Debating the Moro Wars

What circumstances led to the infamous Bud Dajo Massacre in 1902? Was the carnage a counter-insurgency atrocity as insinuated by President Duterte last month when he publicly chastised the US government? Or could it have been something else? Historian Patricio N. Abinales offers a provocative glimpse at one of the nation’s watershed incidents at the turn of the 20th Century.

An American writer enjoined her readers not to allow President Rodrigo Duterte to appropriate the story of the massacre of Bud Dajo to explain his anti-Americanism. Instead, she wants them to take it back from him and in so doing also reclaim the story of our nationalism and not let it fall into sinister (Digong?) hands.

This is well and good if you view Bud Dajo through the prism of nationalism. The one big problem here is that at the time of the massacre, the Tausug, who fought bravely against superior American firepower, were resisting not so much in the name of the nation. Their rebelliousness was driven more by economics. 

Gen. Leonard Wood, first governor of the Moro Province, and the American army were steadily building the infrastructure of what would become the Moro Province, which included installing a system in which revenues can be collected. The Americans saw the head tax as the most efficient way of collecting the money from the community and undertaking the initial census of the Tausug in the Sulu archipelago.

As expected, the Tausog resisted the idea of a head tax, and what they saw was an attempt by the Americans to now limit the scope of their economic activity: no more slave raids, no “illegal” trade with other polities in Maritime Southeast Asia (including Singapore), and no trade treaties with the British or the Dutch.  

These measures practically ended the Tausogs’ involvement in the comings and goings in island Southeast Asia and compelled them to now focus their concerns on the more narrow economic affairs of the Province.

The resistance at Bud Dajo then was a failed attempt to turn back this process and reclaim their right (and authority) to remain a part of the “Land Below the Winds.” They failed, were subsequently massacred by the superior American force, which attacked the Tausog encampment.

The nation was absent in this bloody confrontation. The Tausugs probably knew nothing about the installation of American colonial rule in Manila, and their views of the northern Filipinos were still that of potential slaves that they could trade. It is hard to imagine any solidarity forming between the rebellious Tagalogs and the defiant Tausogs

However, there is more.

Neither was there any form of Moro solidarity that Nur Misuari and his intellectual supporters painted as a way of legitimizing the Moro National Liberation Front. Bud Dajo did arouse Tausog rage, but this did not last long. Once the Sultan of Sulu reiterated his pledge of support to the Americans, the other datus followed suit. 

What the Sultan had done signals the other thread in Moro-Filipino/American relations: the unceasing collaboration of the Moro elite to protect their interests, expand their influence into the new positions offered by the Americans, and, the most important of all, to keep a tight lid over Moro resentment. 

Was this similar to the collaboration in the north, where Filipino elites had abandoned the Malolos Republic and accepted American offers for them to be appointed to new posts, and to set up their political party? Yes and no. Filipino collaborators worked with the Americans hoping that they would be in strategic positions once direct colonialism became replaced by tutelage rule, leading finally to Philippine independence. 

The Moro elites had already acknowledged the power of the American army, and accepted individual posts; Sulu’s Hadji Butu and Datu Piang of Cotabato were appointed to the Philippine Assembly. But their goal was more inward looking, hoping to preserve the local rule. What was happening in Manila did not bother them much (Piang got bored at the Assembly). Again, the national sentiment appears not to exist here.

And how important were these pledges to localism? In 1920, Maranao datus released the Dansalan declaration asking the United States to separate Mindanao from the Philippine body politic.

Which brings us to the final point: the myth of Moro unity. 

Bud Dajo was, alas, a Tausug tragedy; it was not that of the ummah. The three major language groups – Tausog, Maguindanao, Maranao – and the other smaller groups may know each other and may share Islamic beliefs, but they continued to go their separate ways, even after the American Army began consolidating the Moro Province. That was why when Bud Dajo happened; there was no record of the Maranaos and the Magindanaos ever showing solidarity to their besieged brethren. Datu Piang continued to work with the Americans, while the Maranao datus remained divided. 

In short, brutal as it was, Bud Dajo cannot be appropriated in the name of the nation or the ummah.

(Prof. Abinales is author of at least two books, “Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine State (2000),” and “Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim-Mindanao Narrative (2010).” He hails from Ozamis City.)