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Oftentimes called the Land of Promise, Mindanao is a vast land with rich natural resources. It is the land of colorful and proud indigenous peoples. Mindanao is also the land of dynamic settlers and migrants from Luzon and the Visayas.

The ethnic culture of the colorful indigenous people of Mindanao has long been a showcase of the country’s southern border. The enterprising and dependable migrants from Luzon and the Visayas have made Mindanao the food basket of the entire country. Thanks to the favorable climate and wide natural potentials. Together, the indigenous and the migrants have made Mindanao what can be described as the country’s melting pot.

Yet the image of Mindanao does not ring a positive note to the rest of the country, and to the world at large. What has gone wrong with the once “promised land”?

At this juncture, let us examine three important issues, which I believe require a necessary shift in our country’s policy towards Mindanao. First, is the issue of governance.

Over the years, Mindanao has gone thru systems of governance: from the Moro Province to the Department of Mindanao and Sulu during the American Regime, and a centralized system to a local government code and the autonomy in Muslim Mindanao.

Regrettably, however, conflicts and unrest still prevail in most of Mindanao. The Bangsa Moro people vie for self-determination, giving rise to armed struggle. The greater part of Mindanao population clamor for more devolution of local governance, and equitable sharing of the nation’s resources. The most popular clamor of governance, nowadays, is the clamor for federalism.

Many have called federalism as an “idea whose time has come”. The main argument for federalism is the system’s character of empowering people and devolving power and authority. Proponents of federalism have cited Mindanao’s cultural diversity as its own logic, further solving the age-old Mindanao problem. Main advocates of federalism include Senator Nene Pimentel, House Representative Tony Floirendo of Davao del Norte, Rey Magno Teves of Kusog Mindanao and Prof. Rudy Rodil of MSU-IIT, among the many proponents of the system. The move to go federal is now a widely accepted alternative governance, at least among the people of Mindanao.

Be that as it may, governance in Mindanao, to be effective, should be dedicated to the goal of accommodation and decentralization. If we are to exist as one nation, we should start to accommodate one another, recognize and appreciate our diversity, and build on positive values that are common to all. Accommodation means allowing others to fully develop their actual and innate potentials, while interacting with the rest of the society.

The most viable alternative governance in Mindanao, to my mind, would need some form of full decentralization – call it autonomy, federal or statehood – where power and authority are devolved into smaller self-governing units or jurisdictions, each given a wide degree of freedom and discretion to chart its own social, political, economic and judicial institutions that will promote human dignity and cultural pluralism.

Second, is the issue of peace. The country has learned its lessons from an “all-out-war” policy in the past, including a decade of martial law. This policy has only wrecked havoc in Mindanao and the rest of the country.

It is now time to stress peace as a national policy, and denounce war as a means of quelling rebellion. We need to promote the culture of peace, tolerance and understanding. Having said that, the policy of peace should be coupled with a policy of justice and dignity for all. Peace, justice and dignity are necessary foundations of a democratic society.

It is heartwarming to note that the present administration is pursuing the peace process with all the rebel groups. There is, however, a need to pursue this policy more vigorously by fast tracking the process and focusing on the doables. The peace process should be anchored on the long-term vision for Mindanao, while laying the grounds for implementing the short-term. A more comprehensive and consultative dialogue among the different sectors in Mindanao should be conducted in a free and democratic process, encouraging fresh ideas and approaches in dealing with Mindanao issues.

Third is the issue of identity. We have been fed, for a couple of decades or so, with the perception that Mindanao is a land of tri-people: the Christian, the Muslim and the Lumad. True, there exists in Mindanao a rainbow of different tribes and people of two great religions, Islam and Christianity. But I can see some problem in using the term “tri-people”. Using such a term precludes that the lumad is nether a Muslim nor a Christian. We know, however, that it is not the case. Some Lumads are Christians and some are Muslims. Similarly, the impression is that Muslims and Christians are not lumads or indigenous to Mindanao. Again, we know that it is not the case. The Maranaos, the Maguindanaons and the Tausogs, all predominant Muslims, are indigenous to Mindanao, and are therefore Lumad. Many Christians who have lived in Mindanao for generations have acquired some distinct and special characteristics, which distinguish them from their original province mates in Luzon and the Visayas. They have acquired, through the years, a certain degree of Mindanao identity, and are identified more as “Mindanaoans”.

To describe, therefore, Mindanao as a land of tri-people is not only erroneous and misleading. It is, in fact, divisive and hardly promotes unity among the different people, tribes and faithfuls of Mindanao. Identifying them in terms of their faiths and distinguishing them as indigenous and migrants, would only cause friction and animosity, which to a great degree caused the present conflict.

Perhaps the term “Mindanaoan”, now widely used by some sectors, is a more politically correct term to describe the people of Mindanao. And this is not without some trace of historical origin.

The foreign powers of the past centuries came to the Philippines by way of Mindanao. The Chinese, the Japanese, the British, the Portuguese, and even the Americans first came to the shores of Mindanao before even reaching Manila. or any part of the north. The two established sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao have had trade and diplomatic relations, and signed treaties with some of these foreign governments.

Mindanao predates the term “Philippines”. The Chinese annals, as early as the 14th century, have made several references to Mindanao, sometimes known to them as Bindanao or Min tu lang. In fact, the name Mindanao predates the coming of Christianity and perhaps even that of Islam into our shores.

Hence, the term “Mindanao” impresses us as unbiased, unprejudiced term, anchored on geographical rather than tribal or religious consideration. In lieu of a tri-people concept, a shift to a one-people concept, that of the Mindanaoan concept, is a more viable and realistic alternative to the divisive tri-people concept. Indeed, it is by rallying to one common identity, acceptable to all, can the people of Mindanao achieve a sense of unity and belongingness to one common heritage and one common future.

Source: Prof. Moner Bajunaid