WHY are we a divided nation? The answer is simple but it is a principle that remains difficult to grasp for many who have always assumed the legitimacy of the imposed nation-state that is the Philippine Republic to the inhabitants of this culturally and politically diverse group of islands.

The Filipino nation was born from the rubble of Western colonialism, that much should be clear. It was largely because of developments in the global economy and the consequent collective resistance to colonial rule, first under the Spaniards and then shortly after, the Americans that the birth of the Filipino nation was implanted in the hearts and minds of its first true sons and daughters from the North. And the belated integration of Mindanao into this narrative explains much of the conflicts that remain in the South at present.

What pushed the first nationalists to embrace dreams of self-rule and independence from their white masters was the almost four centuries of bearing the colonial yoke. We are not just talking about tales of yore about the abusive friar or the haughty but landlord, but a whole slew of political and economic arrangements that set the ground for the eventual integration of the local economy into the global economic order.

The first hundred years of Spanish rule was particularly brutal even deadly. With the aim of exacting as much tributes for the king, the colonial government and friars exacted such a heavy toll on the local population. It was not even a viable operation and hardly any contribution was collected for the crown in Spain. However, the re-organization of the political and economic systems of the conquered peoples of the island into encomiendas and the pueblos for taxation goals was socially costly. There was a noted decline in the tributary population during the period 1588-1686 indicating the shrinking of the native economy according to OD Corpuz among other social consequences.

By the mid 19th century European and American trading houses were established in the islands orienting these feudal relations marked by a system of debt peonage and share-cropping toward producing for the demand of the international market. The next two hundred years of Spanish colonial rule perfected the transformation of the local economy from self-sufficient barangay-based economic production to haciendas producing for surplus which eventually created a “poverty sector of subsistence farmers and a rich class of the landed gentry.”

The Southern island of Mindanao was relatively isolated from the horrors of these massive transformations in Luzon and Visayas’ political economies though the war of subjugation and pacification of Spain reached its shores albeit with limited success. An indication of the difficulty of the Spanish ruling class in exploiting the southern economy are the scant details in historical records of the goods they were able to secure for trade from Mindanao. In the 1897 Spanish census, they were only able to account for less than half of the island’s estimated population which reveal their lack of effective control in most parts of the island.

The impetus was there to eventually conquer the island and exploit its still untapped resources. But Mindanao was too far and too big to keep within the limited reach of the Spanish colonial authorities. The successful resistance of the Sulu and Maguindanao sultanates is a factor to the continuing independence of the island during this period and allowed the Islamized population of the South to continue practicing their ways and beliefs.

While the Spaniards were diligent in setting up settlements in lowland riverside trading posts along the coasts in the Northern parts of the island, the non-Moro indigenous population always had the option to go further into the interior where resources remained untapped and abundant. In the forests and verdant valleys of Opol, Bukidnon, and Agusan, they could maintain their traditional ways of life and beliefs and protect themselves from being converted into Christianized landless peasants working for landlords as what happened to their colonized counterparts in Visayas and Luzon.

It was only the push of the new American colonial ruler to exploit the rich resources of Mindanao to feed into its growing capitalist industries that saw the belated integration of the island’s political economy to that of the rest of the colony and the rest of the developing global economic order. The pretext was an erroneous legal fiat achieved through the Treaty of Paris that included the unconquered island in the sale of the Philippine archipelago from Spain to the US for the paltry price of twenty million dollars.

Hungry for the profit to be given by timber, pasture land for cattle ranches, and the potential rich agricultural land of logged-over areas that the island had to offer, the Americans was finally able to achieve what the Spaniards for three hundred years failed to attain – the subjugation of the island of Mindanao and its people. This was attained through a ruthless military campaign of the new colonial authorities which decimated whole populations of a gallant Moro resistance.

But more effective in securing the economic resources of the whole region, more than any pacification campaign, was the pitting of people against each other in a proxy economic war that they waged. It was through a relentless resettlement policy that saw waves of migrants from Luzon and Visayas that brought with them the same feudal arrangements that eventually opened up the Mindanao frontier to colonial economic exploitation.

A hundred years hence, we are still reeling from the consequences of this proxy economic war within the Filipino and Mindanao nations of lumads, Moros, and a migrant landless peasantry.