At the southern tip of the Philippines, seemingly at the edge of the world, lies the quiet, picturesque coastal town of Hadji Panglima Tahil. It is a cluster of islands found in the Sulu Archipelago, surrounded by pristine, azure waters and guarding precious aquatic gardens of the sea. Notwithstanding existing prejudices about the conflict in the area, this small seaside municipality lives to prove that peace, beauty, and wonder do exist in the province of Sulu.
THE ISLETS AT THE SOUTHERN TIP
The Municipality of Hadji Panglima Tahil is located in the first district of the island province of Sulu. Formerly known as Marunggas, it was renamed in November 13, 1995. According to the current town mayor, Abraham Burahan, the ‘Hadji Panglima’ is said to be a title more powerful than king. The coastal municipality is about half an hour boat ride from the capital of Jolo. As a sixth class municipality, it has a population of around 6,375 spread throughout five barangays, covering a land area of around 68 kilometers. There are Tausugs, Badjaos, Christians, and even Ilonggo people living in the locality. While each barangay does not share a common border with the other barangays, the islets are in close proximity to one another, around three to five minutes by speedboat.
The main industry of Hadji Panglima Tahil is seaweed farming with farms on shallow waters. There is a business on buying and selling seaweed products. Because of the town’s 11 islets, the locals have a vast and wide fishing ground. “Nililigawan kami ng big-time fisherman para pumasok, to share in the profit pero hindi namin ginagawa kasi kawawa ang mga stakeholders doon. (Big-time fishermen entice us to allow them entry by having a share in the profits but we don’t let them do so for the sake of our local fishermen),” Mayor Burahan says. The palakaya is the archaic term for the fishing boat used by the locals. “[Sa lugar namin, ang mga tao doon] hanapbuhay lamang tapos kain, tapos hanapbuhay uli (Because it’s a rural area, the locals simply live day to day by earning a living),” the local chief executive explains.
Hadji Panglima Tahil has a flea market, although only for a specific day of the week. Because of the town’s proximity to the capital of Jolo, the locals visit the capital town almost daily. “Doon sila namamalengke, pero kapag isda, mas mura sa amin. May mga tao din galing sa town namimili sa amin (The locals go to the capital to buy what they need, but when it comes to fish, ours is cheaper. There are also people from the capital who buy from us),” Mayor Burahan says.
Although the town is a fishing village, pyanggang or chicken in blackened coconut curry is said to be the local delicacy. As a result, Mayor Burahan established Our Zen Chicken to promote trading of poultry.
Basic infrastructures and roadworks exist in the small municipality. Houses on stilts and wooden footbridges connecting the many sitios paint the picture of a rural area, with no major establishments. Despite the topography of islets, communication and crossings are not a problem for the local government unit (LGU). The neighboring municipality of Pangutaran–also a cluster of islets farther from Jolo–is easily assisted by locals of Hadji Panglima Tahil, allowed to dock on the islets in case of rough or turbulent waters. The locals in the Sulu Archipelago have, thus, learned to live together by the sea, far from the urban cities.
THE ISLANDER IN THE LEAGUE
A native of Jolo, Sulu, Mayor Burahan began his political career in 1995 as mayor before serving as an assemblyman for two terms during the term of then-Governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Nur Misuari. In 1998, he became a chapter president for the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) with then-San Juan Mayor Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada as the LMP National President. The LMP is an organization of municipalities created by Republic Act No. 7160 or the Local Government Code of 1991. It is organized into provincial and national chapters.
Mayor Burahan was made Chair of the Committee on Defense of the LMP by Estrada, a well-received honor despite being a small town mayor from the province of Sulu. From there, Mayor Burahan became part of the LMP National Directorate. Beginning 2008, he was a chapter president for three terms unopposed. In 2010, he was elected mayor of Hadji Panglima Tahil. Two years later, he was made Deputy Secretary General of the LMP before becoming LMP Secretary General in 2013. Thereafter, he was re-appointed as LMP Secretary General in 2016 by LMP National President Mayor Maria Fe “Bubut” Villar-Brondial of Socorro, Oriental Mindoro.
“To become the Sec Gen of the League [is possibly my biggest personal achievement]. To serve for a second term, which is the first time a Sec Gen served for two terms, tapos Muslim pa ako (and considering I’m a Muslim),” Mayor Burahan says. The LMP Secretary General is chosen from among the national members of the League for a three-year term, tasked to handle the daily affairs of the LMP. “I manage the office. I represent LMP on behalf of the national president. Kapag kailangan, umiikot kami, may mga konting problema na-sesettle na. Kami gumigitna kasi organisasyon ito ng mga munisipyo (When the need arises, we go around the regions and settle problems that may arise. We mediate since this is an organization of municipalities),” the LMP Secretary General explains. For instance, during the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, the LMP visited the region to liaise and resolve misunderstandings between the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the local government units (LGUs).
“I was given a chance to properly represent the Muslim people. It’s a leverage because I’m able to serve my colleagues and my town. When people say, ‘the mayor there is the Sec Gen of the League,’ I see that as an advantage. But what’s more important to me is that I’m a Muslim, and I was able to show I’m good to work with,” Burahan says.
As municipal mayor of Hadji Panglima Tahil and LMP Secretary General, Burahan divides his time between his local town in the provincial Sulu and metropolitan Quezon City, Metro Manila where the LMP headquarters is located. “Ang lamang ko kasi, yung town namin, very peaceful siya tapos functional. Si Vice ang namamahala kapag wala ako. Alam niya ang paraan ng pagsuporta sa akin (My advantage is that our town is peaceful and functional. Vice-Mayor Nasia Galib is the one in charge while I’m out of town. She is very supportive).”
I was given a chance to properly represent the Muslim people. It’s a leverage because I’m able to serve my colleagues and my town. When people say, ‘the mayor there is the Sec Gen of the League,’ I see that as an advantage. But what‘s more important to me is that I’m a Muslim, and I was able to show I’m good to work with.
Mayor Burahan trusts his employees to do their work so the town functions properly. He is a team player himself, and gives his employees his all-out support. “When they make mistakes, I tell them off. When it’s a little too much, I give them a warning not to abuse my kindness. There’s no reason for them not to do their work. I don’t give them the opportunity to reason out, ‘I won’t do it because I don’t have the support of the mayor’,” he says. The townspeople live simple lives, able to handle their own affairs. Any small concerns that may arise, such as medical issues, is easily addressed by the LGU.
THE MARINE TREASURES OF THE ISLES
Hadji Panglima Tahil boasts of many dive sites and white sand beaches. Similar to the appeals of the Turtle Island, there are many schools of fish along with other exotic species, corals, and reefs native only to the area. Because the islets are promoted as dive sites, the LGU guards against dynamite fishing. “Our corals are very much preserved,” Mayor Burahan claims. “Yung mga divers sa ibang lugar nagpupunta roon, mga Davao divers, may mga species daw na hindi nila nakikita sa ibang lugar na doon lang makikita sa amin (Divers from other places like Davao have seen species that can only be found in our island),” the mayor adds. Mangroves, marshes, and lagoons add to the preserved ecosystem of the town.
Many of the locals from Sulu visit the island, even some from outside Sulu. Mayor Burahan plans to develop the area for surfing by the second quarter of 2019. Seeing a potential to boost tourism, he dreams of turning one of the islets into a world-class luxury resort. “Marami akong kaibigan taga rito sa Maynila na gustong pumunta doon (I have many friends here in Manila who want to go there),” he says. Intent on changing the commonplace impression of Muslims and Sulu as a war-torn area, Mayor Burahan adds, “Maraming magagandang beaches not only in my town pati sa ibang town at mga peaceful din sila (There are many beautiful beaches in my town and in other towns that are peaceful as well).”
I’m a very prayerful person. Every time I pray, I include the town in my prayers.
THE SHADOWS OVER THE ISLAND
Despite the beauty and bounty of Hadji Panglima Tahil, the coastal municipality lives under the threat of militant groups. “Pwede kaming pasukin ng mga Abu Sayaff (We’re susceptible to the Abu Sayaff),” Mayor Burahan laments. Because of the many islets–some of which are uninhabited–the militants can hide in the area. In doing so, the municipality can be accused of being sympathizers. “[Ang ginagawa namin ay], siyempre, yung awareness namin sa lahat ng mga tao. Talagang iniisa-isa namin yun (What we do is raise awareness among the locals, which we do personally for each local as much as possible),” the mayor explains. The LGU warns locals against harboring insurgents and rebels, and avoid becoming accomplices. They encourage locals to report when there are unfamiliar faces in the locality, since the small communities know each other.
There is an interagency task force that goes around detailing what should be done and what should not be done in case such a situation arises within the municipality. As a result, they have zero crime rate for more than ten years. “Laging maipakita ang good impression, even in Sulu (We try to always maintain that good impression). That’s [how we make a] difference,” Mayor Burahan says. “Pinipilit naming maging gunless society (We insist on being a gunless society),” he adds. However, it cannot be avoided as there are transients who arrive in the island although they eventually leave. The local police enforce peace and maintain order all throughout the islets. Together, the interagency task force promotes vigilance and auspicious morale within the municipality. “Kilala kasi ang munisipyo as very peaceful. Alam nilang ito ang pinaka-safe, na walang mangyayari (We’re known for being a peaceful municipality. They know that there are no incidents and it’s safe to be here),” he declares.
THE FAITH IN THE SERVICE
In the background of the beauty and peace of Hadji Panglima Tahil, stands a deeply religious Muslim. “I’m a very prayerful person. Every time I pray, I include the town in my prayers,” Mayor Burahan declares. The local chief executive admits to constantly praying for a peaceful and safe community. In the process of doing so, the locals are able to emulate the same attitude
For his constituents, Mayor Burahan wants nothing more than to deliver the basic services the town needs: infrastructure, utilities, health care, and education. “Iyon naman ang inaasahan ng mga constituents na magampanan bilang mayor (These are what the constituents expect the mayor to accomplish),” he states.
The LGU is receptive to suggestions and recommendations from locals, and even visitors from other locales. “Lahat naman tayo may kaniya-kaniyang expertise, talento, words of wisdom. Ako palaging nakikinig, palaging nagtatanong (We all have our own areas of expertise, talents, words of wisdom. I’m always listening, and I always ask what more can be done). You have nothing to lose, you have more to gain,” Mayor Burahan states. “Kaya tutulong pa rin ako sa town kahit hindi na ako ang mayor (This is why I will continue helping the town even if I’m no longer the mayor).”
The idyllic coastal municipality of Hadji Panglima Tahil continues to serve its locals, promoting peace within the vicinity and preserving its ecology. In his own right, Mayor Burahan has maintained peace in his municipality. At the same time, he is able to represent the Muslim people as the LMP Secretary General. “I’ve told my colleagues, maybe I was destined and meant to be the mayor. I am, by nature, a friendly guy, and I personally dislike guns,” he quips. He insists on prayer as a form of service to his people, to the League, and to the country. “I always wish, because wishing is just like praying. Always pray, become prayerful, and God will listen to you.” — MAIELLE MONTAYRE