Several years ago, I sat beside a girl about my age in a national conference held in Zamboanga City. She was a History major from one of Manila's finest universities and it was her first time to be in Mindanao. As usual, as a Tausug native from the city, I welcomed her and asked if she had already visited some of the historical places in Zamboanga City.
She said she already went to Fort Pilar and several historical landmarks in Zamboanga. I asked her if she was interested to visit Jolo in Sulu or Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. She said Zamboanga was okay and there’s no need for her to visit the other islands in the Sulu archipelago.
I sensed fear from her answer. It was not too difficult to understand knowing how the mainstream media portrayed the province of Sulu as a war-torn area where rebels and soldiers were in constant battle.
As a quaint reply to my question she made a follow-up, which surprised me: “Why are Muslims rebelling against the government if you all have these in Zamboanga?”
She was talking perhaps about the buildings, the "normal" lives of the people on the streets in front of the conference venue, the beautiful parks. She could be talking about the vintas, the colorful and beautiful vintas that had been used to symbolize Mindanao and Zamboanga.
As a Moro, I was obliged to reply in a manner that might satisfy her curiosity, a visitor from the capital whose understanding of Mindanao and its problems was shaped by state apparatuses such as the media and the Philippine education system.
"First, they are not rebels," I told her. "Where I come from, they are our freedom fighters."
She was silent for a time until she had the chance to regain her composure, asking several questions related to Moro history and the struggle of the Bangsamoro people. That’s how we started our conversation on Mindanao, on the Philippines, our identities and our histories: to agree first on what lens to use and whose narrative we are going to retrace the historicity of the Moro-Filipino relations. That there was always wisdom to begin a conversation in this much-contested dichotomy: that there is Filipino and on the other side, the Moro.
If they were "rebels" or "freedom fighters" was a question already beyond historical facts and figures. Facts and figures as texts in history were usually subjected to investigation only for validation.
However, when facts and figures were told in a narrative, in a form of a story-telling, employing voice, perspectives, points-of-view, then it could be subjected to interrogation. Narratives, unlike historical documentation, were not devoid of values, agenda-setting, and yes, politics. Narratives, like history and the conscious act of its construction, was also a discourse on power in the domain of power structures.
The question of whether a Moro fighting a government is a rebel or a freedom fighter was a discourse on narratives. From whose point-of-view was the rebellion or resistance being told? Who was the intended audience? How was the construction of the context of the rebellion embellished to drive a point? Why there was a need for the story of the Moro rebellion and resistance to be told and retold?
In the high school and elementary years of my education, whenever Philippine history was being discussed inside the classroom, these questions were not being asked as if the necessity of historical construction has reached its ending, its completion: the homogenous Filipino nation has arrived and you have to accept in passive compulsion.
What usually happens in schools, in media, in arts and cultural productions and in other institutions of this country whenever Philippine history and this national consciousness were being constructed, the conscious but contentious silencing of our narrative as Moros was already present as if to complete a task of constructing an official history.
Then the stories of my ancestors, the voice of my people that imagines and re-imagines our histories were exiled to the periphery. Philippine history silenced Moro narratives and sent our stories to the peripheries in the construction of a national consciousness. We, as Moros on the other hand, was made to accept this or face the consequences of resistance to this cultural, historical, and narrative imposition.
What legitimized a Moro narrative was this element of centuries-old struggle of the Bangsamoro people for their right to self-determination against invaders and colonial masters and the freedom of the Bangsamoro land.
What then invalidated a Moro narrative if it was being appropriated to serve the interests of the dominant narrative of the center: the Filipino narrative of the nation as the official history in the construction of this archipelago as a homogenous nation-state. Thus, a "rebel Moro" was already an appropriated narrative and the "freedom fighter" was a narrative still struggling to be whole, complete, and to come into full being.
It was an age-old adage that victors get to write history. For centuries, it was the invaders who wrote the histories and told the narratives of the Bangsamoro people. The invaders were the official chroniclers of my nation's past. From the Spaniards to the Americans and then to Filipinos, the official story-tellers of my people were those who served the interests of the dominant narrative in the center.
The vinta, singkil, torogan, the epic Darangen were only useful if they were Filipinos—but these cultural texts for example, together with the history of Kudarat and his exploits, the resistance of Datu Utto, were in the periphery to almost being silenced unless, again, they will serve the interests of the grand narrative in the construction of a homogenous Filipino nation.
These historical texts of resistance were either forgotten, omitted, or appropriated in annals of the history of this archipelago. What the Moro narratives position be like was that of its freedom fighters: to resist all forms for domination and silencing of our voices that will encumber our imagination of a free Moro nation.
Why was there a need to tell and retell the stories of my people, the Moro narrative, from our points-of-view if there was already the convenient option of participating in the construction of a Filipino grand narrative?
The answer maybe as simple as yes to the convenient co-optation or no for the continuous struggle as the position of resistance. However, co-optation or the integration in the language of benevolent domination, and this resistance to struggle were as complicated as the Moro-Filipino relations for the last five decades -- relations that were marred by wars, series of deadlocks, and these never-ending negotiations that always end up from where it started.
Whenever I begin a conversation regarding my people’s past and struggles, especially conversations among those who were from outside of my Moro nation’s consciousness, I have to first agree on what lens was to be used. It was going to be an easy conversation then, because Moro narratives, as lens, was the legitimized framework from where our history, the histories of my ancestors, and of us as a Bangsamoro nation could be both examined and portrayed against or within the grand Filipino narratives of a nation.
The struggle is still being fought, and conversations, like a bridging of narratives, must continue for our national survival. As I have said before, let me say it again -- the struggle is real.
Amir Mawallil, 27, is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the Philippines' biggest organization of Muslim professionals.
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