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[PULITIKULTURA] The Tausug Lapu Lapu: It’s complicated

By Marian Pastor Roces

A Tausug Lapu Lapu took up real estate in our weary minds this past week. But well it did. It opened briefly to a tempestuous field that Filipinos need to enter; and there to pick apart where to place sympathy, contempt, and hard thinking.

It’s complicated, but not the Senator Go statement, “Ako po ay taospusong humihingi ng paumanhin kung iba ang datíng ng aking naikwento”. Clearly a non-apology, this is easily the location for our contempt.

He regrets the “datíng”—the impression or effect—not the revisionist content. He evades admitting the irresponsibility by saying he miscalculated the way he spoke. This (and the utang na loob the President thinks the Philippines owes China, among other aggravations) messes up what should be a national conversation on imagination and history; not the least, about the ample room Muslim Filipino stories need to occupy in it.

But we know that fluffing up the leaders and crushing dissent appear to be the twin purpose of government information right now; and because so, there is very little chance that this is a simple goofy mistake; and every possibility that this is only a tiny, visible part of the huge, invisible operation to solidify a Dutertean reality.

Which is why it is risky to let this go. Much more needs to be probed about the Tausug Lapu Lapu, but not through its inclusion in Duterte revisionism. Particularly in formal settings like the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Mactan, a grossly revisionist government can only foreclose a reasoned discussion.

Hence it is good to read the National Historical Commission statement, which is measured and evenhanded. Chairman Rene Escalante wrote that other than the eyewitness acoounts, the NHCP “…considers all popular accounts and stories outside of these historical sources as speculative and folkloric and should not be regarded as established facts of history.”

Evenhanded is fine for the government agency on history. Beyond officialese, however, is the continuing, difficult work of refining Philippine stories in light of new data, fresh analyses, and explorations of different, difficult memory systems.

Popular accounts and stories, and the folkloric —that is to say, oral history—has not been outside the purview of history and historiography in the Philippines since the historian Reynaldo Ileto famously analyzed the Tagalog pasyon to enter a grassroots consciousness that played out during and after the birth of the nation.

Ileto successfully argued for a space for oral history in history, traditionally confined to written records. However, the historian did not mine the field for empirical data, understanding that orality is an entirely different kind of knowing. Extracting dates, people, and events is not for the faint-hearted.

Much of the “data” in oral literature is illusory. Such is the nature of oral history: its truth is enveloped in metaphor. And there have also been humongous errors in the canonization of Philippine historical “data”, such as the completely bogus Barter of Panay and ten Bornean datus.

Meanwhile, certain Tausug circles have long looked to narratives memorialized in their kissah chants — among the most complex of the Philippines’ literary-musical forms. One supposition is the story of a man- turned-into-lapulapu (the red fish, kulapu, which, curiously enough, reverses the color red, pula), thought to historically connect with expeditions to the Visayas from Sulu; and back.

The man-turned-fish, conflated into an individual, Maas Illijih, who seems to have lived in historical, not mythic time, is today advanced by some Sulu advocates as the historical Lapu Lapu of Mactan, who killed the navigator Ferdinand Magellan.

The symbolic charge of a taking credit for the deed, on behalf of one ethnolinguistic group among 170+ others, would have amounted to a coup of mythical proportions. Were it plausible as empirical.

Recent history is more interesting and relevant. This idea of a Tausug Lapu Lapu entered political discourse, among other channels, by way of Abraham Idjirani, secretary general and spokesperson of the heirs to the Sulu Sultanate, passing it on to Senator Go. This same Idjirani was a high profile actor during the incursion into the Lahad Datu District of Sabah in 2013, by a group that called itself the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”.

Such actors would have the attention of the Mindanao President and his Senator-Aide Go. The dynamic between the Administration and the Sultanate can be assumed to be a complicated affair — but it is in sum a relationship based on the word “claims”. Of many different kinds.

The claim to a Tausug origin of Filipino anti-imperialism — even if some validating data materializes to miraculously bridge the gap between the Battle of Mactan of 1521 and Illidji’s maritime exploits in the 1660’s — is unfortunately damaged by its shoddy annexation to Duterte’s broad spectrum revionism.

Greedy for fragments of stuff that give spit and shine to Mindanao-centrism, this crass rewriting is of course indifferent or hostile to disciplined scholarship. The hostility and indifference issues from aggressive self-creation as victims of Imperial Manila, so-called.

Victimhood in Duterte’s sense of himself as personification of Mindanao, allows him license to yank anything from context, drain it of detail, and install in his crown. Said Go following the Tausug Lapu Lapu claim: “I and President Duterte are from Mindanao,” continuing, “We, too, are Bisaya,” he said.

Duterte, hence Go and cohorts, cannot seem to create symbolic capital out of Mindanao settler narratives, to which stories they belong. So their go-to place for the reflected shine of old glory days is Muslim Philippines. Vicarious thrill.

Without Duterte, on the other hand, the Sultanate of Sulu can only increase that cultural capital by including in its narrative-making activities, the rigourous practices of global peer review in oral history scholarship. In the 21st century, the world’s intellectuals are sympathetic to erased or marginalized narratives.

It is the kind of scholarship that will, however, produce outcomes empowering or humbling or both — but ultimately liberating, particularly from the desire for a herculean narrative. Fine-grained reconstructions, promise origin stories that are far less macho; and far more surprising.

For example, the consensus in modern linguistics that Tausug and Cebuano are the closest languages to each other that to others, makes moot the lavish focus on the drama of warriorhood at the crossroads of history.

Linguistics classifies Tausug as a Central Philippine language; and indeed the Mandaya language, Surigaonon, Butuanon, and others from Mindanao’s northeastern and eastern regions. This discipline is also sure that Tausug speakers originated in northeastern Mindanao, arriving in the Sulu Archipelago about 800 years ago.

The original Sulu peoples were the Sama. Those who wish to dispute this will have to debate linguists.

More complication: the Tausug speaking people originated in the area around Butuan, but this scientific conclusion does not deny their rise subsequent to considerable power with their embrace of Islam 600 years ago, starting from their arrival in Sulu; their intermixing and travel through the Islamic-HinduBuddhist worlds; and alliance building with Manila, Brunei, Johore, and other parts.

In this appreciation of Tausug experience, it is vital that the kissah is understood well as one of the Philippines’ extraordinarily resilient chanted forms of memory transmission. And that it is worth much much more in a collective Philippine culture, and world heritage, than only as a mining territory for elusive empirical data.

Ironic therefore that the Tausug Lapu Lapu of the dreams of retroactive or revisionist glory seems blind to scientifically validated data about the true relation of Cebuanos and Tausugs — a relationship that is preIslamic and pre-Christian at the very wiring of the brain. And preceded the matter of the killing of Magellan by thousands of years.

All of which complications indicate, firstly, that the Duterte government today thinks it can thrive on regional hubris, caring nothing for richer stories of interconnections. Secondly, and more importantly, that the rest of us are obliged to recognize in the chants the clear traces of vigorous interaction by boat in island Southeast Asia — that should really count for a lot in the imagination of nation.

Marian Pastor Roces works internationally as an independent curator, critic of institutions, and analyst of culture and politics. Through her corporation, TAOINC, she curates the establishment of museums. She is also a founding Partner of the think tank, Brain Trust, Inc.

She has long argued that governance, civil society action, and policy making in the Philippines are weakened by the absence of cultural analysis. Such analysis, in turn, needs to work with updated data. Hence Pulitikultura, Roces' platform for probing the intersection of culture and politics.

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