Utto, hero or terrorist?

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, February 5, 2007  edition, page S1/5.

“Bombing in Metro foiled.” This was the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s headline on 2 February 2007.

The lead sentence of the report said that the “Police and Marines raided a suspected Moro terrorist hideout on an island in Laguna Lake…killing one man, arresting three others and foiling…a possible bomb attack in the capital.”  An actual bombing incident in Sulu or Mindanao no longer merits a headline, but a bombing plot in Manila, though frustrated, is jolting news.

Killed was Mohammad Utto, and arrested were Sandiali Utto, allegedly a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) Special Operations Group and his aides, Jukarnen Utto and Alimuddin Abdullah.

The names all sound Moro.  Three of the four plotters share the same surname, Utto.  But what’s in a name?  For the majority of Pinoys, their names are irrelevant and forgettable; they are simply Moro terrorists.

The military further said that the Uttos are “guns for hire” and have links with the notorious Abu Sayyaf.  Even the MILF through its spokesperson, Eid Kabalu, disowned, even demeaned, the Uttos.  Mr. Kabalu said. “They are bandits and police linked them to our organization.”  Pity the Uttos, no one, not even the MILF, sympathized with them.

But for the few who have read Reynaldo Ileto’s book, the Inquirer headline about 21st century “bandits” named Uttos involved in a terrorist plot may have a deeper significance. The Ileto book being referred to is titled Magindanao, 1860-1888: The Career of Datu Utto of Buayan. (Anvil Publishing Inc., 2007).  Magindanao was Ileto’s masteral thesis at Cornell University, first published as a monograph in 1971 and reprinted in 1984, with slight but imperfect revisions, by the University Research Center if the University of Mindanao.  The Anvil edition is Magindanao’s definitive version, as it were.

Only an uncommon Pinoy like my cousin Badi Malay will be interested in the slain and captured Uttos.  Badi, who like Ileto has an academic training in history, told me about his educated guess that the Uttos involved in the supposed bombing plot might be the descendants of the 19th century Datu Utto.  Badi counts among the few who have read Magindanao.  Knowing that Badi admires Ileto, we gifted him and his wife Odile a copy of the recently published book, which included a personal note from the author himself.

Badi’s conjecture that the modern-day Uttos descended from the 19th century datu cannot be dismissed.  Datu Utto, not a common name, had many royal wives and concubines, and he sired many children.

Who is Datu Utto?  Even the sophisticated and highly educated Moro activists I know—for example, a Muslim convert who comes from a buena familia and a charming young lady who comes from a well-known, if not feared, political clan in Lanao—came across Datu Utto’s name only because I recommended to them Ileto’s book. Even a Bangsa Moro website that contains an alternative historical account of the Moro’s anti-colonial struggle mentions Datu Utto in passing.  Does this mean that Datu Utto does not occupy an important place in the Moro history?

But Datu Utto is a legendary figure.  Even the most hostile accounts about him written from the perspective of the Spanish colonialists conceded that he was an intrepid, cunning leader who fought the Spaniards by combining military, political, economic, and diplomatic weapons.  The Spanish colonialists and their writers described him in largely negative terms.  Datu Utto was a “half-civilized” and “immoral” person, a pirate, and a terrorist.  The branding of Datu Utto was therefore no different from how the Spaniards branded Macario Sakay a bandit.

But Ileto portrays Datu Utto in a very different light.   To quote Ileto in his preface to the 1971 edition:  “The situation in which the ‘hero’ of history finds himself is as important as his personality and his actions.  The leader neither behaves in a vacuum nor is he an entirely free individual.”  For Ileto, the Moro (with Utto as example) must be understood “in his own terms,” as a product of “his or her own social, political, and cultural milieu.”

What may seem ironic is that the scholar first trained by the Jesuits—and the Jesuits are the nemesis of the Moros—is more receptive than the Moros themselves to the idea of making Datu Utto a hero of history. And in his preface to the 2007 edition, Ileto says, “I feel there exists an even greater urgency, in this post-9/11 era, to speak for those whose struggles against imperial and colonial domination are misrepresented and even criminalized.”

Ileto does not abandon his rigorous scholarship in giving Utto a positive portrayal.  He does not dispute, for instance, that Datu Utto’s rule “was marked by instances of terrorism and assassination undertaken by his slave army.”

But Ileto understands that “Utto’s fears were very real and inescapable, and it is in this context that Spanish descriptions of him must be seen.”

Even having slaves, a symbol of power and dominance in those times, has to be seen in its historical context.  In Magindanao society then, power was measured in terms of the number of slaves that a sultan or datu commanded.  A sultan would even prefer parting with his wife and children to giving up a critical number of his slaves, in order to maintain his royal status.

In late 18th century Magindanao, only two potentates, one of whom was Utto, had an army of several thousand slaves. At the height of his power, Utto had between 4000 and 5000 slaves.

But Ileto rejects a moral condemnation of slave ownership in Magindanao during that period.  The existence of slaves at that point merely reflected the actual (or the objective) level of society’s development.  And more importantly, Ileto makes a distinction between bond slaves and chattel slaves.  In Magindanao and in other lowland groups, the slaves (alopon) were bond and had rights and property.  Another type of slaves was the baniaga, those seized from Spanish or enemy territory.  And unlike the classic slavery found in Africa and America, the so-called slaves in Malay societies had the opportunity to improve their social standing and improve their welfare.

The political system was patriarchal, which meant that Utto treated the slaves as part of his own family.  Citing a Spanish manuscript, Ileto says that the meaning of Datu Utto’s real name, Nua, is associated with being “good,” affable,” and “kind.”

It is in this vein—i.e., Utto’s goodness and kindness or possibly love and piety that defines his relationship with the slaves—that Ileto rejects the view that the datu’s accumulation of wealth and power was solely driven by self-interest.

To return to the news item about the Moro terrorists named Utto, the readers can learn something from Ileto—that we “read against the grain.” In the future, a younger historian inspired by Ileto might even revisit the life of these Moro terrorists and understand them in their own terms.

Undoubtedly, what made Ileto an eminent and leading historian and historiographer of his generation was his Pasyon and Revolution.  But there would have been no Pasyon and Revolution, if Ileto did not write about 19th century Magindanao and the life of Datu Utto. As he humbly wrote in the preface to the 2007 edition,  “my lack of deep familiarity with Magindanao society and culture and with Islamic notions of community and struggle prevented me from going any further than what I have written in this book.  This is one reason…that I eventually turned to the Tagalog region, whose language and literature I could master, and to the Christian religion whose workings in the popular mind I could fathom given my previous exposure to its teachings and practices.”  For Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution was the Filipino Christians’ version of jihad.

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