Young Jun Aparece pricked up his ears when Bobby Alonto began to tune the guitar. In the Muslim dormitory, on Mindanao State University’s main campus, Alonto and his brothers were about to launch into a chorus lauding their Moro people’s age-old, ongoing struggle for self-rule. It was the early 1980s, and nearly two decades of dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ police state had brought the university campuses of the Philippines to a boil of youth revolt. In Mindanao, where the Martial Law crackdowns had exhibited their worst brutality, campus Communist operatives such as Aparece and Moro Nationalist rebels like the Alonto brothers found common cause in opposing the Marcos Regime.
On this evening, Aparece sat listening as the Alontos sang, “Strangers came from a land so far away — teeming millions of invading hordes with machines. In Civilization’s name they sought to enlighten us. And in the name of Love, we welcomed them as friends. With guns and words they had us fooled.” Then, paraphrasing the famed Native American chief Red Cloud, the Alontos intoned “They made us many promises. Remember that they never kept but one: They promised to take our land, and now it’s done.”
Now here, before continuing the activist history of PeaceBuilders Community, Inc. partner Jun Aparece, I want to examine what seems to me an arresting assertion made in the Alontos’ song. By adopting Red Cloud’s sentiment, their lyric correlates the crimes that imperialist colonizers committed against the Moro people with evils inflicted on the Native Americans by the government of the United States. As it happens, others besides the Alontos and their Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) comrades have suggested the comparison. American war historians — particularly James R. Arnold in his 2011 The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902-1913, describe how the U.S. military came fresh from a half-century of subduing indigenous tribes in the American West to its new task of pacifying the Moro tribes in the Philippine South.
Following America’s 1898 purchase of the Philippine islands from Spain, the defiant Muslims whom the military encountered in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago were, in the estimation of many Americans, no more than a new sort of hostile Indian. Accordingly, many of the practices which the U.S. government and its military had employed against the Native Americans — eg. the convenient making and breaking of treaties without according them the value of pacts with “civilized” opponents; the recruitment of tribesmen into scout units assigned to police native civilians on behalf of the American government as well as to track hostile natives through the backcountry; and the annexation of tribal land for redistribution to migrant settlers — were also used against the Moros.
The results were a drastic decline in the Moros’ authority over their own tribal affairs and the near total destruction of Moro power to resist the will of alien forces including, after Philippine independence in 1946, the military of the Manila-based Republic of the Philippines, which the Moros considered a foreign army of occupation. In short, modern Moros like the Alontos have ample justification for adopting Red Cloud’s lament.
But now back to Aparece’s story, and perhaps it needs some explanation how he — the progeny of Christian Filipino migrants from Bohol and Cebu, and himself a devoted Evangelical Christian — came to be fraternizing with Muslim revolutionaries, and in Mindanao, where traditional antipathies between Christians and Muslims are still felt by many. It happened like this:
From the start of his university studies, Aparece had been drawn to the activist scene, becoming increasingly engaged as an organizer and public speaker. A growing awareness of the Marcos government’s corruption and barbarism, combined with with Aparece’s sense of a moral duty to defend his exploited countrymen, had prompted him to side with the communist National Democratic Front and even to join the outlawed communist Kabataang Makabayan organization. Though not himself a hard-line ideological communist, Aparece was a hard-line revolutionary, and he recognized that the Philippines’ accelerating communist movement offered the best hope of toppling Marcos.
As for the Moro Nationalists, many had begun their activist careers in the same way Aparece had, by aligning with the National Democratic Front against Marcos. But these Moro revolutionaries soon fell out of step with the communists, who expressed support for Moro autonomy from the Republic of the Philippines, but insisted that it could only be achieved as part of a total reordering of the Philippine state following the triumph of the People’s Revolution. The young Moros had no appetite for a grand overhaul of the Philippines; they simply wanted out — to dissolve the political bands connecting their people and their ancestors’ territories to the Republic. So the Moro Liberation Fronts emerged. But those Moro dissidents who, like Bobby Alonto, came away from the National Democratic Front in order to form these Moro Liberation Fronts maintained cordial relations and strategic contacts with the communists.
Among the prominent National Democrats of Mindanao State University, Aparece impressed the Moro Nationalists as a man they could work with. Devout Muslims, they respected his outspoken faith in Jesus, feeling more affinity even for an Evangelical than for his ideologically atheistic comrades. They found space for him in the Muslim dormitory where they regaled him with stories and songs of the Moro struggle for self-determination. They also taught him about Islam, wanting him to understand them, but content that he remain a Christian.
Aparece had thrown in his lot with the National Democrats out of a longing for social justice. In the same spirit he now adopted the cause of Moro self-determination, and over the next few years his organizing and speech making served both the National Democratic and the Moro Nationalist causes. In Lanao del Sur, he chaired public forums on the Moro struggle, and when word of his Moro advocacy reached the academic community in nearby Iligan, several universities and high schools in that city invited him to lecture their students. He explained to them the catalysts of the modern Moro rebellion — the treachery of the Marcos government; the Jabidah Massacre; and the massacres of Muslim civilians by government-sponsored militias.
Today, though he has long since ceased stumping for the communists, Aparece continues to organize and advocate for the rights of Muslims, striving to demonstrate that cultural and religious divisions need not obscure one’s discernment of basic justice. Bobby Alonto still works for Moro autonomy, serving on the Bangsamoro Transition Commission and on the MILF’s Peace Panel in negotiations with the Philippine government. As Aparece remembers those long-ago evenings in the Muslim dormitory, he fondly recalls another song the Alonto brothers sang, this one adapting the words of an American Baptist reverend with whom every reader will be familiar. “I have a dream that some day my three little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by their creeds and their beliefs, but by the contents of their character. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to stand up for freedom together. Knowing that we will be free one day.”