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Special Features | National

BEST HOPE OR WORST GAMBLE? | Lumad weigh their future under Bangsamoro

Teduray children look out of their home in a tribal community in Datu Odin Sinsuat town, Maguindanao. (photo by Nonoy Espina,
The online news portal of TV5

When the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is signed on March 27, it will doubtless be hailed as a historic moment, when both parties grabbed what had been called the “last chance for peace” in the country’s troubled south.

For the Teduray, Lambiangan, Dulangan Manobo and other lumad or indigenous people in the prospective territory to be called Bangsamoro, it too is a “last chance” -- that this time they no longer will, as they were in a peace pact two decades ago, be left out in the cold.

Timuay Labi Sannie Bello is a slight, softspoken man whose title means he is the “supreme chieftain” of the Timuay Justice and Governance, responsible for the more than 100,000-strong Teduray Lambangian who, with the Dulangan Manobo, lay claim to an ancestral domain that spans 300,000 hectares of land and coastal waters within 12 municipalities of Maguindanao and parts of neighboring Sultan Kudarat province.

Map showing the Teduray Lambangian ancestral domain in Maguindanao

The crux of their plight, says Bello, is the failure -- by both the government and the rebels -- to recognize and, more important, respect their distinct identity and territory.

Their “mapait na kasaysayan” (bitter history), Bello said, spurred the formation of the Timuay Justice and Governance in 1995, a year before the government sealed a peace agreement with the MNLF.

Timuay Labi Sannie Bello

Bello’s predecessor as Timuay Labi, Timuay Alim Bandara said they had hoped the peace agreement with the MNLF and the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao would pave the way for their recognition. As it turned out, they were practically left out of both.

Timuay Alim Bandara

The IPs say this lack of recognition -- that and their being inherently generous and peaceloving people -- has led to the encroachment on their ancestral lands by interests seeking to exploit the rich resources. This was true even before the secessionist struggle of the MNLF, it remains true even as that of the MILF is ending.

Florentino Pantingan, a retired master sergeant in the Philippine Constabulary, presents a folksy, if rather irreverent, analogy of the generosity of the Teduray.

Retired master sergeant Florentino Pantingan

But generosity does have its limits.

The Teduray of Firis have long tolerated strangers in their midst, even if this has meant, as they have time and again, having to flee the fighting among these outsiders, from the MNLF, to the MILF and, lately, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement. Not to mention seeing their warriors, valued for their mastery of terrain, recruited by all sides in the series of conflicts.

Within the Mt. Firis Complex, sacred ground to the tribes, the MILF has established two camps -- Omar and Badre -- which the government has recognized as among six safe havens for combatants after the signing of the peace agreement. The IPs have formally asked that these camps be stricken off the list of safe havens so they can have their sacred grounds back.

But the camps aside, they have been also been faced with a more insidious threat, one they fear they may not be able to survive -- the entry into their land of plantations, particularly oil palms.

This is why the Teduray Lambangian are concerned with whether their interests will be included in the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which a transition commission is currently drafting and which which will need to be enacted and then ratified through a plebiscite.

Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman for political affairs, says the rights of everyone, including the “non-Islamized Bangsamoro,” will be respected under the new Bangsamoro entity, stressing that there will be no distinction between Muslim and non-Islamized Bangsamoro in this regard.

Ghadzali Jaafar IP concern

But this is exactly what the lumad worry about. They maintain that the only thing that will ensure their identity and territory are respected are clear provisions in the Bangsamoro Basic Law that guarantee these.

Not that they do not recognize the Bangsamoro or the long struggle to establish it.

It is that they, too, wish for themselves similar recognition of identity and territory.

In fact, the IPs of Maguindanao acknowledge a common origin with the Bangsamoro.

All accounts tell of the brothers, Mamalu and Tabunaway, chieftains of the tribes in what is now known as Maguindanao, overseeing from Mount Tawan-tawan -- now called PC Hill in Cotabato City -- a vast network of self-governing tribal groups encompassing the territory of the Pulangi River delta and the surrounding mountains.

When Sharif Mohammad Kabungsuan introduced Islam to Mindanao in the early 16th century, he invited the brothers to embrace the new religion. Tabunaway accepted the invitation but Mamalu chose to remain true to the age-old culture and traditions.

Before they parted ways, the brothers forged a treaty that Mamalu and his people would retain control of the hill country, Tabunaway of the delta. They also pledged to continue considering each other as brethren, recognizing and respecting each other’s territory, livelihood, system of governance and religion, and uniting against common enemies.

It is within these terms -- or as close to these as possible -- that the Teduray wish to exist within the Bangsamoro.

Timuay Alim Bandara

Yet, even as they hope, they also say there is little reason to be optimistic that the peace agreement or the Bangsamoro Basic Law will substantially address their concerns. Especially since, while they do have representation in the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, two out of 15 members can hardly be called good odds for the proposed provisions the IPs have submitted for inclusion in the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Or, as Fintailan (traditional woman leader) Nena Ramos put it, “Malabo (It’s unclear).”

Fintailan Nena Ramos

Pantingan, the retired soldier, is more emphatic, saying any agreement that ignores the IPs will be the death of them all.

Retired master sergeant Florentino Pantingan

In fact, at a meeting in early February with Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the government’s chief negotiator with the MILF, the IPs made their sentiments clear in a document, expressing their “dismay” that the government had basically ignored the issue of their “distinct identity” as well as the position papers they had been submitting since 2005 when it signed the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro and its annexes, the precursor to the comprehensive pact to be inked on the 27th.

So deep was the dismay that they asked: “Ano ang plano ng inyong pamahalaan sa mga Katutubo ng Bangsamoro? Kasabwat ba kayo sa genocide na mangyayari sa Katutubo ng Bangsamoro (What are the administration’s plans for the Indigenous People of the Bangsamoro? Will you be complicit in their genocide)?”

Click to enlarge and read the document

Despite this, the Teduray Lambangian and the other IPs within the prospective Bangsamoro are still willing to give it a go, all the way to Congress should the transition commission prove a disappointment.

Timuay Labi Sannie Bello

For their persistence in insisting that their rights be enshrined in the law that will create the Bangsamoro, Bello and Bandara say they have often heard the Teduray Lambangian referred to as “spoilers of the peace process,” the same derisive term used to describe the BIFM and its armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

But the two Timuay say it is an epithet they will gladly suffer so long as their people get the recognition withheld from them for so long because there simply are no good alternatives.