The Change-makers

THEY BELONG to some of the most prominent political clans in central Mindanao, yet they are carving a path far removed from the mold of the traditional roles of their royal families.

Take Mussolini Lidasan, for instance. Much unlike his infamous namesake, Lidasan is a peace advocate, a writer, a community development specialist, and president of Aksyon Mindanaw, a political movement fighting for the rights of Christians, Muslims, and indigenous peoples. Lidasan is also executive director of the Al Qalam Institute, the research arm of the Ateneo de Davao University.

If that were not enough to append to one’s name, Lidasan is also a member of the Iranun royalty. His father is Tahir Lidasan, a direct descendant of the Iranun Bugasan Sultanate, while his mother is a Sinsuat, granddaughter of Datu Sinsuat Balabaran, former Senator of the Republic. When the Maguindanao Massacre occurred in 2009, Lidasan was distraught; he had relatives with both the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clans.

Lidasan represents a new generation of young Moros, those born with so-called royal blood who are not afraid to appear as if they are working against the interest of their own class. These young Moros break the image of the spoiled young royal born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a chip on the shoulder.

Lidasan himself is critical of the role that the clans continue to play in Maguindanao society, although it is a criticism that he carefully puts into the context of the region’s rich history and heritage.

“The clan mindset will eventually become obsolete, whether we like it or not,” he says. “People tend to move to find a better leader, a better framework, and a better future that will factor in the effects of climate change, disasters, etcetera.”

The same attitude may be said of Zainuddin Malang and Naguib Sinarimbo, of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center or MinHRac, one of the official observers in the peace talks between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). MinHRac is always one of the first organizations to investigate reports of ceasefire violations by either side, and assists as well in relief efforts in the endless stream of refugees that typically follows an armed encounter.

Malang, the executive director of MinHRac, is related to the Sinsuat clan; his mother is a Balabaran, the mother clan of the Sinsuats. In turn, Sinarimbo, a human-rights lawyer and a former executive secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is married to a member of the Alonto clan.

Malang says part of the job of civil society organizations is to disabuse Maguindanaoans of the idea that they have no power or voice in the way the clans govern their communities. This, Malang says, is the biggest challenge for CSOs today, especially since many Maguindanaoans have become so jaded that they have little expectations from their leaders.

“We have to raise the consciousness of the public to the fact that they can hold their leaders accountable,” he says. “For 30 years, they were given the impression that they had no right to demand from their leaders.”

Sinarimbo meanwhile observes that it was only recently that CSOs became active in Maguindanao. Before that, idealistic clan members had nowhere the channel their energies to.

“The rise of the CSOs in Maguindanao is a new phenomenon,” says Sinarimbo.” Only now, very recently are they rising, and it goes both ways. The CSOs are learning, and the government is learning how to accommodate the CSOs.”

Such changes are seeing the participation of the young members of clans in many parts of Maguindanao. While their forefathers may have built some of their fiefdoms with ruthlessness and cunning, the new generation is now better schooled and trained. Some studied in exclusive schools, and some have even been sent abroad for education and training by parents who may have not even finished primary school. It is part of the inevitable evolution of the clans that elders would want to create more opportunities for their children. The result is a new generation that is, at least potentially, more exposed to new ideas and concepts, and possibly more willing to challenge the old ways that their elders have always held dear.

According to Bobby Taguntong, Maguindanao coordinator for CCARE, the Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms, this is a far cry from the turn of the century Maguindanao, when many clan elders resisted the idea of sending their children to Western schools. When the Americans tried to introduce a new educational system, Taguntong says, many clan elders viewed the move with suspicion, an attempt to “capture” the minds of the clans.

“Many of the Moros sent their children fleeing into the fields when the Americans set up an educational system,” he says. “This is because of the thinking that if the children are educated by them, then the children will be theirs.”

These days, there have been significant changes. Says Sinarimbo, “There is more exposure now, both for those who have studied elsewhere, and for those who were shaped by local politics here. There is an evolution. But it is still in the early stages in the formation of this new mindset. How far this can go, I think, will really depend on the resolve of the new Maguindanaoan leaders.”

Taguntong says it is time that Maguindanaoans learn from their past, not just ancient history, but contemporary history as well. The lessons are slowly seeping in, as history and tradition are difficult competitors. The Ampatuan case, he says, is one such lesson that needs to be studied.

“We have to learn from the past, to what happened with the Ampatuans,” he notes.” Secondly, the system of elections, many communities are now aware of their responsibilities in the elections. They have been informed of their right to suffrage, and their right to fight for their ballot.”

Of course the challenges are still there, and at times, the old ways seem to have the upper hand. But Lidasan stresses that not everything from the past has to be discarded.

“My idea is that we need to value our past, live in our present time, and have an inclusive paradigm for development,” he says.

In the end, Taguntong echoes the words of a hero from another era: “We don’t have any more hope in the old generation, the ones we can convince are the youth. They are the ones who have a chance to learn about the right ways, so they should be our priority. As for the older generation, they already have bad habits. If you try to straighten the crooked, you just might break them.” — PCIJ, April 2013