... But was Mindanao ever part of Philippine territory?

To Take A Stand
Oscar P. Lagman Jr.

Posted on March 17, 2015

FOUR HUNDRED and ninety-four years ago today, a nation was born. It was on March 17, 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan and his crew landed on the shores of Samar, the first island in the group of islands that would eventually be called the Philippines. Antonio Pigafetta recorded the event in his journal as having taken place on March 16. That was because the International Date Line, which Magellan’s expedition had crossed, did not exist at the time.

The history textbooks we used during my high school days (my high school batch celebrated the 60th anniversary of its graduation last Saturday) refer to the event as the Discovery of the Philippines, as if the islands had not been visited by merchants from China and Japan and missionaries from Arabia long before Magellan set foot on Samar soil. As Renato Constantino wrote in his book The Philippines: A Past Revisited, historians view the past through the prism of their own prejudices.

Because Magellan’s discovery of the island of Samar encouraged more Spanish expeditions to the Southeastern rim of the Pacific, resulting in the establishments in Cebu, Bohol and Panay of permanent settlements under Spanish rule, it is recorded in history books written three generations ago as the beginning of the Filipino nation. In 1543 the explorer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named the group of islands Filipinas, originally Felipinas, in honor of Crown Prince Felipe of Spain.

Emboldened by the success of their conquests, the Spanish adventurers sailed on to the northern islands, reaching the large rich kingdoms of Manila and Tondo on the Western side of Luzon. Instead of resisting the landing of the invaders, the two kings welcomed them. The name Filipinas was eventually applied to all the islands and communities that had come under Spanish rule. It is therefore more apt to refer to Magellan’s discovery as the birth of a nation, as the formerly independent island-sultanates in the Southeastern part of the Pacific were unified under one rule.

While very little resistance was offered by the natives in most of the central and northern islands of the archipelago, the Spanish adventurers met fierce opposition in Mindanao and Sulu. In retaliation for the Spanish assaults on their homeland, the natives of those islands, predominantly Muslim, who the Spaniards called Moros as Muslims in Spain were then called, pillaged Spanish communities in Luzon and the Visayas. The Spanish colonial government waged military campaigns against the Moros, but they failed to score decisive victories.

Military operations were launched in Jolo and Mindanao from time to time. These forays would succeed in placing Moro land under the Spaniards’ control, but the Moros would eventually drive out the invaders. There were attempts by the Spaniards to invade Cotabato and Lanao, but the natives defended their land valiantly. Technically, Mindanao and Sulu never became part of Filipinas and calling their inhabitants Filipinos would be inappropriate.

What history books call the Moro Wars ended toward the end of the 19th century. The Spanish government acquired steamships, ending the superiority of the Moro vinta in Philippine seas. At about the same time, the Filipinos in various parts of Luzon rebelled against the abuses of the Spanish government and the Spanish clergy, drawing the Spanish armed forces away from Mindanao and Jolo.

The war between Spain and the United States in 1898 ultimately ended Spanish rule in Filipinas. In the Treaty of Peace between the two nations, Spain ceded to the United States the archipelago known as the Philippine Islands, and comprehending the islands lying within defined lines. Mindanao and Sulu were considered within the defined lines.

But Spain never took permanent possession of Mindanao and Sulu for it to cede them to any sovereign state. The Philippine Constitution of 1934 defined the Philippine territory as all the territory ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris concluded by the two sovereign states. That is understandable as that constitution was drafted, promulgated, and ratified when the Philippines was a colony of the United States. The 1987 Constitution says that the national territory comprises the Philippine archipelago, with all the islands and waters embraced therein, and all other territories over which the Philippines has sovereignty or jurisdiction. But unlike the Treaty of Peace between Spain and the United States, the Philippine Constitution did not define the lines within which the Philippine archipelago lies.

Should we assume that the Philippine archipelago referred to in the Philippine Constitution is the one defined in the Treaty of Peace between Spain and the United States? The Philippines gained its independence again in 1946. It should not be bound by the declarations of the United States, especially those made more than 100 years ago and with which the Filipino people had no involvement.

A number of retired justices of the Supreme Court, senators, and eminent constitutional lawyers and experts assert that the Bangsamoro Basic Law is unconstitutional because it virtually proclaims the Bangsamoro a sub-state. But did the framers of the 1987 Constitution have the right to include the Bangsamoro territory as part of the national territory of the Republic of the Philippines when history books do not indicate that Spain took permanent possession of Moro land? Did they think and act in the name of the United States? Are the members of Congress who are invoking the Constitution’s article on the Philippine territory acting as emissaries of the US government?

As Al Haj Murad, chairman of the MILF, said during the signing of the Framework of Agreement on the Bangsamoro in Malacañang in 2012, almost five centuries of foreign invasions and dominatios have seen the loss of the Moro sultanates, their captivity eradicating their Bangsamoro identity and reducing their ancestral homeland into small parcels of territories called provinces, leading to the marginalization of their people within a larger Philippine society that barely took cognizance of their forebears and struggles for freedom before the Philippine nation declared its independence in 1898 and again in 1946.

Today, the Moro people are giving up their call for independence and have agreed to be part of the Philippines and be known as Filipinos in exchange for autonomy and development support. That is a large concession being given by people who have suffered injustice from Imperial Manila for centuries.

Oscar P. Lagman is member of Manindigan!, a cause-oriented group that takes stands on national issues.