OPINION: What makes a hero?

Amir Mawallil

Posted at Aug 29 2016 07:13 PM

Recognizing a hero requires a collective memory which remembers significant events, virtues, and deeds that are necessary in nation-building, done by individuals who dared dream of and fight for a free nation.

However, hero worship and collective recognition in the country is not without its challenges.

Any discussion about heroes and their heroism always leads me back to the memories of my younger years. Like most Filipinos who went to school, I was taught that Rizal was a hero; that he was the template of "a good Filipino citizen." Other heroes were also introduced to me in school up until college as part of the state’s role in conditioning and molding of the minds of its young citizens when it came to national ideals. In this way, heroes were viable state instruments.

However, as a young Tausug, I also learned of other heroes and the stories of their lives that were written outside the school textbooks; heroes that were alive in small talks in kaddayan (coffee shop), names that were mentioned brimming with pride and nostalgia before and after the Friday communal prayer.

But one name will always stand out when old folks start to remember the Moro resistance before the Marcos regime: Hadji Kamlon.

Kamlon, for Tausugs, has always been synonymous to the word “hero”, and the stories revolving around the man and his name alone spells curiosities and compelling dramas that will get most listeners instantly hooked on the narratives of his exploits. He is a hero to the masses and the oppressed; he is a bandit, a father, a loving and loyal husband (he married only once), and is one of the fiercest warriors of the Sulu archipelago.

But Kamlon, the man and the image, is an invitation for discussion, even debate, on what makes a hero, who is worthy of hero worship, and how relevant is this recognition in the community. His name was never mentioned in any textbooks, there is no popular and mainstream cultural texts except for a 1981 Jose Yandoc film that starred Anthony Alonzo as Kamlon. Stories about Kamlon’s bravery have always been passed only from person to another, from generation to generation of Moros through the orality of our culture and expressions in the Sulu archipelago.

Kamlon’s story started during World War II as a war veteran. He joined the forces against the Japanese soldiers occupying Sulu. In stories told over and over between cups of coffee among my old bapahs and babus and their friends, he was known for killing several Japanese soldiers during the war. However, like several Hukbalahap guerrillas in Luzon who refused to surrender their arms after the war and then later banded together as an armed leftist organization, Kamlon led his own comrades as they raided the Sulu seas and coastal areas in Mindanao up to Palawan.

From 1948 to 1955, Kamlon led a rebellion against the government, an early organized resistance of Moros against the government that preceded the more expansive Moro armed conflict in the 60’s and 70’s.

Kamlon’s story is a story of a people – a community asserting its spaces and a movement that was slowly acquiring a tenable grounding for their voices to be heard, and of the legitimacy of their existence as a nation. Kamlon was a formidable folk hero and his image reflected what the people yearned as subdued voices in the country. His was a narrative that will later pave the way for a more complex, coherent, and massive resistance movement that will challenge the atrocities of the Marcos regime.

Whenever I asked elders about Kamlon, the answers always resembled a story following epic oral traditions. Scenes and names were mentioned without a coherent narrative, but I can remember how compelling the storytelling and the stories of his exploits were. In learning about Kamlon, I had to piece together the anecdotes, personal encounters that nobody can verify, and gossip passed on from one person to another.

He was known to be a pirate, a bandit who took away all valuables and merchandise as he terrorized merchant and commercial ships that passed through the Sulu Sea which, for centuries, was an international gateway for trade and travel in Southeast Asia. Kamlon was a folk hero among the masses, a ‘Robin Hood’ who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. When the seat of government in Manila tried to stop his operations and bring him to prison with the military’s help, the common folks protected Kamlon.

It was former president Ramon Magsaysay, then the National Defense chief, who maneuvered the surrender of Kamlon. The fanfare and elaborate surrender was even covered by Time Magazine in 1952. Kamlon surrendered and became friends with Magsaysay after the ceremonial surrender. He was jailed for a time and then released, only to return to his old business of piracy afterwards.

Throughout four years of extensive government campaigns to quell Kamlon’s rebellion, 5,000 ground troops were deployed and over 185 million pesos was spent, and yet government authorities never captured him. At the end of his long narrative of brazenness, bravery, and heroic acts despite of government’s all-out operations to capture him, Kamlon decided to surrender to authorities because of his advancing age.

Heroes are intangible monuments people place on a pedestal to help them remember a feat, a struggle, or an event that binds the community together. Whenever I ask about Kamlon’s rebellion and his reason for creating a movement, I sometimes get vague answers or irrelevant jibes as a response. But for those who have always seriously considered Kamlon’s story, it was the poverty and marginalization of Moros in their own communities, and the destitution of Kamlon’s own people that has kept the movement alive to this day.

Kamlon will remain a hero even without a state-sanctioned burial in supposedly hallowed ground, much like what some shamelessly claim for their undeserving kin. Kamlon need not beg, for he will always be an inspiration to Moros old and young, his monument standing tall in the sacred corners of a still struggling nation.

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