Everyone who has visited or lives around Manila likely knows where the Rajah Sulayman Lumba Ranao Grand Mosque is, although few are likely to know that is what it’s actually called. The dilapidated yet still somehow eye-catching structure sits west of Roxas Boulevard, surrounded by a small colony of Moro squatters in the no-man’s-land between Baclaran and the newer bayside developments. It catches the attention of passers-by because it sits isolated in a large tract of otherwise empty land; it has caught the attention of the government, because that land is prime development property under the control of Philippine Reclamation Authority.
Earlier this year a plan was formulated by the PRA to relocate the mosque to a site in Parañaque to clear the land for development, culminating in a May 26 directive issued by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita to the PRA, DPWS, DOT, and the City of Pasay informing them of the President’s instruction to proceed with the plan. The details of the proposed development are unclear; reportedly, the property is to be used for what is being called the “Southwest Public Transport Intermodal Center”, although the Manila Bulletin also reported the assertion of Archbishop Oscar Cruz that a casino might be built in place of the mosque. Also unclear is the exact nature of the proposed relocation, although it is implied that it will involve dismantling of the mosque and reconstructing it on a new site further south along the Coastal Road. The plan – whatever it is, exactly – has naturally provoked furious resistance from the settlers around the mosque, who have organized themselves into the grandiose-sounding Samahan ng Nagkakaisang Nademolish in Roxas Boulevard to protest the move, promising “bloodshed” if the government persists in carrying it out.
There are two ways to look at this situation. First, there is the strictly legal point of view: the mosque and its grubby halo of shanty dwellers are squatters, occupying land that does not belong to them without the consent of the owner. The owner, in this case the government, would be perfectly within its rights to evict the lot of them without notice or compensation, in turn demand compensation from them for the expense of removing their unlawfully-erected structures, and then use the property as it sees fit. But even the government realizes that in this case the correct course of action is likely not the right course of action, and has thus offered to relocate the mosque.
The problem is, of course, not even that plan is good enough. Relations between the government and the Muslim part of the population are tense at best, even without that poltroon Oscar Cruz using the issue to air his never-ending condemnation of the Arroyo government (The timing of his statements, just days after a bloody battle with Muslim rebels in the south, should fool no one – the memorandum from the President’s office, after all, is nearly three months old.). And the centerpiece of the controversy is a mosque, for crying out loud. Almost anything the government attempts to do about it is going to look like religious persecution, never mind how the mosque got there in the first place.
Ironically, the government’s plan might come to haunt them in entirely unforeseen way by rewarding what is essentially land piracy. From top to bottom in Pinoy society there is a casual disrespect for property rights, an attitude by which people assume that any piece of property not actively occupied by its owner is open territory. That there is a critical lack of adequate housing in the country aggravates the problem, of course, as does the decades-old perverse joke that is the government’s land reform program. Nevertheless, “squatter’s rights” is still a shibboleth. Compensating the mosque and its congregation by providing an alternate location simply justifies squatting, and promises a false solution to a number of social problems that need to be realistically addressed.
The other way to look at the situation is from a practical point of view. Neither of the two plans for the property that have been mentioned – either a transport hub or a casino – are strictly necessary. The transport hub idea anticipates the construction of the Metrorail Line 6, running from Baclaran to Zapote, something which is years away if it ever happens at all. In the meantime, the transport nexus in Baclaran for the present system – such as it is – is adequate, and need not be duplicated. Similarly, a new casino less than a kilometer from the existing one at the Heritage Hotel is not a good idea, either, least of all from an aesthetic standpoint as it would spread the general seediness of the girlie-bar strip along Baclaran’s western edge across Roxas Boulevard. Considering the general environmental blight of the entire metro area and a shortage of green spaces, one wonders if any development at all, or at least of the entire tract, is desirable for anything other than economic reasons. Parks and natural areas are fairly inexpensive, after all.
The expense of moving the mosque – and presumably, making some housing provision for the settlers living near it – could be better applied if the mosque was allowed to remain in place. Any proposed development of the area could, with a little imagination, be reworked around the parcel on which the mosque sits, and funds provided to its keepers for a much-needed facelift for the building. The necessary portion of the tract could be ceded to the mosque, or as an alternative, transferred to the control of an agency such as the Office of Muslim Affairs. The housing needs of the shanty dwellers around the mosque would need to be addressed as well, either by providing new low-cost housing adjacent to the mosque property, or by providing financial assistance for them to find their own housing elsewhere. Even though this scenario would seem to reward the squatters for their occupation, it would not actually do so provided that it set firm, but manageable, terms for repayment of loans; an easy ride, to be sure, but not a free one.
This plan not only makes political sense, it represents a cultural and aesthetic upgrade to an area that desperately needs one. It represents a real effort on the part of the government to use its resources for the benefit of the people, in this case an important minority who is owed a huge gesture of good faith and some reassurance that they are not the victims – at least not all the time – of pseudo-Christian double standards.