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Tawi-Tawi, A Gem Awaiting Discovery, Part 1

Until the mass deportations of Filipinos from Malaysia last year, most people heard of Tawi-Tawi when news reports had criminal or rebel elements passing through its waters in or out of the country. Before that the province got air time when radio commentators unleashed their tirades against rogue cops and prescribed banishment to the province as a fitting punishment for their misdeeds.

Such unfortunate associations cast Tawi-Tawi and its people in an unfavorable light that is undeserved and unfair. As a result, much of its beauty and charms, economic contributions to the country as well as its cultural, archeological and environmental significance are unrecognized and unappreciated.

Not surprisingly, few people know the Tawi-Tawians as a peace-loving people who made religious tolerance a way of life. Given prevailing conditions in Mindanao and perceptions of Muslims, such a notion may seem unbelievable. Yet the skyline of the capital, Bongao, is a silent but eloquent assertion of this truth. It is pierced by the spires of the Iglesia ni Kristo church and the cross of the Catholic Cathedral. Cross the street is the onion-shaped dome of a Muslim Mosque. Not too far away is the biggest private educational institution. It is part of the network of Notre Dame schools that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) fathers have been running in Mindanao for over 50 years. The majority of its students are Muslim. Despite this peaceful coexistence among faiths, Tawi-Tawi is still considered no man’s land.

Theirs is a way of life that honors age-old economic and kinship ties that are often at odds with the geo-political realities of today. For instance, it is difficult to imagine how some places do not have public markets as we know them. In Taganak, the municipal seat of Turtle Islands, the people routinely cross international borders to buy their most basic needs in Sandakan, a busy port in Borneo. They buy sugar, milk, gasoline, paint and even the ice they use to preserve the fish they catch in Philippine waters and sell in Malaysia. It is little wonder that they need ringgits more than they do pesos. While marketing “sa kabila,” (as they refer to Sandakan) it is not unusual for them to visit their kin who work and settled there. Yet, they consider themselves Filipinos and feel an acute sense of marginalization and alienation from the rest of the country.

That sentiment is not really surprising. It may be because most Filipinos have not learned to overcome a mindset that views Muslims as “enemies” of Christianity. For some reason we have failed to recognize the common roots both faiths have in Abraham’s God. Better education and better access to communication and technology have not brought deeper understanding. Today this keeps most people from enjoying the hospitality, sights, scenes, tastes of Tawi-Tawi. The simple fact is that no one will go to place they think is unsafe, whether it is true or not.

part 2

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