When Magsaysay died

I could not put down this riveting book, Resettling the Huks in the Land of Promise, by Dr. Faina Abaya Ulindang, retired professor of the History Department of the Mindanao State University in Marawi. Last Tuesday, I wrote about it in connection with a painting entitled “Santiago Matamalayu” an indigenized “Santiago Matamoros” which is part of the HOCUS exhibit at the National Museum of Fine Arts. Dr. Ulindang enlightens us about the roots of our troubles in Mindanao.

President Ramon Magsaysay who set up EDCOR (Economic Development Corporation) settlements in Mindanao, as a counter-insurgency pacification program for Huk surrenderers, consulted Muslim leaders about it, according to Dr. Ulindang. He formed the Committee on Moro Affairs composed of Congressman Domocao Alonto as head with two prominent leaders, Luminog Mangelen of Cotabato and Ombra Amilbangsa of Sulu, as members. They conducted fact-finding missions quite thoroughly after which they presented their recommendations: Muslims should be appointed as governors of Moro provinces; Moro schools should be built for Moro communities; like EDCOR settlements, Moro communities should also be provided with artesian wells, agricultural facilities, roads, markets and infrastructure; land conflicts with non-Christians should be addressed immediately; review the case of Kamlon; withdraw the Philippine Army from Sulu and replace it with a contingent of the Philippine Constabulary.

Dr. Ulindang said that the Moro Affairs committee felt that peace and order in Mindanao could not be achieved “under the lamentable conditions in which the Moros now found themselves…” She added that Sulu Governor Gulama Rasul (a former congressman) stressed the urgency of a survey of Moro lands and the rapid issuance of land titles. Based on studies of Jaime Dumarpa and Melvin Mednick, Dr. Ulindang explained that for the Filipino Muslims in general and the Maranaos in particular, ownership of land is communal, that is, ancestral. “Territorial boundaries were determined by topographical features such as mountains and rivers, or by vegetation like bamboo trees. In other words, it was the agama council, comprising of clan elders that decided on the disposition of lands…. Thus, ownership of land is established by the agama not by the Torrens title. Hence, the Torrens title system would not work for the traditional Maranao who considers it “just a piece of paper.” In a related report, then Congressman Michael Mastura showed how difficult it is (for Moros) to secure titles and other proofs of their rights to the land they occupy.

As long as President Ramon Magsaysay was at the helm of rebel rehabilitation through resettlement in Mindanao, EDCOR received unflagging government support. Now we know that the CIA was its virtual architect and that it was designed to save Asia from the communist peril with the Philippines as template and the Philippine Army as executing agency. Be that as it may, I believe that President Magsaysay was sincere in his desire to help his countrymen and that the “Land for the landless” slogan and “Man of the masses” image were not just political gimmicks. He closely monitored EDCOR, visited the sites, made sure that the promised food subsidies, loans, agricultural equipment, and farm animals were easily available and delivered on time. He encouraged the Army to attend to the clearing of town sites, construction of homes as well as assuring peace and order. Eventually, the homestead areas in Cotabato and Lanao became known as rice and corn baskets with surplus products exported to the Visayas and Luzon.

Lamentably, when President Magsaysay died in that mysterious plane crash, so did EDCOR. It was already attracting all kinds of unsavory elements like illegal loggers, land grabbers, ten-percenters, so when it was turned over to the Land Authority, the homesteaders knew things would never be the same again.