Essay Issue 12:3

   Issue # 12:3 : January-June 2010

Pearlsha Abubakar



Decoding An Unspeakable Crime: A First Attempt


      11-23-2009. I can start right here, with this date, using an ancient numerology grid. I add up all the numbers. Eighteen. I make that into one digit. One plus eight. Nine.

      3 6 9
      2 5 8
      1 4 7

      This is the grid, which corresponds to the human body. Nine is right there on top, a head number. The next layer is the stomach, the bottom layer the feet.

      A deeply mystical number, nine supposedly represents the perfection of all the numbers on the grid. The sum of individual digits in every multiple of 9 is always 9; thus, in Hebrew culture, it represents pure intelligence, as well as truth. In Pythagorean terms, nine is simply the limit of all the numbers, because you need only to use any number from 0 to 9 to make up an infinite amount.

      Something was perfected on 11-23, when 57 people were massacred in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao. Someone pumped 16 bullets into one woman’s vagina. Another one dug into the belly of a pregnant woman and scraped its insides. Perfection.



      Can Maguindanao—or Muslim Mindanao, for that matter—be truly considered part of the Philippines? Or is it a whole world unto itself?

      Ampatuan town is in Maguindanao, and Maguindanaons are one of thirteen tribes in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a region of the Philippines consisting of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and Basilan, whose people, by forces of history, politics, and fortuity, operate on a different paradigm and have a unique worldview. The people in ARMM share a religion, Islam, albeit different from the Islam practiced elsewhere, but it is generally Sunni or the kind practiced by the Saudis.

      ARMM also happens to be one of the poorest regions in the country due to the many military operations there, as well as the several waves of all-out wars waged by the central government against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front, from 1972 onwards, which have displaced thousands of people in the area.

      Within ARMM, the culture is somewhat homogenous. There are three hereditary sultanates in Lanao, Sulu, and Maguindanao, each consisting of royal families. The Ampatuans are one of several families that make up the traditional royal house in Maguindanao.

      Many explanations, mostly political, have been made for the Ampatuans’ meteoric rise to power, the most popular being the Executive Order 546 signed by the President in 2006, allowing local officials and the Philippine National Police to deputize barangay tanods as “force multipliers” in the fight against insurgents. In practice, this law allows local officials to convert their private armed groups into legal entities with a fancy name: civilian volunteer organizations (CVO).

      While this essay does not want to exculpate the central government from its role in the Ampatuan Massacre, it wants to take a closer look at the hidden culture that made all this maneuvering possible. Are some cultures simply more explosive than others?

      I am fascinated by an idea that the former New Yorker reporter Malcolm Gladwell brought forward in his book Outliers. Writing about discrimination by skin color in Jamaica, Gladwell quotes the Jamaican sociologist Fernando Henriques: “A fair person will try to sever social relations he may have with darker relatives… the darker members of a Negro family will encourage the efforts of a very fair relative to “pass” for White. The practices of intra-family relations lay the foundation for the public manifestation of color prejudice” (emphasis mine).

      The idea that what members of a family do to one another determines how these families are eventually treated by outsiders made sense to me. I could not accept that a crime of such brutality as the Ampatuan Massacre was some freakish event, spiraling from some context other than that offered by the history and culture of the region itself.

      Was the uncommon violence of the Ampatuan Massacre rooted in the very culture of this town, of the province and region to which it belonged? Does a culture directly spawn its leaders, its crimes? If we go by the saying that the crime is also the punishment, is it perhaps possible that Ampatuan town somehow deserved its crime?

      Because of these questions, I knew I had to seek the insights of several Maguindanaons.



      To understand the history of Muslim Mindanao, one doesn't look. One listens. The oral tradition in the area is strong. Filipino Muslims who live in Muslim Mindanao follow a very different paradigm. Those who dig up knowledge and then turn them into museum pieces by pinning and writing them down are looked upon as strange. You don’t seek and dig up knowledge. It flows and ebbs, then comes to you, naturally, but only when you are ready for it. Rahman or grace is a prized virtue.

      So what I am doing right now is aberrant. I am writing and pinning things down. Examining a culture so fluid and elusive it’s practically made of water.

      Mysticism is still very prevalent in the region. Many aspects of the culture are in code. There are riddles. Euphemisms. Mind games of all sorts. This is a culture that has taken the Arab saying “hiding one’s thoughts is a sign of deep intelligence” to heart.

      Consider this traditional Maguindanaon bayok or song:

                Su limokon sa mangga
                Amayka inidsan
                Na maden matay o sapa*

                (The bird in the mango tree
                when asked
                seems to die when
                making a promise)

      In her book The Shared Voice: Chanted and Spoken Narratives From The Philippines, vocal artist and oralist Grace Nono records several such narratives. The abovementioned bayok is sung by Maguindanaon oralist Sarah Mandegan, who explains the verse as referring to a man who is a liar. This penchant for deliberate vagueness is not the Maguindanaon’s alone. My Suluano stepmother has often told me about the indirectness of the Tausug. Of someone who tells tall tales, she would say: “bang makastorying tao yan misan ing ista tiatahay makalanguy balik” ("That person can make dried fish swim again").

      Maguindanaons have a practice called dayunday, which became popular in the mid-’80s and ’90s at weddings and gatherings. Dayunday is a kind of musical jousting in which the singers challenge each other, not unlike a rap battle or the balagtasan. Nono explains that failing to give a satisfactory answer is shameful and may even endanger the singer’s livelihood, as the dayunday singer may not be invited to sing again.

      The Maguindanaon kulintang player and oralist Aga Mayo Butocan says the practice was denounced by the religious folk or panditas in the area due to its flirtatious and romantic nature. According to my Maguindanaon friend L, “to express their exasperation over the panditas, the musicians would sometimes play a passage on the kulintang and the people would laugh to themselves at the hidden meaning.”

      Another Maguindanaon friend told me about how war-weary rebels would replace the lyrics of an existing song with their own and indirectly sing about their lives as soldiers of the MILF or MNLF at informal gatherings. Her own father, a rebel, told her about it.

      Ma’am Aga confirms this. “There is what is called a ‘Moro Song.’ It’s actually a Western song, but the singer changes the lyrics to reflect what he wants to say.” She says the most popular Western song turned into a Moro song is the English folk song “Clementine.” The changed lyrics of “Clementine” would be something like this:

                U papanuk a kubu
                Namonot ako sa sambr
                Enggo ko kangganatan
                Ikaridu na ginnauwa

      This roughly translates to: “If I were a bird, I would fly with the wind, so I can avoid the sadness of life.”

      Since leaving the rebel movement would be tantamount to a betrayal, a Maguindanaon would be very careful in his choice of words. But at the same time, he would want to express the truth about his condition. Singing a poetic verse with many layers of meaning is a clever way to achieve both goals without hurting anybody’s feelings.

      Ma’am Aga isn’t sure why “Clementine” was such a hit with the rebels. She surmises that someone may have sung it first, and the others simply followed suit. “Clementine” has the following lyrics set to a sad melody:

                Drove she ducklings to the water
                Every morning just at nine;
                Hit her foot against a splinter,
                Fell into the foaming brine.

                Ruby lips above the water
                Blowing bubbles soft and fine;
                But alas I was no swimmer
                So I lost my Clementine.

                In my dreams she still doth haunt me
                Robed in garments soaked in brine;
                Though in life I used to hug her
                Now she’s dead, I draw the line.

      Of all the Western songs the rebels were exposed to, this is the song that captures their imagination and becomes part of their culture. A song about a young girl’s death.

      You have a colorful practice that showcases your ability to come up with beautiful, mysterious verses that hide their true meaning, and it has become a tradition. You have a Moro song based on a death song skillfully reworked into a song about yearning for freedom.

      So what does this tell me? Such practices don’t become part of culture when they’re rejected by the people. The Maguindanaon embraced these, embraced the darkness around him and hid the meanings from everyone else. So what does this culture have to hide?



      Most people don’t know that the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus—some of whom were killed on November 23rd—are related by blood. Consanguineous marriages are acceptable among members of some of the Mindanao royal houses.

      “Marriage between first cousins is acceptable,” explains L, a relative of the Ampatuans. “That’s because the future of the families is considered. In the culture, individuals don’t get married. It's a whole family getting married to another family.”

      But there are intricate rules to such a marriage, mostly implicit. For one, the marriage has to be arranged by the parents. Pursuing a romance without parental guidance can mean death. If you’re my cousin, you have no right to fall in love with me unless our union already has our parents’ blessing. L tells me of an extreme case in which someone was killed by his own uncle because he disobeyed this rule.

      Consanguineous marriages have advantages and disadvantages, already noted down throughout the years by many sociologists. One advantage is property is kept within the family for a very long period of time. Powerful families become even more powerful.

      There is also a belief that consanguineous marriages purify the blood. When bad luck or misfortune has befallen a family, it is usually pinned on an outsider who is perceived to have sullied the bloodline. Families address this by arranging a marriage between their own. An extreme case reported by S is that of a marriage between a full-blooded brother and sister. However, cases like this are really hard to verify because family genealogies or tarsilas are not easily accessible. For some important families, they are treasures and they are not written down. Instead, they are transmitted through oral tradition.

      In her book Northern Woman, Southern Seas, Margarita Cojuangco writes about the significance of the Noni, or pure blood, among the Maranaos and Maguindanaons. “This purity of blood comes from the accidental marriage of a half-brother and a half-sister whose parents originated from the marriage between the Malabang woman Angintabu and Sharif Kabungsuan’s—an important figure in Muslim Mindanao’s history, a Johore prince who was responsible for spreading Islam and institutionalizing it in Mindanao.”

      Cojuangco further writes: “Ascendancy from the Noni lineage is a political advantage. One who does not belong to a Noni family may surely lose in a political exercise. If both Nonis compete, their financial and political status will foretell their victory.”



      How can people of the same blood do unspeakable things to one another? S tells a little story by way of an explanation. She paints a picture of how it must have been like in a Maguindanaon royal house long ago. “The mother was a royal woman. She was vain. She would not let her children suckle at her breast. She lets a wet nurse take care of that. Maybe that’s how many generations of children ended up growing alienated from their mothers and their parents, and many generations of relatives not caring about each other.”

      L paints me an even more vivid and unforgettable picture of this woman’s husband, the sultan, whom they call “sultan na nag-itik sa tau” (the sultan that made ducks out of humans). “He was a cruel man who kept humans as pets,” he began. “He had their kneecaps removed so they could not escape their cages.

      “If he wanted to hear a dog howl, he would say so, and one of his human pets would howl like a dog. If he wanted to hear a cat meow, another one would do that for him. If he wanted to see a duck waddle, someone would waddle like a duck for him.” And when this sultan died, all his human pets were buried along with him—alive.

      I am amazed when I hear this story. “Is this factual?”

      L explains that in Maguindanao culture, there is no real distinction between myth and reality. The people believe the story actually happened in the past.

      The image of the 57 bodies hurriedly buried in a remote sitio in Ampatuan town comes back to me. The circumstances were different, but somehow the same as long ago. The story of human darkness haunts this place.

      “Or maybe it has something to do with those guys being a little shot in the head,” S says, not discounting the effects of inbreeding on certain members of the royal houses.



      The earth in Sulu is rich and loamy. It is often said that you can throw the seed of a fruit out the window and you’ll find a tree growing outside the very next day.

      It is the same in Maguindanao. The sitio in Ampatuan where the bodies were discovered is lush and green, surrounded by gently sloping hills on all sides. The soil has the same mocha color, thick and wet. Many believe it is so because of the blood from the bodies of those who had died on the land long ago. The cosmology of Muslim Mindanao is different. It’s written in blood.

      There is nothing the central government can do about it—the cosmology, as well as the impoverishment of the region. Pouring billions of pesos in development aid to the region, containing insurgency, organizing interfaith dialogues across various sectors—the government has tried them all. Still, nothing.

      It’s the children of Muslim Mindanao that offer a glimmer of hope. Schooled away from the region, their horizons widened by education and exposure to other worlds, they have the power to slowly make corrections in their own small ways to the traditions of their forefathers. And someday, what used to be written in blood will be written in kindness and grace.