'The absence of the historian in the world of punditry and policy has fostered a series of ill-conceived notions about Muslim Mindanao, the most serious of which being the Moro armed struggle and the causes behind it'
(This argument has already been made academically. The essay is attempt to broaden its audience and, hopefully, generate some debate.)
Pundits, public intellectuals, and policy wonks share two common and often irritable habits: the tendency to sermon and the penchant to predict.
The attitude behind these two usances is strictly positivistic. What is now is important, and what is now determines what the future will look like…but if, and only if, certain current variables and formulas are adhered to.
Predictability is thus dependent mainly on the data at hand. Where history may figure in, its role is to simply “introduce” the contemporary scene. It is an appetizer to the main course, and sometimes it is not even adequate.
Consider, for example, how policy wonks and pundits approach the issue of separatism in Moro Mindanao. These bright minds may sometimes differ ideologically, but they almost always share a common view of the historical origins of Moro separatism.
Here, for example, is what the World Bank wrote in 2005:
“Spain subdued the northern island of Luzon…and…the Americans…brought [Mindanao] under central control, although hostility and conflict remained endemic.... Thus, persisting for some five centuries, the Mindanao conflict is the second-oldest on earth, after the conflict between North and South Sudan….
“The Philippines was comparatively calm for a period after independence in 1946, but conflict flared up again in the late 1960s as growing numbers of Christian settled in Mindanao. Settlers arrived particularly from Central Luzon and Panay Island in the Visayas.
“The resettlement was fostered by deliberate policy of the central government in Manila, and eventually resulted in Mindanao having a Christian majority overall, with Muslim-majority areas concentrated in the central and southwestern regions.”
And here is what an institutional critic of the World Bank penned in 2008:
“There is consensus among analysts, policy makers and rebel leaders that the root cause of the conflict stems from (a) the marginalization of the Moro inhabitants from the mainstream Philippine society as a result of the latter’s conversion to Christianity, and (b) the influx of Christian settlers to Mindanao as combined results of population pressure in the northern islands of Luzon and Visayas, and the government’s policy of encouraging Christian settlers to develop Mindanao’s land resources.
“These factors led to (a) the alienation of the Moros and the IPs [indigenous people] from the central government located in Manila as they were treated in the fringe or outside the Christian-dominated society, (b) increasing impoverishment of Moro and IP communities as they were not provided adequate development assistance, (c) strained relationship between Moro and IP communities, and Christian communities within Mindanao due to religious and cultural differences, and (d) persistent indifference among national government agencies on the plight of the Moros and IPs as they are different from the rest of Philippine society.”
The common view of Moro history by these two ideological rivals is uncanny. It is as if both knew how to end each other’s sentences. But only when it comes to history. When it comes to engaging the present and forecasting the future, the two would passionately disagree:
- more markets, more infrastructure, more outside money for the World Bank (ie, spread capitalism into the war zones)
- more community involvement, inward-looking food-centered development, more education and welfare on the part of the Philippine Development Forum (ie, preserve communalism and limiting the spread of the market)
The first has to do with intellectual conceit. They think history has no value in such writings because it is, well, history. It is the past; it is old and, even if we read an occasional citation of what Rizal said about learning from our past, this is just being deferential.
Hence, the curt historical overviews of the above documents. One gets the sense that the authors of these texts see looking back as something that needs to be immediately dispensed with so that we can all go to the meat of the discussion: the present.
The second reason is professional turf. The image of the historian is that fellow who works in the ivory tower and prefers to live her life inside mephitic archives. As he is concerned mainly with the dead and their stories, he rarely ventures a comment or two on the contemporary world.
In the world of punditry and policy, this character is an oddball, of little if no value in the evaluation and resolution of the problems of the day. So why accord the historian a place at the table with pundits and wonks?
Unfortunately, it is the absence of the historian at that table that has fostered a series of ill-conceived notions about Muslim Mindanao. The most serious among these, because it is also the most resilient, is the argument of a thousand-year Moro armed struggle and the causes behind it.
[Patricio N. Abinales is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He hails from Mindanao.]