Mindanao and Old Suspicions

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Mindanao and Old Suspicions

by Manuel L. Quezon III

When the commercial attaché of the US Embassy in the Philippines announced last month that the US was “still bullish” over Mindanao, it provoked a below-the-radar but still buzz-worthy attack on American motives in the region. With the Philippines simmering in a political crisis, could it be Uncle Sam’s interests were best served by letting the politicians in Manila tear each other apart, so that Mindanao, the main interest of America, might all the better fall into its lap?

After all, sovereignty over Mindanao had been negotiated and then enforced by the Americans during several campaigns distinct from the war which conquered the rest of the (Christian) Philippines. Maj. Gen. Elwell Otis, commander of the US Army forces quelling the “Philippine insurrection,” had ordered Gen. John C. Bates to negotiate a treaty with Sultan Jamalul Kiram of Jolo, which he did, successfully. What came to be called the Bates Treaty was signed on Aug. 20, 1899. The Americans’ English text read that “The sovereignty of the United States over the whole archipelago of Jolo and its dependencies is declared and acknowledged,” while the “rights and dignities of His Highness the Sultan and his datos shall be fully respected,” and that the Americans would not interfere “on account of their religion.” Problems arose when it turned out that the Tausug version of the treaty had not relinquished the Sultan’s sovereignty. Eventually when the Americans began exercising what they felt to be their sovereignty — by establishing the “Moro Province” in 1903 among other things — there was war and the Muslims finally accepted American sovereignty in 1915 (the Carpenter-Kiram Treaty).

While all of this was going on, of course, Filipinos could only fret over what they felt might turn out into a separate accommodation with the Moros. Teodoro M. Kalaw, for example, filed a bill in the Philippine Assembly in 1910 which “disapproved the dismemberment of Philippine territory until such a time as the American Congress could define the real political status of the Philippines” — at a time when there had already been four major Muslim uprisings.

The fear that the Americans would dispose of Mindanao as they pleased refused to go away — it actually increased as time went by. Even as Filipino officials had a fit over Wood’s thoroughly Republican plan to “run the government out of business,” Kalaw wrote that “There was also talk of separating from the Philippine archipelago the island of Mindanao, and subsequently Americanizing it.” The American Chamber of Commerce of Mindanao and Sulu had even sent a telegram to President Calvin Coolidge proposing Mindanao’s conversion to an unorganized territory under the American flag. Matters came to a head when a Republican Congressman, Robert L. Bacon, filed a bill in the US Congress (June 11, 1926), which sought to separate Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan from the jurisdiction of the Philippine government, and establish a separate and distinct form of government in those areas directly under American sovereignty.

Mass meetings were held in Manila to denounce the Bacon Bill. The Philippine Legislature condemned the bill. The brouhaha died down, but King’s justification for his bill would rankle in the memory of Filipino leaders. A Filipino Muslim, in 1922, was quoted as saying, in response to a request by an American for the Muslim’s opinion on the political situation, “”No, no, I do not want to say a word. If I say I like independence, the Americans get sore. And if I say I do not like independence, the Filipinos get sore. I say nothing.”

Hence the conviction of the leaders in the 1930s that the Muslims had to be dealt with firmly. This was, at best, a confrontational attitude: “Us” against “them.” Of course once Filipino Christian leaders achieved autonomy in 1935 and independence in 1946, they saw no contradiction between the rhetoric they had been repeating for twenty years — that the Filipino people were able to assume responsibility for themselves — and their policy of refusing to extend the rights they enjoyed to minorities. Filipino leaders were genuinely concerned about Mindanao and began efforts to spur development — but only to relieve agrarian tensions elsewhere in the country. Or to be more accurate, Muslim affairs were viewed within the context of how they could best be manipulated to the advantage of the new government.

The end result can all the more be seen as internal colonialism. Flooding Mindanao with Christian settlers — the way Americans flooded the Midwest in the US — became one of the most effective ways of ensuring that the island would stay in the hands of the Philippine Republic. By the 1950s, Muslim leaders had become familiar fixtures in national politics. The gradual extension of voting and other rights to the Muslims was accompanied by the gradual rise of Muslim politicians who played the game, Manila-style, or at least in the fashion adopted by provincial Christian warlords who had private armies. While today’s Muslim leaders have no nostalgia for the days of American rule, Filipinos in Manila continue to harbor historical suspicions indeed.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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