By Amina Rasul | BusinessWorld Online
Government Peace Panel Chair Miriam “Iye” Coronel-Ferrer and Undersecretary Jose Lorena (standing in for Peace Adviser Teresita “Ging” Quintos-Deles) represented the national government, while Commissioners Akmad Sakkam and Asani Tammang represented the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) together with Atty. Lanang Ali Jr and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) panel member Datu Antonio Kinok.
In attendance were Tawi-Tawi local government executives, religious leaders, and representatives of the business sector, academe, women and youth.
They were all welcomed by the young Governor Nurbert Sahali, his sister Congresswoman Ruby Sahali and their father, former Governor Sadikul Sahali.
Dick Sahali, a Tausug Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) warrior from Sulu and a lieutenant of MNLF Commander Gerry Matba, became a political power in Tawi-Tawi after then-President Ferdinand Marcos appointed the “Magic 8” as local government executives. The “Magic 8” were the late Gerry Matba of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu’s Habib Tupay Loong (now a congressman), Imam Maldisa Hji Abbas Estino, Hji Ahmad Omar, Hji Jairulla Abdurajak, Habib Bagis Hassan, and Alih Abubakar. These commanders were used by the Marcos administration to neutralize the MNLF rebels in the island provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.
Dick Sahali has since fathered a dynasty in Tawi-Tawi that has kept the peace and secured the province for business and investments.
Senator Marcos impressed the participants with his probity and depth, while the women noted his boyish good looks, wishing for the courage to have their photo taken with him.
Senator Marcos noted that, thus far, the Tawi-Tawi hearing venue was the most luxurious. It was held at the plush conference center of Sand Bar, one of the resorts that have opened in Tawi-Tawi over the last three years. The Sahalis served lobster, crabs, durian, mangosteen, and native cakes.
Clearly, Tawi-Tawi has moved farther than the other two island provinces (Sulu and Basilan) in developing its tourism potential. And yet no autonomous region governor boasts of being a native of Tawi-Tawi. Sulu has had two, Maguindanao two, Lanao one, and Basilan one. Sadly, Tawi-Tawi has left my home province, Sulu, eating its dust. Or in this case, getting drenched in its wake. While Sulu earned P250 million in terrorism (ransom of the two German hostages), Tawi-Tawi is gearing up to earn its millions sustainably, through tourism.
The most peaceful among the Bangsamoro tribes, the amiability of the Sama ensured that the discussions of the contentious issues were cordial and respectful. (I understand that Secretary Ging, in one forum in Sulu, had to ask a participant who was frothing at the mouth: “Why are you angry with me?”) Half of my family is Sama from Tawi-Tawi while the other half is Tausug from Sulu. My Sama relatives often kid me that violence was brought to Tawi-Tawi by my Tausug side.
Apart from the common concerns raised in other hearings, three issues were raised that were close to the hearts of the Tawi-Tawi natives: the creation of districts for the parliamentary seats, the welfare and rights of the Badjao or Sama Dilaut, and Sabah.
On redistricting, several of the Sama leaders talked to me of their fears that redistricting might ensure that elections for parliament members would permanently be the domain of the Tausug if Sama-dominated municipalities were divided and included in the districts of the Tausug-dominated municipalities. To ensure equitable representation, some suggested to me that Tausug-dominated Languyan and Panglima Sugala should belong to one district while the smaller Sama-dominated municipalities (Tandubas, South Ubian, Sapa-Sapa) could join with Simunul.
Sama Dilaut champion Mucha Shim Quiling Arquiza spoke eloquently about the rights of the Badjao. While they have been classified as Bangsamoro, their traditions and societal rules do not conform to the norms of the Tausug and the Sama. For one, they are sea-based and nomadic. Since their domain is the sea, how will their rights over the Bangsamoro waters be protected?
With regard to the Sabah claim, several spoke to me about their fears that the absence of any reference to our historical possession of North Borneo would jeopardize the Sulu Sultanate’s claim. Tawi-Tawi is part of the Sulu Sultanate. Later that evening, the widow of the late Sulu Sultan Mahakuttah Kiram (the last Sulu Sultan officially recognized by the Philippine government) spoke to me of her worries about the Basic Law. With no mention of our historical claim, does this mean that it has been dropped?
The Catholic community of Tawi-Tawi voiced out their reservations, common to all Christian communities in the region. Does the term Bangsamoro refer only to Muslims? How will the Basic Law treat the non-Bangsamoro living within the Bangsamoro area? Will the Bangsamoro educational framework require non-Muslim students to attend Islamic classes? What will happen to freedom of religion? Will Christian students be required to participate in Islamic practices?
While Government Panel Chair Iye Coronel-Ferrer and the BTC Commissioners took great pains to say that the rights of all stakeholders will be protected, I could see that many were still apprehensive Commissioners Sakkam and Tammang, Atty. Ali and Datu Kinok stressed that the rights of all are guaranteed under the Basic Law. Senator Marcos, meanwhile, assured all that their positions will be given due consideration by the Senate.
It seems the communication strategy of both the government and the MILF has not been effective. It is clear to me that they have much to do, in the short time that we have, to reach out to the islanders and non-Muslim communities and explain the benefits of the Basic Law. It would seem that the concept of the Bangsamoro and the Basic Law is still suspect to many, as the participants of the hearing spoke of Bangsa Sama. As Atty. Lorenzo Reyes, chancellor of the Mindanao State University of Tawi-Tawi, noted: How about Bangsa Mindanao?
If the islander constituents of the future Bangsamoro political entity are suspicious of the Basic Law and the intention of the MILF, will the hand of the MNLF be strengthened? After all, as Dick Sahali pointed out, they had no MILF in Tawi-Tawi, until the Government-MILF agreements were signed.