dungeon classroom

the prison guard is time
with his chrono-whip.
lethargy is my class-, dungeon-mate.

bubbling out from prof’s
vile mouth:
philosophical ennuis,
killing me with jagged
unfolding being
and three sticky hours
of slow, painful death.
of philosophical damnations
i halfly care about,
i turn a dumb ear
to the devil with his phi-trident.
marcel my arse!
eleven unlucky souls
cling to sanity with their
pens, jabbing and cutting
reality with incessant beatings
at the sorry, un-virgin paper.
nth expletive.
i pray to the demons of education.
infest with holy gnats this
poorly-dressed prof.
have mercy on our souls!
no, our sanity!
jail guard, free us, i pray!



[We all have our bad moments inside the classroom: the time seems to be trapped in a tar pit and the teacher becomes an incarnate nightmare. I wrote this in remembrance of one subject in college – always a class between Marcel and a bad hangover. It was a Saturday class during the ungodly hours of 1:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon.]


Five of Cups

lie to me
card of gods,
and deny the spilt wine
from your cups.
you look to the horizon
refusing to heed the omen of ill-luck
that soaks your feet.
then closing your tired eyes
to see the promised ace of cups
in the mountains beyond seeing.
garbed in the black of anticipation
and shadowed by a distant cloud:
a murmuring
a deep-voiced prayer to the sea,
a solitary tear silently grazing
the cheek of Fate


Tarsila, Maratabat and Sabah: Chain, Honor and Common Humanity

[Article written by Datu Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan of the Ateneo de Davao University – Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue]

On February 11, 2013, a group calling themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” arrived in Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia. They were led by Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Jamalul Kiram III one of the claimants to the Sulu Sultanate, and laid claim to Sabah in an act to subvert Malaysia’s sovereignty over Sabah. The group asserted that their objective was to claim eastern Sabah (formerly North Borneo) by virtue of their historical control over the territory which they claim is a gift from the Sultan Muhyiddin of Brunei for helping the latter in the Bruneian Civil War of 1660-1673.

As of the writing of this article, the standoff has not yet been resolved. With 74 reported casualties on both sides including non-combatants and reports of human rights violations, the situation has worsened to proportions that can only be regarded as “determined irrationality”. A day after the initial attacks in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Ateneo de Davao University – Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue issued a statement calling for an end to the violence in Sabah “in the name of sobriety, dialogue and peaceful resolution” which it deems is the only way out of this standoff and the bloodbath that would only result from this conflict.

This paper aims to explain the Sabah Standoff and territorial claims in the eyes of  Al Qalam Insititute of the Ateneo de Davao University. This paper has two central points of discussion, the tarsila (genealogical records) and maratabat (honor).

Before proceeding, it is important to first understand the sultanate.

A sultanate is a socio-cultural and political institution influenced by the Arabs to the pre-colonial Southeast Asian communities. This is a federation of clans and communities or balangays that recognized the power of the sultan. Thomas McKenna writes: “They were loose confederations of local overlords, or dates. Datus formed a tribute-taking aristocracy with hereditary claims to allegiance from followers.” The first sultan of Sulu was a Johore-born Arab and religious scholar Sayyid Abu Bakr Abirin who settle in Banua Buansa Ummah in Sulu. After his marriage to a local dayang-dayang (princess) Paramisuli he founded the sultanate and assumed the title Paduka Mahasari Maulana al Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim – the title showing clear Hindu roots.

Can a federation of clans, communities/balangay exercise sovereignty? As a general rule, no, a federation of clans, communities/balangay cannot exercise sovereignty. However, in the case of the Sultanate of Sulu, it has a historical basis of exercising its right to determination as a people separate and distinct from the Filipino people. We can add here that Sulu has sovereignty over parts of Sabah even before the cessation by Spain of the Philippines to the USA precisely because Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and parts of Mindanao have never been colonized by Spain. The 1742 Treaty of Alliance between Spain and Sulu Sultan Azim Ud-Din further proves that the sultanate was independent of Spain and had, in fact, sovereign control over the Sulu archipelago.

How did the concept of sultanate begin? What is the basis for this claim? The answer to this question may be summarized and greatly understood by studying the “tarsila”, its history and function. Many of us do not realize the importance of claiming right lineage in the datu system or the sultanate. The key point in knowing the the status of a person and the legitimacy of his authority and rule is through the tarsila, essential to the datu or sultanate system.

The Datu System and the Tarsila Connection

The Datu system is one of the oldest, and most powerful institutions in Southern Philippines. Families and clans in Maguindanao, Lanao, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi, and in traditional domains of non-Islamized indigenous groups are centered in recognizing the power and influence of the datus. With the introduction of Islam, these datus have confederated themselves in establishing the Sultanate.

Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu have this distinct strong attachment to the datu and sultanate systems because of the existence of the tarsila. Tarsila is defined as the genealogical lineage with particular reference to the succession of hierarchy and exercise of power.[1] The transmission of the tarsila has always been through oral means like songs and chants or dhikir. Only few ruling families were able to record their tarsilas; in these cases, they were written down on goat’s skin and engraved on brass gongs.

Tarsila is not only a cultural practice but also a religious recognition that a person and his/her family and clan, has a direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The founding fathers of Islam in Sulu and Maguindanao were Shariff Makdum and Shariff Kabungsuan, respectively. They were from Sumatra and Borneo of Arab descent related to the prophet of Islam as recorded in the tarsilas. Therefore, a datu or a sultan is believed to be a descendant of the Prophet and because of this, he is a political and a religious leader, thus the official title of sultan is both Batara (lord) and Maulana (religious scholar).

The term tarsila comes from the Arabic silsilah, which means a chain or a link. It is used in the Muslim south as in other parts of the Indonesian and Malay world to refer to written genealogical accounts.[2]

Muslims in Mindanao believe that the primary function of the tarsila is to trace the ancestry of an individual or family. The ancestry may be an important political figure or religious leader or a shariff.

Taking this into consideration, the tarsilas were not meant to remain purely historical documents or remembrances of the past, but also as a warrant for the “legitimate the claim of individuals or families to hold political power or to enjoy certain traditional prerogatives or at least some prestige in their respective communities”. [3]

Most present-day traditional and political leaders in the Muslim areas have their respective tarsilas supporting the legitimacy of the power and rule over the people.

To this date, most of the tarsilas are kept by the different clans and political and traditional ruling clans have their own keepers of the tarsila.[4] However, according to Hadji Nasser Ayunan, “proper institutionalizing of the legitimacy of the tarsila is needed to avoid any conflict of claims by the present generation is needed.” Thus, the language or the lingua franca of the tarsila contributes to the legitimacy of the claimants.

According to Cesar Abdul Majul, “it is commonly accepted that the use of this criteria is quite reasonable.” In the case of Sulu, trade relations spanned the Malay peninsula and Indonesian archipelago as far back in the 13th century, or even earlier.

Early documentation of the tarsila was done by Dr. Najeeb Saleeby especially of the Sulu and Maguindanao tarsila or “selesilah”. Professor Majul further reiterates that, “we are all greatly indebted to Dr. Najeeb Saleeby for the collection, translation and publication of many tarsilas from Sulu and Mindanao… considering that many of these documents had been burnt or lost during the last days of the Japanese Occupation in 1945.”

Importantly, we must add that the datu system and sultanate existed exclusively of one another as two separate political structures before they finally converged with the advent of Islam in the Southern Philippines. The old datu system of local overlords merged with the Islamic and Arabic sultanate system in which the sultan “commanded the allegiance of other datus”. Since alliances were formed by marriages (the sultans’ daughter being married to a local datu or his marriage to a daughter of another datu) the tarsila made sure that the precious bloodline of the Prophet remained intact and the sultan’s legitimacy (owing to his direct lineage with the Prophet) was unquestioned by his Muslim constituents or followers.

Mindanao Context

Mindanao is the ancestral homeland of the more than 30 ethno-linguistic groups. Thirteen of these indigenous groups were Islamized and count themselves as Muslim Filipinos. The others are popularly known as the Lumad, Visayan word for ‘native’ or the ‘un-Islamized/un-Christianized’ tribes of Mindanao.[5]

The thirteen major  Islamized ethno-linguistic groups are:

1.     Badjao

2.     Iranun (also known as Ilanun)

3.     Jama-mapun

4.     Kalagan

5.     Kalibugan

6.     Maguindanao

7.     Maranao

8.     Molbog (Melebugnon)

9.     Palawani

10.  Samal

11.  Sangil

12.  Tausug

13.  Yakan

These indigenous peoples of Mindanao who embraced Islam established their own sultanates and set of datus. Thus, we have the Sultanates of Sulu, Maguindanao, and pockets of sultanates of Iranuns, and Maranaws. All claiming their legitimacy and moral ascendancy from their direct lineage  to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him).


The kinship system of the Maguindanaons, Tausugs, and Iranuns is bilateral. This is not unique in their culture. It is common throughout the country. Bilateral descent is a system of family lineage in which the relatives on the mother’s side and father’s side are equally important for emotive, filial ties or for transfer of property or wealth. It is a family arrangement where descent and inheritance are passed equally through both parents.[6] Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans, one through the father (a patri-clan) and the other through the mother (a matri-clan).

Among the Muslim ethno-linguistic groups in Mindanao it is unusual. It is modified by a system of social rank, certain rules of descent, and distinctive marriage patterns related to bilateral kinship.[7] Social rank is determined by one’s maratabat, or social status. For those belonging in higher rank, “maratabat” is based on real or imputed descent from the Sharifs (first Arab missionaries that brought Islam in the region). Families belonging to the royalties maintain elaborate genealogies/tarsilas to validate their claims to his/her line of descent.

In simple definition, maratabat means the dignity and honor of the person. It has a distinct characteristic of social significance because the individual who possesses the greatest maratabat are those persons who are most directly descended from Sharif Kabunsuan (among the Maguindanaons) and Sharif Makdum (among the Tausugs).[8]

Maratabat is central to the social and political organization because it gives the datus/sultans special claim to power and privilege. Therefore, the maratabat’s legitimacy and moral ascendancy has a direct connection to Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him). 

Connecting the Dots to Sabah

The recent Sabah standoff brought local and international attention as it also happened in the same of month of the Bud Daho (1906) and Jabidah (1963) massacres opening up old wounds for the Bangsa Moro, most especially the Tausugs of Sulu. The objective of the Sulu “Royal Security Forces” to re-claim eastern Sabah also sparked different opinions from the Philippines and Malaysia, causing some to point dirty fingers at conspiracies that aim to topple governments, derail peace talks or destabilize elections in both countries. Dr. Farish A. Noor writes of the standoff: “[W]hat has happened is that a group of non-state actors, namely those who claim to be the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu, have unilaterally and without the consent of the government of the Philippines, entered into the territory of another state – Malaysia – bearing arms and demanding their right to settle there.”

Yet this article digs deeper at possibly the fundamental reason for the ongoing acts of the Tausugs – their wounded maratabat.  Also on closer inspection, the shared history and bloodlines of the Sulu sultanate with the  sultanates of Brunei, Melaka and Makassar-Gowa are closely interlinked that fundamentally, these sultanates are no less than cousins, but more importantly, brothers and sisters in the faith that calls for compassion.

The wounded maratabat of the Tausugs urged them to re-claim the portions of Sabah but it only resulted to great loss of lives on both sides, almost a losing battle the moment it begun. Here, the 18th century writer on the Napoleonic art of war may give important points for reflection for us and the Tausugs in Sabah:

When a state has claims upon another, it may not always be best to enforce them by arms. The public interest must be consulted before action.

 The most just war is one which is founded upon undoubted rights, and which, in addition, promises to the state advantages commensurate with the sacrifices required and the hazards incurred. Unfortunately, in our times there are so many doubtful and contested rights that most wars, though apparently based upon bequests, or wills, or marriages, are in reality but wars of expediency. (Article I: Offensive Wars to Reclaim Rights, Art of War, Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini)

Since the influence of Islam is embedded deeply in the social, cultural, and political systems of the Muslims in Mindanao, like the sultanate system of Sulu and Maguindanao, where does this lead the Tausugs, Iranuns, Maranaws, and Maguindanaos? How does the concept of maratabat remain significant? Is this still important in the lives of the Tausugs and the followers of the Sultanate of Sulu?

The tarsila, evidencing as a “chain” of families descended from the Prophet, must be a chain that frees, rather not restrains our relations to the larger family of humankind. The tarsila “chain” must not shackle or tether us in recognizing the complex diversity of the human family in shared dignity and honor and need to work with sober realism for lasting human improvement and peace.

The Holy Quran speaks about identities and recognizes the diversity of people. This is explicitly discussed in Surah Al-Hujurat (The Inner Apartments):

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). Qur’an 49:13  

This verse talks about mankind in general. The most honored person in the sight of Allah is the one who is righteous.

Islam also talks about ummatan wassatan (middle nation or people of moderation). This is described in the verse:

And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that

[with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind. Qur’an 2: 143

Intimaz Yusuf  describes this further by saying that, “the expression ummatan wasatan can be translated into English as a “community of the middle way,”[9] as a “justly balanced”[10] community or “middle nation.”[11] Basically it means that the Muslims should not be a community of extreme right or extreme left but follow the middle path or the straight way, i.e. the way of God’s guidance which is characterized by moderation.[12]

If we claim that we belong to the sultanate or to the lineage of a datu, then one of our roles is to protect our people and embrace the principles of Islam.

Moreover, a descendant of the royalties traces back his/her lineage back to the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him). For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) is the example par excellence of a moderate person who is worthy of emulation through imitatio Muhammadi.[13]

The future of Islam in Mindanao and even in Southeast Asia depends on how the Muslims in this part of the world really see Islam. Muslims have to know and value the real essence of the principles and teaching of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

All the current challenges pertaining to political, economic, cultural and social imbalance and inequality are not because of Islam itself, but rather the way Muslims interpret the context of the sacred texts in the Holy Quran.

An institution like the sultanate, is a valid manifestation of the cultural identities of the people. But the pursuit of claiming tarsila or maratabat by an individual for his or her self-interest cannot prosper in the recent context. Opposition, and violence, even among the Muslim communities may occur. We must aspire that the future of the tarsila be one that seeks to ground us in our common heritage, one that includes everyone, rather than perpetuate the misguided concept of exclusivity – of a select group of families, clans and individuals – that will ultimately, as it is already happening now, lead to more irrational violence. We must therefore apply maratabat with moderation and with a concern for others. Maratabat itself must help us look towards the common good not only of our Muslims but also peoples coming from different faiths within a common humanity.

Sources Cited:

[1] Mckenna, Thomas, Muslim Rebels and Rulers, 2006.

[2] Majul, Cesar Abdul, Muslim History and Culture, October 20, 1977.

[3] Ibid;

[4] Ayunan, Hadji Nasser, Amerol of Maguindanao. Interviewed by the research last December 30, 2012.

[5] Rex T. Linao, The Peace Paradigm of Development, An Agenda for Mindanaons, Cortess Printing Press, 2001

[6] Shepard, John; Robert W. Greene (2003).Sociology and You. Ohio: Glencoe McGraw-Hill. pp. A–22

[7] Encyclopedia of Southeast Asian Ethnography, Edited by N.S. Bisht; T.S. Bankoti, 2004.

[8] Encyclopedia of Southeast Asian Ethnography, Edited by N.S. Bisht; T.S. Bankoti, 2004.

[9] Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’┐n (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1984), 30.

[10] Abdull┐h Y┴suf ‘Al┘, The Holy Qur’┐nText, Translation and Commentary, New Revised Edition (Brendwood, MD: Amana Corp., 1409/1989), 58.

[11] Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an (Lahore: Taj Co. n.d.), 23.

[12] Yusuf, Intimaz, Dialogue Between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasa═an (The Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (The Middle Way).

[13] Yusuf, Intimaz, Dialogue Between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasa═an (The Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (The Middle Way).

An Alternative Mining Law, NOW!

Eight years ago, on March 3, 1995, Republic Act 7942 or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 was signed into law by Pres. Fidel V. Ramos, aiming for the revitalization and liberalization of the mining industry to foreign investment. Mining in the country was further strengthened by the Arroyo administration with EO 270 and 270-A which pushed for the revitalization of the mining industry as a pillar of growth and declares that the vast mineral resources of our country should be utilized for economic development and poverty alleviation especially in the rural areas.

There is a very pressing need to address the devastating effects of mining on the environment and the communities, as even the mining sector acknowledges the fact that mining is an “intrinsically dirty” and we add “wasteful and destructive” industry. In the Philippines, the Marcopper disaster in Marinduque is one of the most notorious examples dramatizing the Philippines’ own struggle with the hazards of mining. In 1993, the collapse of the Maguila-guila dam at the Marcopper mine of Placer Dome, a Canadian owned mining firm, released a flood of metal-enriched silt into Mogpog river. “The flood killed two children, destroyed homes, downed livestock and contaminated farmlands. In 1996, a drainage tunnel to the Boac river burst, filling the river with four million tons of toxic sludge which rendered the river biologically dead.” [1] In less than 20 years, more than 200 million tons of mine tailing were directly spilled into the waters of Calancan Bay.

Not far from my very own home in Bikol, In Rapu-Rapu island, Albay, poor environmental safeguards contributed to at least two cyanide-laden spillages and fish kills within six months of mine commencing operations in 2005. “This had a significant effect on local fisherfolk’s livelihoods, as well as causing fear among communities about eating locally-caught fish.”[2] In addition, neighboring communities consistently raised their concerns about the Rapu-Rapu mine both before and during the period in which it operated.

Philex Mining Corp. (PMC) in Padcal Benguet, which was always hailed as the standard bearer for mining companies, presumed ‘responsible’, recently showed its vulnerability as 20.6M metric tons of tailing spillage drained down the Balog and Agno rivers last August 2012. According to a fact-finding mission report led by CBCP-NASSA (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace), “the spillage is massive. It is 1,300% higher than the Marcopper accident in Boac, Marinduque in 1996.”

The history of Marinduque, Rapu- Rapu and Padcal mines record the failure of mining corporations to hear and address the grievances of local communities who vehemently protest the impacts of the mine on their environment, their livelihood and their lives.

Yet, despite these statistics and experiences, our policy-makers have championed mining as “the virtual savior of our economy” and made it a “pet project” of different administrations and even local governments, working in light of illusory  high revenues for the government. But the so-called “resource curse,” means that many of the world’s most resource-rich are its poorest economically. Adeline Angeles, Chair of the Committee on Environment in the Marinduque Provincial Legislative body, graphically describes the myth of sustainable mining when she mentioned in an interview that, “lots of people can’t think of any possibility for such thing as “sustainable mining” in our island, first because of the geography, we not only believe, we know that it is beyond the carrying capacity of the island. We became the third most denuded province in the entire Philippines because of mining. Out internal water, rivers and lakes have become polluted because of large scale mining for 30 years.”[3]

In developing countries, like the Philippines, mineral-rich provinces continue to have higher poverty incidences despite the operations of mining companies. Instead, mining has exacerbated conflicts, resulted in the displacement of indigenous peoples and other rural communities, heightened the numbers of extra-judicial killings and of human rights violations, and caused and intensified pollution and depletion of natural resources which for generations have sustained livelihoods and defined our people’s ways of life (Macdonald and Southal 2005). We have to mention here the recent violence against the B’laan communities in South Cotabato, Sarangani and Davao del Sur (in the vicinity of the SMI-Xstrata mining proposed site) perpetuated “supposedly” by the military, OUR own military. The cold and brutal murders of Juvy, John Mark and Jordan Capion of Tampakan, South Cotabato, along with Rudy Yalon-Dejos, 50, and his son Rody Rick, 26 of Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur all linked to the conflicts brought by heavy militarization in the other – militarization in support, in protection, of the mining investors’ interest.

The promotion of mining, therefore, in this time of crises and conflicts, exacerbated with the reality of anthropogenic climate change, will translate not only to bad investment but also to the waste of what little resources we have remaining. There is an obvious and urgent need to shift our present framework on mining.

Since the passage of the Philippine Mining Act on March 1995, revitalization of the mining industry was enforced shifting government policies from tolerance to aggressive promotion of large-scale mining. Many from the Academe, Indigenous communities, NGOs, POs and environmentalists see the Act as inherently flawed[4]:

–       It promotes the exportation of raw materials without maximizing the benefits of such resources for the Filipino people;

–       It prioritizes exploration, development and utilization of resources over and above human rights, food security and environmental conservation;

–       It grants too much power for decision-making to the President, when resources are the only heritage of the Filipino people, meanwhile disempowering local communities through participatory mechanisms;

–       The law is not consistent with sustainable development;

–       It grants too many incentives for investments, including confidentiality of information, return of investments, tax-breaks, etc.;

–       It lacks systems that would ensure payment and compensation of affected communities and local government units;

–       It lacks systems that would ensure payment and compensation of affected communities and local government units;

–       It fails to provide for punishment and accountability on social impacts, including human rights violations;

–       It fails  to provide a rational and comprehensive benefit-sharing among the stakeholders;

–       It fails to consider the physical characteristics of the Philippines that is not conducive to industries like these, despite the claims that the Philippines has a rich mineral resources, when the country, in fact, is also a rich agricultural country; and

–       It allows 100% ownership and control of natural resources to foreigners.

The policies, principles and provisions contained in the Mining Act of 1995 sorely lack what is needed to effectively respond to the needs of the Filipino people and to survive the current economic and environmental crisis that we together face. House Bil 3763 is proposed to take the place of the current mining law and among others:

–       Guarantees that the exploration, development and utilization of mineral resources are primarily for the benefit of the Filipino people;

–       Prioritizes more viable and more sustainable livelihood choices for communities, giving utmost importance to food security and livable conditions for the peoples;

–       Ensures that the gains from the mining industry would be maximized while preventing or mitigating its adverse effects of the same;

–       Recognizes that the issue on the environment is local and prioritize local participation in decisions surrounding mining; and

–       Protects human rights of communities and individuals and impose harsh penalties for the violations thereof.

House Bill 3763 or the Alternative Minerals Management Bill takes into consideration the decades-long issues, experiences and analyses of different individuals, organizations and communities affected by mining in the Philippines. “It is a tool to elevate the marginalized and impoverished communities through the legal system to force government, transnational corporations, international finance corporations and other countries to face communities, to address the loopholes of the Mining Act of 1995 and stop unjust mining regime and practices in the Philippines”.

We  call for a Pro-Filipino, Pro-Environment Law on Mining!

[1] Ingrid Macdonal and Katy Southal, “Mining Ombudsman Case Report: Marinduque Island,” published 2005: Victoria Australia, p. 3.

[2] Shanta Martin and Kelly Newell, “The Mining Ombudsman Case Report: Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Mine,” published 2008 , Victoria Australia, p. 2.

[3] Macdonald and Southal, p.12.

[4] Culled from the Alternative Mining Bill: In Brief leaflet of the Alyansa Tigil Mina.