Jolo, Philippines

Tribute to a daughter of Jolo: Desdemona Tan
by Madge Kho
(This article first appeared in the June-October 1993 issue of Mahardika, the official MNLF organ)

       One of the people I had hoped to see when I visited the Philippines in July 1987 was Desdemona Tan. She had been stealing headlines in the papers everyday in her efforts to keep the peace talks between the Muslim insurgents and the Philippine government from collapsing. Des surfaced publicly, after fifteen years in the underground, with her husband, Nur Misuari, the MNLF Chairperson, photographed with Cory Aquino, immediately after the signing of a cease fire agreement in Jolo.

      Des, who had always deferred to Nur when it came to making public statements and assessment of the Bangsamoro people's struggle, was surprisingly belligerent when I called her in Pakistan in June 1987 to find out how the peace talks were going.  "It's all over," she said angrily, "we're back to war.  The Philippine government reneged on its commitment to pursue peace in Mindanao.".

      The peace talks had indeed come to a halt. But Des desperately wanted to see peace come once again to Mindanao and Sulu, and was prepared to risk her life for it. She had just had gall bladder surgery and was to be on a strict, thirty day, recuperation. Instead, she flew home to Jolo to encourage Nur back to the negotiating table. Des was hoping to play a pivotal role, once again, in bringing the key players together for negotiations. She electrified Manila audiences with her versatile and persuasive articulation of the Bangsamoro struggle during her last few months alive. Many believe her exhausting trek down south and subsequent meetings contributed to her post-operative trauma -- two mild heart attacks that resulted in a massive brain hemorrhage, which finally took her life in Islamabad, Pakistan on July 4, 1987. Her bodyguards would later complain that she was stubborn as a mule when it came to resting. She spent her "resting" days giving interviews to the media, calling people, arranging meetings, etc.

 Renowned Muslim sculptor, Addulmari Imao, in his "Remembering Desdemona Misuari" (Manila Times, 7/11/87) said that during the 2nd Bangsamoro National Congress in Bualoh, Maimbung, Sulu in September 1986, Des told him "we have a lot of children and I would like to return to Jolo when there is peace."  In planning for a duwaa (memorial) prayer for Des, Farouk Carpizo, administrator of Mahardika Village, a Muslim housing project in Taguig, Rizal, told us that Des had inquired if she could apply for housing there.  Farouk, who's Des' first cousin, jokingly asked her, "What on earth is happening?  Are you forsaking your jungle life already?"  She said, "Dih ba.  Para ha manga anak ku ba, Farouk."  (No.  It's really for my children.)

 Yes, Des certainly sacrificed a lot for the Moro cause.  Born to a wealthy and prominent family in Jolo, she gave up a promising teaching career and comfortable life to join a fight against the Marcos dictatorship.  Des, joined the underground shortly after her  detention in September 1972 when martial law was declared.  Her decision shocked Moroland, according to Nelly Sindayen, a friend and Time Magazine correspondent, "when she gave up a privileged life."

 Having joined the MNLF took a heavy toll on the Tan family.  Her late father Tuchay Tan, a prominent politician and businessman; mother, Maimona Abubakar and brother, Ping Hong, were not spared the abuse of the Philippine military.  Pah Tuchay, partially paralyzed from Parkinson's disease, was almost thrown off the rooftop of Notre Dame College by Philippine military forces after they retook Jolo following the MNLF takeover of  Jolo for a few days in February 1974.

       Des and I grew up in what we Taussig now call the peak of Jolo City's life--the mid-to through the late 60s--when Jolo was at its most peaceful state.  The succession of juramentados (Spanish for swearing as the Moro would swear by Allah before committing this act) or what Taussig call parang-sabil (martyrdom) a sort of personal jihad (Holy War), that terrified Northerners, had almost ended by the time the first Muslim mayor and governor were elected in the late 50s.

 Kamlon, the Philippine government's Public Enemy Number One but a Robin Hood to many locals, became the target of a massive military campaign because he had defied Manila's authority.  I remember armored tanks patrolling Jolo in the late 50s.  We grew up living the reality of a parang-sabil every other Sunday or so.  Our Sunday evening walks would be cut short because someone had thrown a hand grenade in one of the movie houses.

 Jolo was a prospering city, enriched by the tax-free barter trade with neighboring Borneo.  Food was never a problem for residents---the sea was as generous as ever as a source of food and the land gave more than what locals could consume.  But key administrative jobs were still controlled by the bisayah (Christian Filipinos).  Mindanao and Sulu, though contributing about 50% of the country's wealth, were receiving less than 10% in social services and provincial funding.  This, together with a gripe list of hundreds and thousands, formed the basis of the unity of the MNLF, that Des and thousands of Joloanos eventually joined.

 When the MNLF first surfaced in 1972, Filipinos found it unbelievable that they (the Moros) would seek independence or autonomy.  Many Filipinos are unaware that Mindanao and Sulu became part of the Philippines only when the American's colonized the Philippines in 1898.  The Americans broke a treaty it signed with the Sulu Sultanate in 1899 (Bate Treaty),  promising to respect  Moro sovereignty.  From 1904 to 1913, the Moros fought the onslaught of American firepower.  And, in  1913, sultan relinquished his sovereignty.  But even before the Moros were subdued, the U.S. implemented the "Policy of Attraction," with the intent of relieving social unrest in the north and Filipinizing the south by bringing in Christian Filipinos from Luzon and Visayas and giving them land titles.  Those Moros who did not register their land lost their claims to the land they've had for generations.  The goal of minoritizing the south succeeded.  In 1913, there were only 2% non-Muslims in Mindanao, but by 1976, Christians made up 40% of the population.  From 1966-1976 alone, Marcos resettled over 3 million northerners in Mindanao.  Today, less than 17% of the land ownership are in the hands of the Moros.

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