Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A melodious sound coming from a miranet occupies Maharlika Village in Taguig City. Men wearing long tunics and brimless round caps enter a mosque, preparing to start their daily prayer.
Around the mosque are derelict public houses, intertwining electrical lines, drums of water, and strips of kiosks that sell a medley of food, drinks, home decor, and garments.
“Dito, nagtitinda ako ng kakanin,” says Racma Kusain Machmood, a 56-year-old Muslim who left Cotabato City for Manila in 1988, because of the conflict in her hometown among the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and the Ilaga, an extremist Christian group.
“Nakita namin ‘yung mga namamatay na Muslim. [‘Yung Ilaga], kung hindi tenga, ulo ‘yung pinutol nila. Kung hindi ulo, ‘yung titi,” she recalls.
She, her husband, and their son first arrived and made a living in Quiapo, Manila in the ‘80s. In 2000, however, under Joseph Estrada’s regime, their resettlement area was demolished, transferring them to Maharlika, which now has the largest community of Muslims in Metro Manila.
Across her tiangge is another open-front hut owned by Haja Sulaika Saligan, who like Machmood, has been selling a variety of goods in the village. She arrived in Maharlika in 2002, after leaving Sambulawan in Maguindanao because of the war between the MNLF and the AFP.
“Kasi ‘yung mga sundalo pinupuntahan nila ang ka-Musliman, kaya ‘yun nagigiyera,” she says. “Pero ngayon hinahanap nila kalayaan at kapayapaan kaya baka maayos din.”
Despite being displaced for almost two decades now, Saligan and Machmood are optimistic that the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which was signed by President Duterte in July 2018, will give them the peace that the Filipino-Muslim community have long been clamoring for.
What the BOL means for every Muslim
The BOL, previously called the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), is a product of the many peace negotiations between rebel groups, largely headed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Philippine government. The law abolishes the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was signed by Cory Aquino in 1989.
Often called a failed experiment, the ARMM was said to be spoiled by corruption and negligence; and today, Jan. 21, the BOL plebiscite commences for voters to decide if whether or not Mindanaoans want to ratify the new law.
The BOL plebiscite also allows voters to determine the areas to be covered by the new region — the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) — and replace not only what area the ARMM constitutes, but also hopefully extinguish the decades-long rebellion in Mindanao, give the BARMM a substantial budget that can rebuild the towns that have been destroyed because of war, and solidify the Bangsamoro identity.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, Islamic law and politics professor Jamel Cayamodin of the University of the Philippines said that the new law is crafted in a move to answer the needs, grievances, and requests of Muslims in Mindanao.
“When you talk about the BBL, it's the advocacy of every Muslim … For the past years, since martial law, the Muslims have been asking for self-determination,” Cayamodin said.
Muslims in Manila on the BOL
Indeed, it is not only for Muslims living in Mindanao that the BOL is of importance. In Maharlika, several tarpaulins (“Yes to Bangsamoro Organic Law!”) hang on the chipped walls of the worn-out buildings.
Saligan, who is also an adviser of the Hukbong Federal ng Pilipinas, a group that advocates for federalism in the Philippines, proudly shows her I.D., a photo of President Duterte plastered on the topmost part. She says that having a federal government is an important shift for the country, and that the ratification of the BOL is a crucial step towards that direction.
“Kasama kami nung nag-rally kami sa Senate, sa Mendiola, sa Batasan para pirmahan na [‘yung BOL,]” she says. “Importante sa amin [ang] kapayapaan at pagkakaisa. ‘Yun ang pinaka-base.”
Haja Sapia, a 78-year-old from Cotabato City who is also a resident of Maharlika, says that more than anything else, the BOL is a promise of peace in her hometown. After years of moving from one province to another, of crossing rivers with her children, of hiding in trees, being back in Mindanao is a desire she always wants to make possible.
“[Ang makabalik] talaga ‘yung [gusto] namin. Di lang kami makabalik kasi ‘yun ang mahirap, maya-maya may putok sa kabila, may putok na naman. Nakakatakot. Hindi kaya ‘yung ganon,” she says.
While Saligan credits this possibility of a peaceful, more progressive Mindanao to the current Duterte administration, Sapia doesn’t necessarily think this is the case. Maybe the peace can be attributed to Duterte, she says, but their level of poverty both in Cotabato and Manila has never changed.
“Kahit palit-palitan mo ‘yung presidente, ganon pa rin eh. Wala rin nangyari eh,” she says. “Maganda lang dito [sa Manila] kasi kahit mahirap ka hindi ka na natatakot. Doon, mahirap ka na, takot ka pa.”
The public housing in Maharlika Village, with its unlit staircases, missing handrails, vandalized walls, and grimy floors, consists of 420 units according to the official records of the National Housing Authority.
Reymally Macusang, a member of the Maharlika Condominium Unit Owners Association, says that since the National Housing Association (NHA) awarded the buildings to the displaced Muslims in 2000, not once were they checked or maintained because of “delinquent” renters. In 2004, the NHA also stopped supplying water, as there were residents who weren’t able to pay.
NHA’s records also state that each unit measures either 24 sqm or 22.5 sqm. Macusang adds that one unit sometimes houses more than three families, with the number increasing rapidly after war broke out in Marawi in 2017. The buildings have five floors each and the rent starts at around ₱500 for those living on the highest floor, and ₱1,620 for those on the ground floor.
This year, Macusang says that they were informed that the NHA is planning to increase the rent to around ₱2,000. “‘Yung mga tao naman dito hindi naman mayaman. Hindi nila nga nabayaran dati na sobrang isang libo lang, ngayon pa kaya?” she says.
Islam identity in Manila
While many displaced Muslims have already rebuilt their lives in Manila, there are still those who want to go back to Mindanao should the BOL be ratified. Muhammad Alforso, one of the community leaders in Maharlika who was originally from Marawi, has been an imam (a worship leader) of the village for almost a decade now.
He left Marawi over 10 years ago to earn a better income in Manila, and he would go back and forth from Manila to Marawi to take care of his families’ various livelihoods. But in 2017, the Marawi siege happened, reducing his city to ruin.
“Nung nangyari na ‘yung sa Marawi, hindi na kami nakauwi dahil ‘yung mga kabuhayan namin, pati mga bahay namin dun, wala na, wasak na kaya parang wala na kaming mabalikan,” he says.
Nonetheless, Alforso sees the BOL as a chance to restore his broken town, but more importantly, as an opportunity to start anew in the place where his being Muslim is not questioned or judged. He laments about how despite having a relatively peaceful life in Manila, Islam is still a religion and a way of life that is rarely understood by the general Filipino public.
He says that Maharlika Village, in fact, has been often tagged as a dangerous place, a haven for ‘bad Muslims’ and ‘criminals.’ “Bakit katulad ng mga kapatid natin na mga Christian na kapag nagkasala ay ang sinasabi ay eto si Juan ang ginawa niya ay ganito … Hindi sinasabi na ‘Katolikong’ Juan?” he says.
Alforso also shares how when he was walking around in his tunic in one of the nearby markets, some bystanders started shouting “Abu Sayyaf!” towards him. Macusang shares this sentiment, adding that their Islamic faith is what has kept them strong despite the many accusations hurled at them.
“Nakatatak na sa ibang tao na Muslim, terorista siya. Muslim, Abu Sayyaf siya,” she says. “‘Yung challenge [ay] kung paano pakikisamahan ‘yung non-Muslim na mga brother and sister kasi lalo na ‘yung [mga sinasabi nila,] tumatak ‘yun sa pagkatao namin.”
These seemingly little, day-to-day displeasures have been imprinted on Macusang and conceivably all other Muslims making a life in Manila. Alforso says this is also the main reason why going back to Mindanao remains to be a dream that he holds dear.
“Kahit saan ka pa mapadpad, mapunta, walang kasing ganda ang pamumuhay doon mismo sa pinanganakan sa’yo.”