National Liberation Front, an ultra-nationalist grouping of Muslim-Filipino students and youth in a war of secession with Manila until a 1996 peace agreement that won him and Fidel Ramos, then President, the Ramon Magsaysay Peace award.  After serving as chairman of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, he was gradually sidelined as a new group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, stole the headlines, waged war, and brokered a peace agreement just in October, 2012.  Frustrated by the prospect of history passing him by, the raid on Zamboanga on September 9, 2013, sought to pre-empt his eventual marginalization by the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and assert his relevance to the Moro nationalist movement.

But what is common in both is their chronic sense of marginalization to the point of paranoia. Kiram recently complained in an interview with this author in November 2012, of being left out of peace discussions that had concluded the month before. Misuari is also generally known to have taken exception to his gradual sidelining in the negotiations for a new Bangsamoro autonomous entity to emerge out of the 2012 peace deal.

Both men were desperate to stay relevant and as many desperate leaders have done throughout history, took to arms and wrested the nation’s attention onto themselves. While they indeed are only two men, and while acts of violence to achieve political ends can never, in this 21st century world, be condonable, they also signify the fear and distrust lingering between their people and the rest of the Philippines.

While sick of war, death and suffering, being considered and treated marginal for close to a century by the state has nonetheless affected the faith the Tausug and other Moros have in a social and political framework that has sought for decades to change them fundamentally. This distrust has led many like Misuari and Kiram to feel that no other option remained but to take control of their situations through the force of arms. Actions that ironically, reinforce the prejudices and distrust of Moros amongst the Filipinos of Luzon and the Visayas.  This, perhaps, is the most critical of colonial mentalities left as a legacy of Spanish and American rule. 

While the desire for foreign goods and products is often the focus of vitriol about the ‘colonial mentality’, the perceptions that evolved out of colonial taxonomies of Filipinos has institutionalized a mutual distrust that has led a persistent cycle of violence in Mindanao and Sulu. Ultimately it is up to Filipinos to decide which deserves more attention. So far it seems to have been the former. – Rappler.com

Cesar Suva is a teaching fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.