OPINION: The Battle of Bud Bagsak

Amir Mawallil

Posted at Jun 16 2016 12:07 AM

Forget the name. But why should we not forget the name?

For people from Zamboanga City, Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing is a popular park located right at the heart of the city, a city that is only about 8 hours from Sulu by slow boat.

And so we try to remember that what happened in Sulu between the Moro people and the American soldier who was memorialized by Zamboanga.

It’s clear that to memorialize the man was part of the deal — to also memorialize legend that surrounded his exploits in Sulu archipelago. It was a totem of gratitude from the people of Zamboanga City, an offensive against those who fought hard against the colonizer.

Ironically, to remember General Pershing was our participation in the construction of a grand Filipino narrative, which is Philippine history.

Last week, in a national newspaper, Senator Sonny Angara urged the government to educate young Filipinos about the Moro history by enacting a law that mandates integrating indigenous peoples and Moro history, culture, and identity in the curriculum of both basic and higher education.

The key word was integration. Perhaps through this law, Pershing and his exploit in the Battle of Bud Bagsak in 1913 will now be highlighted in the mainstream national cultural and intellectual production through memorializing and remembrance in aid of education as a state apparatus.

The Battle of Bud Bagsak was fought between June 11 and 15, 1913. Moro freedom fighters led by Datu Amil, together with their wives and children, were fortified in the mouth of a dead volcano, the Bud Bagsak, to resist American forces in the province aided by the local Moro leaders and natives.

Pershing had observed that whenever the American forces advanced, the Moro freedom fighters retreated to Bud Bagsak, carrying with them non-combatants, women and children, refusing inclusion and subjection.

Pershing, a veteran general whose expertise in pacifying natives extending back to the Sioux Indians rebellion in the Iowa in 1890s, devised a plan on how to penetrate the fortified Moro camp at the mouth of a volcano that was protected by a steep slope ringed by several cotta forts.

Bud Bagsak is a testament to the ageless narrative of warfare that deception is an indispensable tool to victory.

In January of the same year, Datu Amil was able to reinforce almost 3,000 Moro freedom fighters in Bud Bagsak. In February, Pershing brought in the 8th Infantry to Jolo to capture Bud Bagsak. In the guise of retreat and helplessness to engage Moros in a battle in their own territory, Pershing postponed the attack on Bud Bagsak, prolonging the standoff between the two parties for several months.

During the standoff, Pershing intended to separate the rebels first from the non-combatants as genocide in the archipelago (because of the past military operations), the collateral of the US imperialist project, reached the mainstream media in the homeland that sparked debates on the US presence in the Philippines.

Datu Amil fell into the trap because of hubris or miscalculation; no one can really tell. Perhaps he thought that the Americans were weak and their refusal to engage in battle was an impending sign of defeat.

This lasted for five months, too long for the Moro leader to stand. When Pershing finally attacked Bud Bagsak, Datu Amil retreated to the mountain with now reduced to 500 Moros with him.

For five months of game-playing and deterrence, his supporters were reduced in numbers as the long period of Pershing’s silent campaign against Datu Amil affected and disrupted the economy, trade, and agriculture on the island that forced some Moros to abandon Bud Bagsak.

It was in mid-June that Pershing and his men were able to penetrate the mouth of the mountain, killing almost 500 Moro combatants together with their women and children. The battle claimed 14 American lives. It was the last bloody Moro resistance in Sulu archipelago in the annals of Philippine history.

Philippine history as a grand narrative is an exercise of remembering. But how to forget or to remember with prejudice and selectivity, depending on how these processes, will serve the interests of the grand narrative.

Remembering, as a national activity, is seldom subjected to examination and uncovering of the truth. Because of this, the remembering is often reduced to ‘remembering how to forget’ — when half of the process should be intended to accept, recompense and correct, forgive, and heal.

What General Pershing’s name pushes us to remember is how to forget the Battle of Bud Bagsak.

"To remember how to forget" is how this macabre story of the battle between American soldiers, aided by locals and Moro recruits, and the supporters of Datu Amil is being constructed in the national imagination, if at all there is an attempt for its inclusion in retelling it to the Filipino nation.

We remember how the Americans "contained" the Moro rebellion in Mindanao, how they were able to successfully assimilate the Moros to the Filipino body politic through the sweetness of their promises of emancipation through their benevolence as a colonial master.

We remember how the Americans introduced education, established the local governance and bureaucracies in the archipelago, and civilized these various ethno-linguistic groups that resisted "civilization" and the promises of US benevolence.

What we have forgotten, however, is this: the Moro freedom fighters' resistance against colonialism as a tool for conquest and a system of domination against the US imperialist project that included creating a homogenous Filipino nation under the American rule and with its local complicit partners of nationalist comprador elites and landlords.

What we try to forget is that Bud Bagsak was a bloody pacification project to reject the Moro assertions or the compromise of their own narratives in the construction of a homogenous archipelagic nation. The right to self-determination is among its conditions.

What we should always remember is that Bud Bagsak is a narrative of resistance against all forms of colonial domination, including that of Filipinos.

To remember then is to betray the cause. To forget is an act of defiance against appropriation.

What we try to remember now is how to forget that Moros resisted foreign domination as far back as the American colonial occupation of the archipelago.

What Philippine history, this insidious grand narrative, will not tell us is that Moro rebellion in Mindanao, even up to this day, has a long history of struggle, and it has a narrative of its own apart from the dominant narratives woven at the center: the Filipino nationalist narrative of a homogenous nation.

What we also try to remember is how to forget that Bud Bagsak, a Moro’s narrative for resistance, is a historical text critical and ambivalent to be included in the narratives of the victors, as the Scouts, local soldiers of the Philippine infantry, Moro and Filipino leaders in Mindanao and Manila and their perfidious relationship with the colonial master were direct and complicit partners in the gruesome murder of Moro freedom fighters and their families in Bud Bagsak.

The act of remembrance, in a country that is still haunted by its colonial past, is to continuously build those narratives that favor the center and to appropriate the peripheries or to silence the counter-narratives that will derail the grand narrative to reach its completion.

In times like these, when a bill in Philippine Congress is being pushed so Moro history can now be integrated in the curriculum on Philippine history— the act of forgetting, as in the tradition of Bud Bagsak and the Moro freedom fighters and non-combatants who fell in the battle, is an act of a non-committal form of resistance against the domination of an exclusive nationalist remembrance.


Amir Mawallil, 27, is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the Philippines' biggest organization of Muslim professionals.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.