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Marawi a crucible of Filipino identity

The Philippines has had a rough year.

A war broke out between government troops and Muslim militants in the southern city of Marawi in May.

It raged on till late October. When it ended, half of Marawi, a jewel of the Islamic faith in the conflict-torn island of Mindanao, lay in ruins.

The government is now pouring billions to put the city back together again. That's the easy part. Homes, roads and bridges can be rebuilt.

The hard part is fixing the damage the war inflicted on the Filipino's sense of nationhood. The war rekindled long-simmering tensions between Muslim Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines, and even among Filipino Muslims.

There are at least 13 Muslim ethnic groups in Mindanao that, for centuries, have been jockeying for supremacy, including the Maranaos in Marawi and Lanao provinces, and the Tausugs from the Sulu archipelago. Some Maranaos see the Marawi clash as a plot by the Tausugs against them based on the fact that the radical Muslim fighters were mainly Tausug.

Setting aside the inter-tribal feuds, the Marawi conflict has reinforced stereotypes among the mostly Catholic segment of the population that Muslims are troublemakers and violent.

For Muslims, it dredged long-held grudges over how they have been reduced from being "masters" of Mindanao - their ancestral land - to a marginalised minority under the authority of a Christian government.


A Philippine flag seen among destroyed houses in Bangolo town in Marawi city last October. A war broke out between government troops and Muslim militants in Marawi in May, and raged on till late October. The conflict rekindled long-simmering tensions between Muslim Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines, and even among Filipino Muslims. PHOTO: REUTERS

'GREAT DIVIDE'

The militants who stormed Marawi on May 23 last year may have been inspired by the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But at the root of the conflict is still the quest by five million Filipino Muslims, who refer to themselves as "Moros", to regain an identity diluted by colonial subjugation, and a nation - the Bangsamoro - they believe they are entitled to.

"Many Moros today could not identify with the Filipino, thinking that they do not belong to this nation... They claim they had been a sovereign people before the colonial powers came, that they were unnecessarily integrated to a state about which they did not have any part in making," Dr Federico Magdalena, a faculty specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said in a paper he wrote for the Centre for Philippine Studies.

Marawi is a crucible, one that casts a dark light on the havoc that differences within a nation, if allowed to divide rather than enrich, can create. But it is not too late to head off an irreversible damage to the nation's collective soul. Marawi has to be framed as a national catastrophe, and rebuilding it a national effort. 

The war in Marawi again drew focus to that great divide.

However, it also presented an opportunity for Filipinos to dig deep and reflect on their collective soul, on the thread that binds them as a nation rather than as an archipelago of disparate ethnic, religious and cultural loyalties.

The Muslim-Christian gap is just one of many fault lines that can make one Filipino a stranger to another. There is geographic dissonance in this nation of over 7,000 islands, 110 indigenous communities, and more than 170 ethno-linguistic groups.

Filipinos living in the Ilocos region, in the northern part of the main island of Luzon, for instance, speak a different dialect and follow different norms, traditions and belief systems than those who grew up in metropolitan Manila or in central Philippines and farther south in Mindanao.

Ilocanos are known to be frugal, even tight-fisted. That stems from the fact that they live along a typhoon belt, where storms regularly decimate entire crops.

They are also known for their unwavering loyalty to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whom they still regard as "The Great Ilocano". Their propensity to vote as a bloc has underpinned the Marcos family's rise to political prominence.

Unlike Ilocanos, Filipinos living in the central region of the Philippines, known as Bisayas, are flamboyant, boisterous, gregarious and carefree. They would rather spend and live in the moment than stash their money beneath their beds. The nation's best singers are said to come from this part of the country.

That their traits are poles apart has often been a source of friction between Ilocanos and Bisayas.

Manilans, meanwhile, are a little bit of everything, a natural outcome considering Manila has seen a huge influx of rural migrants in past decades.

FILIPINO IDENTITY

But there is, in fact, a Filipino identity, no matter the religion, dialect, or religious and political leanings. It is that capacity among all Filipinos to weather adversities with nearly limitless patience and a baffling sense of humour.

Amid the war in Marawi, a deeply divisive anti-crime drive, and two year-end typhoons that claimed at least 200 lives, 96 per cent of Filipinos are still going into 2018 with much hope. A survey this month by Gallup International ranked the Philippines as the third-happiest nation in the world and the happiest in Asia, its "happiness score" climbing from +79 in the last survey to +84.

If life were a race, Filipinos can perhaps be likened to endurance runners rather than sprinters. They seem to have an unshakeable faith that they will, in time, reach the finish line. There's no need to hurry. How else can you explain tolerating a dictatorship for over 20 years, or enduring the onslaught of some 20 typhoons each year?

 

Much has also been said about the Filipino's propensity to cope with adversity by laughing it off, or singing it away. It is perhaps fitting that if there's one object that can represent the essence of a Filipino, it is the karaoke machine. It is as ubiquitous as the TV here, and it is at the centre of any gathering: a birthday, a family reunion, friends dropping in unannounced.

Filipinos love to sing. It doesn't matter if they can't carry a tune or mispronounce the lyrics. The point is to sing to forget, even for just a few hours, an unrequited love, a huge debt, a failing career, a death in the family, or the general madness that goes with the laughable antics of politicians and an economy that seems to favour only the very wealthy.

This is not to say Filipinos don't take life seriously. It's just that they know bad things happen. Why dwell on it?

This is the thread that binds all Filipinos, the trait that allows them to weather any storm, and compels them to entertain guests, even when there's nothing else to serve except a glass of water and some conversation. It is what makes them a nation.

Marawi is a crucible, one that casts a dark light on the havoc that differences within a nation, if allowed to divide rather than enrich, can create. But it is not too late to head off an irreversible damage to the nation's collective soul.

Marawi has to be framed as a national catastrophe, and rebuilding it a national effort. At the end of it all, Filipinos will cope, with a measure of optimism and gritty humour. That has always been their way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'Marawi a crucible of Filipino identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe