The Arumanen Manuvu Indigenous People of Bentangan, Philippines

"Probing the Spirits for Peace"

by Yul A. Olaya

To the Arumanen Manuvu community in Central Mindanao, the village of Bentangan is a sacred place. Not only is it the ancestral home of this indigenous group of people, it also houses the gimukods (souls of the great ancestors and elders), and the different lumuna (the goddesses of the earth). "Lankgkat", the indigenous religion practiced by Bentangan's inhabitants, functions as a triad system in which the spirits, nature and people converge. This melding is expressed in their dances, rituals and other important feasts and gatherings like samayaan, guana, ulahing and kanduli. Magbabaya, their creator, oversees the practice of these expressions of faith, and endows his people with inspiration and protection. Their faith in Magbabaya, known as pangani-ngani, assures the community of life and peace.

Throughout his life as one of Bentangan's greatest leaders, Datu Sampal Mamporok strictly obeyed messages communicated to him by the great spirits, especially on matters dealing with peace and unity. Datu Sapalaw, as he was affectionately known by Bentangan's residents, urged his community to forsake guns and murder. His generosity and hospitality were admired and followed by everyone, including strangers. The people of Bentangan willingly embraced his pronouncements as messages from the gods.

During the time of Datu Sapalaw, the community accommodated many Moro and Christian families by giving them farmlands to till for their livelihood. This special gesture of giving and acceptance further enhanced the already harmonious and productive relationships among the three people groups.

However, before he died in 1998, he noticed that violence began to creep into their ancestral domain. In 1995, a strafing incident occurred in Sitio Kumarit that left one man dead, and a woman and her daughter wounded. During that same year, cattle rustling increased as various groups of armed men looking for bounty began to roam the hills near Bentangan.

Their decision to remain unarmed and hospitable toward Muslims led the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to label them as sympathizers of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In 1996, the 3rd Infantry Battalion visited Bentangan and convinced Datu Sapalaw to arm his people. It was indeed a real dilemma for this group of deeply pious indigenous people whose gods and goddesses never permitted them to use any other instruments of warfare.

However, under extreme pressure from many different kinds of combatants, they eventually ran out of options. They felt forced to side with either the government or the MILF. After much deliberation, the tigulang (the respected elders), along with the timueys (local chiefs) and the Barangay Council unanimously decided to conform to the position of the government. As a result, almost every man in the community is now part of the Civilian Volunteer Organization (CVO) while some of them joined the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU). Timuey Modesto Egsolin said that, "It is only now in my 60's that I am able to carry this gun," proudly displaying a US-made M-1 30 caliber rifle.

In April 2000, when the firefight and mortar bombardments between the MILF and the government forces surged to explosive levels, Bentangan was transformed into a battlefield. The Arumanen Manuvu CVO and CAFGU units took their turn on the frontline. They fought well and defended their place against intrusion from the armed groups. "It was the work of the gods that enabled us to defend our sacred place", Kagawad Filemon Lantong said as an M-14 rifle dangled from his shoulder. Although they were successful in defending Bentangan during the war, the people completely lost their Muslim brothers and sisters. All their Muslim neighbors and co-farmers slowly migrated out of Bentangan, leaving farms vacant and houses unoccupied.

The irony in this context of fear and hostility is so apparent. While they admit that they are peace-loving people, Bentangan's residents regularly carry weapons. And at the same time that they cast out the community's bad energy through their prayerful sayawan every Saturday, they are also slowly closing the door on their Muslim brothers. It is now clear that two communities, who were once the best of friends and originally descended from the same blood, are becoming adversaries.

Timuey Anastacio Pendaupan ambivalently admits, "We really do not know what drives us to this kind of situation despite the words of Datu Sapalaw". But Master Franklin Salilin, the head of the wali-an (the clairvoyant indigenous doctor of the tribe), is hopeful that the spirits of peace will not leave the tribe without guidance. He is confident that the maleficent spirits will soon spare them from any acts of dautan(evil).

But the spirits of peace have not been idle. After the war, the community started its own efforts to resurrect the harmonious relationships it once enjoyed with its neighbors. Kamid Ladialan, one of the many Muslims who once lived in Bentangan, secretly delivered two wild boars. Immediately after making his somewhat secretive delivery, Kamid returned to his home several kilometers away. That day, every Arumanen Manuvu family received a portion of the pork that Kamid had graciously given to the community.

In addition to Ladialan's gesture of kindness, Barangay Chairman Dahel Mamporok and Timuay Modesto Egsolin have engaged members from a local armed group in a dialogue. At some point, they reached a mutual agreement that seeks to prevent Bentangan from being further victimized by armed conflict. Mamporok trusts that these simple and highly personal discussions are more effective compared to gathering signatures on a piece of paper. But would this make them restore their original peaceful indigenous character as mandated by Langkat? He replied, "Only Magbabaya and the great spirits know".

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