Money and mosque-making, marks of the Meranao people

by Assemblywoman Samira Gutoc-Tomawis

What do rockista Bamboo (Marohombsar) , Angel Locsin and ANC anchor Adel Tamano have in common? They have ethnic roots from the Meranao cultural group and trace lineage to Lanao del Sur.

In a region thirsting to see good news about them, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), where most Meranaos reside, can stand proud of a culture that has been preserved despite the impact of pop culture in global media and cyberspace. A Meranao indie-filmmaker was nominated to the Urian (film), a Sarimanok Boat Race welcomed world-racers to Lake Lanao and a host of grand things are happening in the often slumbering place of Lanao and Marawi.

Tomorrow ends their registration from an annulled book of voters fought for by a Meranao activist Lacs Dalidig. Civil society is abloom with women, men, the youth and the minority Christians here overcoming their fear of speaking up against the ills they see.

Home of the Sultanates, sarimanok, and Islam, visiting Lanao del Sur province in Central Mindanao is like going back to centuries ago when women walked around gracefully in their malongs (wrap-around clothing) and men who had betel-stained golden teeth played chess all day. But although being transported to a place that seems stuck in time could be soothing to a frazzled urbanite, the truth is Lanao del Sur is that way largely because it is one of the poorest provinces in the country, while ARMM is the poorest region in the Philippines in all indicators of human development.

As Lanao del Sur celebrates its 53 years of being chartered on July 4, the province and city of Marawi is challenged to overcome perceptions of being so distant, unwelcoming and unpeaceful.

Where is Lanao del Sur?

Because of this negative image, few know about the tourism potentials of the province. Lanao comes from the word ranao, meaning “lake.” Lanao centers on the basin of the majestic Lake Lanao, where a mountain shaped like a lady called Sleeping Beauty catches visitors in awe.

Lanao del Sur forms the western portion of Northern Mindanao. It is bounded on the north by Lanao del Norte on the east by Bukidnon, on the west by Illana Bay, and on the south by Maguindanao and Cotabato . One can travel to Lanao del Sur 3 hours away from Cagayan de Oro’s Lumbia airport.

The landscape is dominated by rolling hills and valleys, placid lakes and rivers.

The climate in the province is characterized by even distribution of rainfall throughout the year, without a distinct summer season. The province is located outside the typhoon belt.

Mosque architecture here is one of the best. A researcher from the United Kingdom described the domes to be beautiful.

The Lake Defenders

Few also know the rich history of the province , which some find to be fascinating as its colorful artifacts. When the Spaniards first explored Lanao in 1689, they found a well-settled community named Dansalan at the lake’s northern end.

In 1895, Lanao was created as a district of Mindanao. In 1903, Lanao was incorporated into the Moro Province by the American government. In 1914, the province of Lanao was born with the organization of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu.

Lanao hosted some of the bloodiest revolts in Philippine history.

Hundreds of natives, who use the traditional defense system building kota (fortresses), battled thousands of American troops in the bloody wars in the towns of Taraka and Bayang. Because of the need for strategic American presence here, Americans set up the Amai Pakpak Fort in Marawi.

In May 2, 1942, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines Jose Abad Santos was killed by the Japanese Imperial forces by the firing squad at Malabang. Maranao guerrilla units used the infantry weapons together with the Maranao Kris, Barong and Kampilan swords against the Japanese forces during in the Battle of Lanao .

When Lanao was divided along ethnic lines into two provinces under Republic Act No. 2228 in 1959, Marawi was made the capital of the Muslim-dominated Lanao del Sur. Christian-dominated Lanao del Norte will also celebrate its 49th anniversary on the same day, July 4.

Lanao also hosted several uprisings led by the Bangsamoro Liberation Organization (BMLO) in the 70s against national government.

Because of the peace agreements between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and government, Lanao del Sur in a plebiscite voted to join the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1989. But many areas in Lanao del Sur continue to be supporters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) with the former Vice-Chair for Military Affairs Aleem Aziz Mimbantas stationed in Butig town.

To this day, many Maranaos senior citizens do not refer themselves as Filipino and look to central government as gobierno a sarwang, (government of unbelievers). Just two months ago, activists mobilized the locals to rally against the presence of American troops who were conducting humanitarian medical missions in several towns of Lanao.

The Warrior-turned Trader Community

The Meranaos are said to be the most conservative and religious, yet the most mobile and business-minded among the thirteen ethno-linguistic Muslim cultural communities. Decades after the traumatic martial law period in Mindanao, thousands of Maranaos after acquiring education and civil service opportunities have traveled and made home across the country and the Middle East to work and help their poor families back home. From Bataan to Jolo, Maranao traders selling DVDS, jewelry and clothing can be found in most of the public markets and shopping centers in the country. They have also set up mosques in the mostly-Christian dominated towns where they have settled.

It is not surprising to see men in kimon (white attire to symbolize purity) who belong to the Tableegh (religious) movement and women fully garbed in black from head to toe manning stalls in the hip Virra Mall of Greenhills, where the rich and middle class shop.

With the rise in income of many of the Maranaos, today Lanao del Sur hosts the most number of Islamic schools and the biggest Islamic university. One can see many FORTUNERs and other luxury cars plying the highways. Islamic integrated schools in Manila and even abroad in the Middle East are owned and managed by Maranaos. Where you find a Meranao, you find a mosque.

Many Luzon-based Maranao businessmen and women are also said to be “secret millionaires” having profited from the jewelry and DVD trade. Many are being courted to invest in local politicians, mostly mayors, who need campaign funds during elections.

Lanao del Sur is a strategic campaign base for national politicians as well, having acted as a swing vote for senators who were hanging on the twelfth spot in the past elections. During the 2004 elections presidential elections, special elections here were supposed to have helped Gloria Arroyo beat Fernando Poe Jr, a popular icon among Maranaos. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reports that in all, the president got 30,447 votes in the special elections – enough to get her the one-million-vote lead. Poe, on the other hand got only 6,805.

Keeping traditions and customs alive in the Sultanate system, the Maranaos still follow many folk rituals when it comes to persons and family relations and even criminal cases, whereby vendettas (rido) or clan conflicts are settled by the adat system – payment of blood money to the aggrieved.

One can find many prominent individuals among the Maranaos – former Senator Mamintal Tamano, former Governor Ali Dimaporo, first lady Muslim Governor Princess Tarhata Lucman, former ARMM Governor Lininding Pangandaman, founder of the Mindanao State University (MSU) Domocao Alonto , the first lady president of MSU Emily Marohombsar (cover girl of a magazine in her time) and Bishop Ulama Conference co-convenor former ARMM Vice Governor Mahid Mutilan .


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