August 16, 2007

The crux of the Moro problem

Every time armed hostilities flare up in Mindanao, government assures the public that it is in control, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims it can wipe out the troublemakers in due time, and a plethora of unsolicited solutions or proposals by self-anointed Mindanao experts and watchers are offered.

It would appear at first blush that the hawks or militarists have the upper hand what with de facto President, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s initial pugilistic stance after the series of military setbacks in Basilan and Sulu that embarrassed not just the military generals but also their Commander-in-Chief. This confrontational approach had the potential to develop into an all-out shooting war against the MILF in Basilan and then the MNLF in Sulu. But perhaps cooler, or rather more pragmatic, heads anticipating the financial, political and even diplomatic costs of such an outcome have prevailed.

So the seeming pull back, at least in pronouncements, to the tack of maintaining the formal ceasefire with the MILF and the more uneasy one with the MNLF, pursuing so-called rehabilitation and development projects in Muslim Mindanao (many of which are funded by the US) and resuming within the month peace talks with the MILF, currently bogged down on the most contentious item, that of ancestral domain. As to the “necessary” AFP/PNP actions in pursuit of the ASG, GMA called for restraint in seeing to it that MILF and MNLF are not provoked into another firefight that could widen the scope of and further intensify armed hostilities.

Mrs. Arroyo also talked about giving back ancestral lands to the Moro people in an attempt to defuse the situation by “showing sincerity”. But everyone, no less the MILF and MNLF, knows that her words are worthless as a measure of sincerity. On the contrary, a concrete proposal for “pilot project” betrays tokenism and beams a clear signal and assurance to vested interests – foreign and local – that they have nothing to fear.

There is a crying need for a historical flashback on how the ancestral lands of the Bangsamoro were forcibly taken from them. This took place with the foisting of first, US colonial rule that presided over their dispossession, followed by the governments of the Commonwealth and the Republic that carried out the same injustice together with the marginalization of the Moros in their own homeland, with the waves of relocation and settlement of non-Moro communities. Thus with eighty percent of the Moros being landless tenants, it is no wonder that their areas are among the most economically depressed in the country today.

In a book entitled, "Bangsamoro, a Nation under Endless Tyranny" (1984, updated 1999), Salah Jubair, a member of the MILF central committee, refers to these laws as "legalized land grabbing."

According to Jubair, after the signing of the Bates-Kiram Treaty on August 20, 1899, the US colonial government applied the Land Registration Act (Act 496) in Mindanao. It required the registration in writing of all lands occupied by any person, group or corporation. That mother act gave way to a host of "land grabbing laws". Foremost of which were the following:

1. Public Act 718 (April 4, 1903), declaring as null and void all the lands granted by Moro sultans and datus or non-Christian chiefs without state authority. This law effectively dispossessed the Moros of their ancestral landholdings.

2. Public Act 926 (Oct. 7, 1903) declaring all lands registered under Act 496 as public lands, making them available for homestead, sale or lease by individuals or corporations.

3. Mining Act of 1905, declaring all public lands free and open for exploration, occupation and purchase even by US citizens.

4. Cadastral Act of 1907, which facilitated land acquisition by "educated natives", money bureaucrats and American speculators."

Under the Commonwealth, more inequitable laws were passed:

1. Act 4197 (Feb. 12, 1935), which declared land settlement as "the only lasting solution" to the problem of Mindanao and Sulu. It "opened the floodgates to the massive influx of settlers into Mindanao," who took over the choicest parcels of land, especially along the highways, and began cultivation even before the areas were subdivided.

2. Act 141 (Nov. 7, 1936) which declared all Moro ancestral landholdings as public lands. Each Moro was allowed to apply for no more than four hectares whereas a Christian could own 24 hectares and a corporation, 1024 hectares. That led to foreign firms hogging thousands of hectares as pineapple, banana and other crop plantations.

3. Act 441 (June 1939), creating the National Land Settlement Administration; it gave priority for land settlement to those who had completed military training (in preparation for the Japanese invasion).

After World War II, settlements in Mindanao were resumed under the Rice and Corn Production Administration and later the Land Settlement and Development Corp, which resettled 1,500 families. Then, under RA 1160 or the NARRA program, 20,500 families of former members of the Hukbalahaps were resettled from 1954 to 1963.

In September 1971 the Department of Agrarian Reform, formed under RA 6389, took over the settlement projects. By 1983 the DAR resettled 22,639 families in 23 projects in Mindanao. Sadly, says Jubair, under the 1987 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) the Moros continued to be dispossessed of their remaining landholdings.

Years of conflict despite two “final” peace accords with the MNLF and ceasefire agreements with MILF have forced the government to publicly acknowledge the roots of the Moro problem but like previous regimes, GMA’s lacks the political will to solve it by recognizing the right to self-determination, especially in the light of decades-old national oppression and discrimination.

It is clear why the Philippine government is not about to give up Mindanao or even only the acknowledged Moro ancestral domains to the Moro people. All talk about national sovereignty and the indivisibility of Philippine territory is just a convenient cover for the real reasons: ownership of land by big non-Moro landowners, including multinationals such as Dole and Del Monte, and access to the still untapped natural resources in Mindanao, including gold, copper and natural gas.

Further, the US "war on terror" has brought to fore the importance of Mindanao as a strategic basing area for the US military forces, being at the center of Southeast Asia while having equal access to both the Middle East and Northeast Asia.

The GMA regime, like its predecessors, will do all it can to deprive the Moro people of their ancestral domain and genuine autonomy, even as it pays lip service to these. After all, from where she sits, the de facto President claims she is as strong as she wants to be. ###


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