The Mindanao Solidarity Conference on the Bangsamoro in Davao on December 4th brought together leaders from a number of civil society organizations involved in the ongoing peace process. Representatives of the tri-people of Mindanao – Migrants, Lumads and Moros – came for the two day conference to listen and connect with other people of interest (or interested people, in my case) regarding the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). One such person was Datu Hussayin Arpa, who I had the honor of sitting down with to listen to him speak about his work as president of the Maharlika Philippine Council for Sama and Bajau. As the Datu described his people, the Bajau, his care for them was evident as his impassioned sorrow for their current socio-cultural position contrasted with his pride in their culture and hope for the future. Indeed, history has not been kind to the Bajau because injustice has led their rich heritage astray; as the Datu strives for its restoration, the resilience and perseverance of the Bajau and Sama people cannot go unnoticed.
Traditionally, the Bajau have been a sea-faring people, at home on boats and under the seas of the Sulu Archipelago as they fish and collect natural treasures to sell. Their twin tribe, the Sama, have been known for their inter-island hunting and farming. Relations between the tribes had always been peaceful and mutually beneficial as each lived out their cultural existence like they had since Time Immemorial. In the 1970’s, however, because of the insurgency of the Moro National Islamic Front and the subsequent imposition of Marcos’ martial law, the Bajau and Sama found themselves caught between these powerful forces. Thusly scattered, some Bajau fled to Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries home to historical Bajau communities, while some were forcibly relocated to Rio Hondo, Zamboanga City, as per a Presidential decree. They have dispersed throughout the country since then. This uprooting has left the Bajau without the stability of their cultural and socio-economic livelihood, and thus they have found themselves victimized by the vagaries of the country, including the failures of the ARMM government and the 2013 Zamboanga siege. As a gentle and peace-loving people, no Bajau were known to have joined revolutionary or otherwise armed groups during this time, and so without support to earn a living many Bajau have been forced to mendicancy. In this position, therefore, the Bajau and Sama of the Philippines find themselves in the unfortunately unique position of being the only international representative of their people without political empowerment.
Datu Hussayin has a vision of his people’s development. He sees hope in the BBL for propelling this vision forward, but it is a tentative hope. It starts with parliamentary representation in the coming Bangsamoro government, and even before that with a platform to be heard by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission. With visibility and attention in the political arena, the Bajau could be co-developers of the Bangsamoro entity, helping themselves and other Indigenous groups achieve their Right to Self Determination. The Bajau’s affinity with the water is a strength that could benefit the country’s maritime activities, for example, if only they were given the opportunity. The Bajau are in need of empowerment, and it would be beneficial for the whole country if this marginalized tribe is uplifted into the socio-political sphere. An essential part of this development is education, which will boost the self-conception of the tribes and bring about a firm foundation for internal leadership.
Currently, as a visible and acknowledged leader of his people, Datu Hussayin hopes to be able to travel to different areas with a Bajau concentration in order to dialogue with his people around the country and begin to mobilize the estimated 1 million Bajau and Sama population for their collective restorative transformation. The Bajau hold untapped potential, especially near the sea; not only that, a thread of historical injustice could begin to be realigned under his leadership. As of now he needs financial support, but that has not stopped his vision of hope for bringing greater unity to the Bajau of not just the Philippines, but of the Southeast Asian Region. The scope of impact would be significant if a multinational tribe such as theirs were to cooperate for regional peace, economic stability, and social justice. It starts with empowerment, is driven by development, and is defined by equality and a strength-based social participation that allows the Bajau to discover and exercise their potential. Such a reality is possible, and for a man of the people like Datu Hussayin, it takes little imagination, just a lot of hard work and even more hope. May we all show solidarity with him and his people as they seek a new stage for their life in the Philippines.