Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar (Excerpt)

From Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar, by Moshe Yegar, Lexington Books, 2002. pp. 229-232

The American Occupation Period 

Sergio Osmena, later vice-president of the Commonwealth, participated in a meeting with Muslim leaders and several Dato. He promised to act on their behalf so that they could be represented by their own delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Senate President Quezon also promised to safeguard Muslim interests and to increase the number of Muslim officials. On 10 July 1934 elections for a Constitutional Convention were held and, in several Muslim regions, Dato were elected as representatives. But it appears that this trend of reluctant reconciliation on the part of the Muslims only spoke for a minority view. In May 1934 the U.S. Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Bill which called for the establishment of an autonomous Commonwealth under which the Philippines would be granted full rights, initially in internal matters only, and later — on 4 July 1946 complete independence. The Moro opposed the bill, sorely disappointed with the American decision to relinquish direct control in the south and the agreement to turn the territory over to the Christian Filipinos who were traditional enemies of the Moro.

That same year, armed incidents in Lanao were put down by the police. On 13 July 1934 two hundred leading Maranaos signed a petition written by the religious leader, Hajji Abdul Kamid Bogabong, and sent it to Frank Murphy, the American governor-general. They demanded that a law be passed which would guarantee that the religion of Islam, its customs and traditions would not be harmed and that freedom of religion would be assured to Muslims. They insisted on the recognition of Muslim law, and demanded that their lands be safeguarded for a twenty-year period (which would give Muslims sufficient time to get proof of ownership) during which time it would not be transferred to Christians. And they demanded that qualified Muslims be appointed to government positions in the Lanao region. The petition closed with a statement that should their needs be disregarded, they would not participate in the Commonwealth government and would seek to separate Mindanao and Sulu from an independent Philippines, leaving them under American rule. Muslim concerns were expressed in meetings held in 1935 at which Dato, Hajjis, Imams, and Kathis gathered to discuss fears that the United States would grant independence to the Philippines without securing the situation of the Muslims. On March 18, 1935, just a few months before the establishment of the Commonwealth, a meeting was held in Dansalan (Marawi City) at which a petition, signed by 120 Maranao leaders, was sent to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American Congress. The signatories claimed that the population of the Philippine Islands was composed of two peoples with differing religions, traditions, and customs. They complained of a negative attitude on the part of the Christians towards the Muslims, and expressed their concern about the future of the Muslim community under Christian Filipino rule, particularly in matters relating to their religion. Only Christians, they protested, stood to gain from the new constitution. The Muslim territories–whose inhabitants did not want to be included in an independent Philippines–should be separated from the other islands of the archipelago. They were not successful in winning their demands. The United States accepted the hypothesis that spoke of one people in one country; therefore, despite Muslim objections, the Commonwealth was established on 14 November 1935 and responsibility for policy regarding Muslims was transferred to the government of the Commonwealth. Manuel Quezon was elected president, and in elections held in September 1935, three Moro were elected to the National Assembly.

The government of the Commonwealth had good intentions. It wanted all segments of the population, including Muslims, to benefit from a national policy of unity that was based on the equality of all citizens. President Manuel Quezon spoke of providing the Moro with good government and of his great interest in their welfare and progress. His declared policy, as announced in a 16 June 1936 speech was that both Muslims and Christians should be equally subject to the same law. He intended to institute complete legal and social equality and put an end to the privileges of the aristocracy. He opposed the Dato system which ran parallel to the administration of the country’s legal framework. His approach was that government officials should treat each citizen directly and equally, without intervention of traditional aristocracies. And, indeed, the National Assembly repealed the special laws for Mindanao and Sulu and the special arrangements that existed for them. The change of policy offended Moro sensitivities. Although there were Dato who benefited from the Commonwealth government occasionally getting large tracts of land–generally their subjects were adversely effected. Muslim hostility to Christian Filipinos deepened because of efforts by the Commonwealth to end the preferential treatment Muslims had received under American rule. For example, the Muslim Board which had been in operation until then to adjudicate conflicts between Moros according to Muslim law was closed down. Another example, in March 1936 a parliamentary committee for Mindanao and Sulu affairs recommended the abolition of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes. Members of the National Assembly from the south opposed the recommendation but, despite Moro opposition, President Quezon decided to close the bureau and it was terminated on 31 December 1936. In its place, the position of commissioner for Mindanao and Sulu was created, directly answerable to the Ministry of Labor and the Interior. The official, a Christian Filipino, was given wide-ranging authority in coordinating the work of all government agencies in the south.

The opportunity to apply the new policy, terminating the privileged position of the traditional Muslim aristocracy, presented itself to the Commonwealth government at the beginning of 1936 when the sultan of Sulu, Mohammed Jamal al-Kiram (who had relinquished the right to govern in an agreement he had signed in 1915), died. The special position of sultans and Dato (with their status as religious leaders and Muslim authority figures) had generally been retained by the Americans, but it undermined the concept of equality which Quezon championed. A council of Dato was convened, and the council decided that Mohammed Jamal al-Kiram’s replacement as the new sultan of Sulu would be Dayang Dayang-Hajji Piandoo. The government was asked to ratify its selection, but the request was rejected on the grounds that the sultanate had come to an end with Kiram’s death, and the government no longer recognized people with the title of sultan in the South Philippines. The policy was ratified anew on 20 September 1938 in a memorandum sent by President Quezon to the secretary for Internal Affairs which stated that the ranks of sultan and Dato were canceled according to the principle that all Filipinos were equal before the law and in their treatment by government agencies. Consequently, sultans and Dato could no longer represent the Muslim population. Quezon attempted to nullify all titles carried by Muslim leaders, but in this he was unsuccessful.

The Commonwealth administration also disregarded local Muslim courts (Agama). Again, Muslim religious sensitivities were greatly offended as they had been when the traditional aristocracy was set aside. Muslims persisted in their objections to the government’s education policy which they regarded as imparting a Christian education, exposure to which could only be a detriment to their Islamic way of life. Attendance by Muslim students in public schools was limited during the Commonwealth period as it had been during the period of American rule. Religion was not the only reason for parents’ resistance. The Muslim population was poor and needed the help of the children in the fields, and the distance between Muslim settlements left many children far from schools.

The settlement in the south by Christians from the northern islands went on from the final decades of Spanish rule into the period of direct American rule and continued under Philippine independence. It was one of the greatest–if not the foremost-irritants leading to friction with the Muslim community. The reality behind the Commonwealth government’s settlement policy was the dire economic straits in which it found itself. Agricultural land in the densely populated northern and central districts was in short supply, and severe unemployment was common. The idea was that a solution could be found in the southern, sparsely populated islands as immigrants were directed there to ease crowding in the north. But the government’s reasons went beyond economic ones. There was also a security consideration: the need to increase the proportion of Christians in the south relative to the number of Muslims whose loyalty was suspect. This approach was in line with Quezon’s aim of integrating the Muslims of the south into the general population. In a 16 June 1936 speech, Quezon announced his intention of instituting the systematic settlement of Filipinos from the northern districts of Luzon and Visaya on land in the south in order to develop the economy of the southern region. Actually, this was a continuation of the 1912 American plan to settle Mindanao. The goal was to open extensive tracts of land in sparsely populated Mindanao, particularly Cotabato and Sulu, to Christian settlers from the crowded areas of Luzon and
Visaya. Beginning in 1936, the pace of immigration was stepped up with the support of the Commonwealth government, the main settlement sites being Lanao and Cotabato. There were scores of settlers who came at their own initiative and took over land, and foreign and domestic investments in the region grew. There were those in the aristocracy who collaborated with the government and, not infrequently, traditional leaders who were registered as owners of public land sold it to settlers or to other economic interests. As they had been under the American rule, many among the Muslim population were confronted with difficulties. They did not understand, or perhaps did not wish to understand, the registration process of land ownership–a system which ran counter to their concepts of community, as opposed to individual, ownership of land. Nor did government officials, entrusted with land registration, provide the Moro with assistance. In 1939, a more vigorous agricultural settlement project was begun in the south. In June of that year, the National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA) was set up, and it added a new facet to the settlement picture with candidates drawn from army veterans. The aims of the NLSA were to deal with the acquisition of land from the government or from private sources, to organize settlement efforts and the cultivation of the land, to grant farmers from the north and demobilized soldiers the opportunity to acquire the land they worked, to foster immigration in sparsely settled regions, to enable the integration of people from various communities in the settlements in keeping with the government’s integration policy, and to develop more profitable crops. The major region of activity centered in Mindanao. In a number of cases, the government declared privately owned land to be in the public domain and made it available for purchase, although it was inhabited by Muslims who considered it to be their ancestral land. As early as 1935, Dato Salipada K. Pendatun (who was to fill public functions in subsequent years as well) wrote a memorandum to the deputy governor of the Philippines alerting him to the fact that the land issue could result in violence. And, indeed, within a very short time, the number of settlers who arrived under the aegis of the NLSA grew considerably. There was even a suggestion that year, not acted on despite the fact that it was proposed by Manuel Quezon himself, to settle ten thousand Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who were being persecuted by the Nazi regime already in power in both those countries.

Despite President Quezon’s declared policy of fostering equality and the unification of the Philippine people, the Commonwealth government’s integration policy for the southern islands clearly discriminated in favor of the Christian population, and this inevitably led to Muslim opposition. There is no doubt that Quezon wanted to limit irritants that could lead to conflict between Christians and Muslims, but ultimately even he had to resort to force in order to overcome the bitter resistance of the Muslims. In any number of cases, the anger and recriminations broke out into armed clashes just as it did during the Spanish and American regimes which preceded Quezon’s government. The worst of the military clashes between Muslims and the armed forces of the Philippine government were centered in Lanao during the years 1936-1941. Muslims, resorting to their old style of fighting from fortified cotta, were generally defeated by government forces.

World War II put a stop to this period of transition in the Philippines…

Moshe Yegar
Author: Moshe Yegar
Israeli diplomat (eet.); historian of Islam in Southeast Asia

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