One of the memorable sessions we’ve had so far in Political Law Review dealt with “gerrymandering,” the practice of carving up a new province or district from separate and even non-contiguous municipalities that comprise some politicians’ bailiwicks to enable them to preserve their hold on power. And recently just before the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, I saw for myself what gerrymandering actually means.
Before you can reach Buluan, a town in Maguindanao province, you have to pass by another province, Sultan Kudarat. And Shariff Kabunsuan province is so small you can actually drive through its highway without knowing that you are no longer in it. On an area inspection as we prepared to monitor the elections, we were able to go around Shariff Kabunsuan and Maguindanao, and then reach the boundary of Sultan Kudarat in less than two hours.
Maguindanao (which would include Shariff Kabunsuan) is really beautiful. (I never thought I’d find it to be that way, but I can’t think of a better word to describe the place.) On both sides of the road are vast, green tracts of land with mountains stretching to the horizon. The houses are built so far apart that at some points, our local partners would refer to them as a “no man’s land.” And these simple houses are built of nipa.
Then you reach the seat of government, the Provincial Capitol of Maguindanao, and the “palaces” (yes, they have two of those) of the Ampatuan family, which are called “the Malacañang of the Mindanao.” These palaces rise from both sides of the road, one owned by the father, the other by the son. They are grand structures that contrast sharply with the poverty in the region. Joel, our local, said, “May bangko pa ‘yan sa loob” [“It even has a bank inside”].
During that two-hour trip, we passed through countless checkpoints and so many soldiers either walking in file by the side of the road or being transported in trucks and other military vehicles, all in full battle gear. At one checkpoint, the lady lawyer who was with us, and who had just finished praying the rosary, asked the solider, “How old are you?”
The soldier, who was sweating profusely from the heat of his uniform (or from terror) and obviously taken aback by the question, meekly uttered, “Twenty-two po.”
Boy, I’m 23 and I’ve never had to wear grenades around my waist to survive.
That day was yet another day of learning for me, reinforcing what I’ve started to realize since last year: We can never really judge a place and its people, without knowing their lives, how they live, and what they have to contend with every day. It’s so easy for the media to portray this part of the country as a war-torn land and for brilliant legal minds sitting in some comfortable office in Manila to agree with the logical reasoning of the Supreme Court in dissolving an entire province such as Shariff Kabunsuan, or to criticize an alien concept such as the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity based on what we know to be the Constitution and what we fear to lose as a nation should we give away so much independence to some groups.
I, for one, agree with the decision to strike down the law that created the province of Shariff Kabunsuan (like what I said, it’s really absurdly small and very contiguous, and people know that one motive for creating new provinces or towns is to increase the internal revenue allotment). But until that day, I based my beliefs and principles only on what I knew to be right under the law, and I never thought anything else mattered. But when you go to the ground and find out that the Muslims of Shariff Kabunsuan and those of Maguindanao belong to two very different tribes, then the lines lose their clarity. When you see a big streamer hung across the highway that reads, “SUPREME COURT JUSTICES, PLEASE RECONSIDER YOUR DECISION. HAVE MERCY ON US” and supposedly put up by hundreds of employees of the provincial government who suddenly found themselves unemployed and with nowhere else to go, your keen legal mind finds itself confused by a complicated reality. When you hear a decorated military colonel, who has suffered imprisonment for love of country, predicting with conviction that one day, the whole of Mindanao will be separated from the Philippines because it is simply inevitable and it is most needed to avert bloodshed, you begin to question what you know to be the best for the nation or to stop hundreds of 22-year olds from having to kill against their will.
I’m a law student. But on that day, I was a law student who was not reading law books but who was immersed in the poorest, most battered corner on this side of the country.
I’m not saying that we should change what we know of the law because of what we see out there. But maybe, we can start learning how to look at the law minus the unflinching arrogance of our legal education but with a more sensitive eye if not an understanding heart for those who are left to bear the consequences of applying it.
I still think the Supreme Court was right in applying the law in Sema v. Comelec. Perhaps our government negotiators really gave away too much as the price of peace in Mindanao. But what I think cannot feed the families of those who were thrown out of their jobs in Shariff Kabunsuan, or prevent a young man from dying while fighting for peace. It’s tough to be a lawyer in a country that is poor and divided. It is hard to be both right and understanding.
Krizna Gomez, 23, is a fourth-year law student at the Ateneo de Manila University. She was in Cotabato City as part of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections, a group of non-partisan lawyers and law students that monitored the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.