World Bulletin/News Desk
A group of Muslims gathered in a remote mountainous village in the southern Philippines this weekend to urge the country's one-time largest rebel group to help recover land they say was stolen from them on their grandfather's death around 50 years ago.
At the peak of a hill in the center of the village of Cawit, where the tombs of the late Sultan Astaluddin Jalilul Mohammad Alam and his son Panglima Araji are located, the Sultan's descendants, followers and various guests from Brunei and North Borneo said a thanksgiving prayer as tears poured from their eyes.
Below lay the Philippines third largest city Zamboanga, a sprawling now Christian majority commercial and industrial center, where the Sultan's legendary ark first arrived over 125 years ago.
Nur Sangkula Sahibul, a spokesman for the Asian Sultanate Tribal Advocate Royale Heritage Foundation, told the Anadolu Agency Saturday that the group wants their land rights acknowledged by both the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
"We ask the support of MILF Chairman Al haj Murad Ebrahim to help us get back our 8.0590 hectares of land which was grabbed from us," Sahibul said. "We're the family heirs of our late grandfather [Sultan Astaluddin Alam]. We want to recover our land. This is our legacy for the coming generations for the Bangsamoro people."
On March 27, the MILF and the government signed a peace agreement - the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro - which brought to a close 17-years of negotiations and ended a decades-old armed conflict in the southern area of Mindanao while granting Muslim areas greater political autonomy. It also gives hope to the descendants of people such as Astaluddin Alam that the land they allege was stolen by industrialists be returned.
The southern Philippines - or Mindanao as it is known to the Muslim locals - has long been touted as the "Land of Promise" because of its rich natural resources. It is home to more than half of the country's estimated mineral wealth, and has long been plundered of its reserves of copper, gold, aluminum and iron by the world’s largest industry players.
Mindanao is also the site of the largest pineapple plantations in the country, which are spread out in the ancestral lands of the indigenous people of Bukidnon and South Cotabato. It also boasts one million hectares of grasslands that are gradually being turned into palm oil states.
As a result, the area's indigenous communities have frequently come head-to-head with big companies for access to the country’s resources. The communities claim that bureaucracy and extra-judicial threats have robbed them of their land rights, and frequently leave them in danger of overplanting or soil erosion. Hydropower dams have left land flooded by reservoirs, with Muslim communities left with no place to go, while sacred forests and arable land is frequently left unusable due to mineral mining.
For the Sultan's descendants, help may be at hand. A provision in the peace agreement stipulates that the Bangsamoro people, and other indigenous peoples in adjoining provinces, shall have preferential rights over fishery, aquamarine, and other living resources in "Zones of Joint Cooperation." This should include the Sultan's 8.0590 hectares.
The ark of Sultan Astaluddin Alam - the son of 18th century Brunei ruler Sultan Hashim Aqamuddin - arrived in the Philippines from Brunei in 1877, only to sink just a few kilometers from what is now Zamboanga's main port area.
According to local folklore, on making land, the Sultan discovered a thickly forested area where seas were abundant with marine life, and roads and trails were barely none existent. In Tando-banak island, Sibutu, Tawi-Tawi, he started a deep sea fishing business while teaching the locals Islamic laws, guidance and prayers.
The legend says he was soon joined by Sultans from other tribes, and with fishing continuing to be their sole means of livelihood they set about cutting trees down trees and bushes to establish a village. The village grew, and with it his fishing business, Astaluddin Alam frequently travelling back to Brunei with his first born Moharaja Araji, who eventually became Crown Prince of Brunei.
Royal Heritage Foundation spokesman Sahibul said that in 1936, then Philippines President Manuel L. Quezon visited the Sultan's Cawit-Recodo village, where he was warmly received, the Sultan presenting the president with a sword and pearls.
In return, he said the President asked the Sultan what he could do for him, Astaluddin Alam asking for ownership of the land the village rested on so his people would be protected from the timber firms, sardine canning factories and fishing companies, along with their alleged militiamen and workers who had already settled in the area. His request was granted, the area declared April 24, 1937 as a "Muslim Reservation Area," or Recodo, Sulu, Mindanao, State of the Princess, covering 8.5 hectares.
Sahibul said that over the next 50 years companies regularly came to her grandfather and asked permission to set up operations in the area. He said the Sultan agreed to rent the land, in exchange for 50 percent of the proceeds, but on his death, payments ceased - the businesses failing to even discuss the matter with his heirs.
Princess Nur-Aina, one of the Sultan's heirs - speaking Saturday at the site of his grave - told AA that that the family is determined to show its support to the peace deal, in the hope that it will resolve such problems.
"We're here gathering with all the descendants and followers of our grandfather to also appeal to all the claimants of the Sultanate of Sulu to unite and help resolve numerous issues so that a just and lasting peace can be reached," she added.
The Sultanate of Sulu claims much of northern Borneo, along with areas of Malaysia and the Philippines’ south.
In February last year, the 75-year-old self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu led a 200-strong armed army from the southern Philippines to Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah to enforce the sultanate’s claim.
He was unsuccessful and died in October.Last Mod: 20 Nisan 2014, 18:03