Is Tausug a Mere Tribe?

Cotabato City photo by Alberto Bainto
 photo by Alberto Bainto

Before the creation of the Republic of the Philippines, the Sulu Sultanate was already by itself a nation-state, running with all the elements of a state: Agama, Bangsa and Hula’

By Neldy Jolo

THERE ARE CONFUSIONS around the cause for Sulu independence (the so-called cry to restore the Sulu Sultanate), which I intend to clear out through this article.

First, people seem to think that the term Tausug refers only to the people of Hulu (Jolo) Island. As an individual who has done intensive research on the matter, I wish to clarify that Tausug really means “nation” or “nationality”. It is also the identity of citizens that once ruled and thrived under the Sulu Sultanate.

Second, many seem to still get confused between “sultan” and “sultanate”. We should take note that the term “sultan” is a position-title to mean authority. It is a title given to a person who is leading a country under a sultanate. Simply, a sultan is not a state but an individual appointed by the people to the highest position in the country or state. The state, not the sultan, is the sultanate. A sultan may be the highest-positioned leader of a state, but he is not the owner of the state. Perhaps he may own certain lands or properties like other citizens do, but it doesn’t mean he already owns all the lands or properties of the state.

A sultan in Sulu is enthroned with the consent of a group of datus; buranuns, sharifs, and imams. One cannot become a sultan without the approval of these groups. These groups are representatives of the citizens in the Rumah Bichara, which literally means the “House of Talks”. In the present system, the Rumah Bichara is called the parliament. The enthronement process is called Paggiba.

Before the creation of the Republic of the Philippines, the Sulu Sultanate was already by itself a nation-state, running with all the elements of a state: Agama, Bangsa and Hula’. Agama refers to the people’s way of life, law and order, territory, sovereignty, and government. Bangsa refers to people’s identity and determines people’s nationality in a certain country. It encompasses the identities of each inhabitants, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The Hula’, meanwhile, is a country that has its defined territory and independence.

These three elements are interconnected and intertwined; one can’t possibly exist without the others. During the liberation front’s struggle for independence in Mindanao and Sulu, people used these elements as benchmark; however, they were not properly defined, thus not fully understood.

The elements of a state in the modern world are people, territory, sovereignty and government, as well as external recognition by the United Nations. Sulu archipelago has this all, though its de facto government (government of fact) and external sovereignty are still controlled by the Republic of the Philippines. The de jure government (government of rights), however, is still intact as the authentic sovereignty until now because sovereignty is permanent and perpetual and thus cannot be transferred.

Tausug does not refer to only one tribe. Tausug means people of the Sulu archipelago. “Tau” means people; “Sug” means Sulu. Under the statehood and nationhood of the Sulu Sultanate, Tausug is people’s citizenship. It is composed of different tribes. It is a nation.

When I say Sulu, I am referring to the entire Sulu archipelago. Sulu encompasses present-day Zamboanga Peninsula, Basilan, Hulu (Jolo) Island, Tawi-Tawi, Palawan and North Borneo—all islands surrounded by the Sulu Sea. Sulu is already a nation by itself, having its own state even before the creation of the Republic of the Philippines.

Tausug is also known as Bangsa Sulu, Bangsa Sug, Sulus, Sulug and Suluk, and it means people of the Sulu archipelago. According to Sulu’s oral history, Bangsa Sulu comprises of various tribes—among them the Buranun of Hulu (Jolo) Islands, Tagimaha from Basilan (currently known as Yakan), Baklaya from Sulawesi, Dampuans from Champa, Banjar from Banjarmasin, Samal from everywhere else and many others like the Ilanun, Subanun, Mulbug, Kalibugan, Mapun and etc.

They altogether form a single distinct citizenship and nationality within the Sulu Sultanate. They are assembled into one identity, united amid the current of the Sulu Sea surrounding them.

Tausug is the citizenship and national identity of the people of the entire Sulu archipelago, regardless if certain people or tribes may not accept it. People need to understand that Sulu as an archipelago also means a geographical identity, which every tribe within it is part of. Tausugs have their historical, political and legal basis to assert their cause for independence. Sadly, many Tausugs themselves are not aware of this.

Tausug as a national identity has been binding people for hundreds of years ago. In the course of the creation of the Philippine Republic, the people of Sulu seem to have unconsciously agreed to embrace Filipino national identity or Filipino citizenship. This has led to decades of brutal war and suffering among all involved.

The only way to restore peace is for people to acknowledge and embrace their real identity, the Tausug or Bangsa Sulu, and for the Philippines and others to accept it.

The Bangsa Sulu is right now in the process of registering its own citizenship and nationality. Since 2007 Tausugs have already been registering themselves as Tausugs in their own Katarrangan Kapaganak (birth certificates) and Tanda’ Karaayatan Tausug (Tausug citizenship cards), indicating that they are neither Filipinos nor Moros. This move is legal. The international law allows changing of citizenship. The right to nationality is a fundamental human right as provided in the UN Declaration of Basic Human Rights.

Sulu and Mindanao citizens could never be united unless people acknowledge and embrace their real identity, which is different from that one “slur” term people use to refer to them. I choose not to mention the term boldly. By patronizing the usage of that slur, one is acknowledging the imposed, imagined and false identity with which we are all unfairly called upon to accept. That name was used by the liberation front though, but only to scare enemies. This is why the enemies love to call the liberation fighters “Muklu”, from the “Moro-Moro” theater play.

The name is also derived from an old term used by the Spaniards. “Moro”, likened to the Moors in Andalusia, was then used to refer to Muslim people. On hindsight I am wondering, if not through the Spaniards distinctly calling us such, would the national identity of people from Sulu and Mindanao have been acknowledged and recognized? Sadly it may be so. I pity myself, but I am happy too, because that name has led me face to face with my real identity: that of a Tausug.

This is fundamental and important for all of us trying to understand what the cause for independence is all about. There is no point in fighting when we ourselves don’t understand what we are fighting for. If we do not understand and acknowledge our identity, we can never be united. We may win, but isn’t it pointless if we don’t win this together?

Lastly I will go back to the question posed in this article. Since Tausug means Bangsa Sulu (Sulu Nation) and Bangsa Sug (Sulu State)—tell me. Is Tausug a mere tribe?

(Note: This article is intended to initiate a conversation. If there are experts, intellectuals, historians, political leaders, and others that want to share their expertise and opinions about the topic, I’d be happy if they can do so. I am here willing to listen. )

17 January 2014


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