This land…Cabatangan: Much ado about nothing PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 04 December 2014 13:56

By  YUSUF ASHRAF “JOEY” PAMARAN TUGUNG

“We need to look at conflicts from a different point of view – that of a prerogative of choice.
We live in a revolutionary era. Rather than lament this vainly, we have to decide whether we should be victims or masters of change.” —   Atty. Lidinila Reyes
Just like the comical play, “Much Ado About Nothing,” by William Shakespeare, the Cabatangan Regional Government Center combines elements of robust hilarity, shame, and of course, politics. Critics, including the instant commentators and analysts, passing their statements and opinions as though they are facts, unbeknownst to them they actually sound “noting” which, in Shakespeare’s day means gossiping, rumor-mongering, overhearing and insinuating.
Every time the City of Zamboanga raises renewed interest in purchasing the Center, these critics, especially the obstructionists and alarmists, will right away paint a picture that the City of Zamboanga, or the Zamboangueños for that matter, is either anti-Muslim or against Autonomy, or in this instance the ARRM and the Bangsamoro. And this matter came to the fore once again as a result of this year’s signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and the recent public hearing on the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), and when Rep. Lilia Nuño in the process thereof, had suggested the purchase of the Regional Center if only to end the more than decade-old issue on Cabatangan, which, as expected, has elicited misplaced and incendiary accusations that the officialdom of the City of Zamboanga are bigots, discriminatory, bias and prejudicial against the Bangsamoro.
To have a good understanding of the complexities of the issues surrounding and permeating the Regional Center, one must know its history. And no one is most administratively and legally qualified and involved in the above issue some 35 years ago than Atty. Lidinila Reyes whom I personally think should have been a member of the GPH Peace Panel or an Undersecretary of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).
Atty. Reyes had the rare opportunity and privilege to work closely with two of the most eminent public officials of Mindanao – the late Rear Admiral Romulo Espaldon and the late LTP IX Chairman Ulbert Ulama “Bob” Tugung, Al Haj, who together worked to purchase the sprawling Cabatangan property in San Roque, Zamboanga City. This acquisition ultimately paved the way for the establishment of the Cabatangan Regional Government Center for Region IX thereat. From 1979, when the first Transfer Certificate of Title was issued in the name of the Republic of the Philippines represented by Rear Admiral Romulo Espaldon, information thereon had been sparse and fragmentary. And no one made any serious attempt to write in-depth about the background of this controversial piece of property sitting on top of Zamboanga City’s Westside panoramic hills, save for Atty. Reyes, who is a Christian-Muslim Zamboangueña.
As author of the book “This Land…Cabatangan,” Atty. Reyes was able to put into perspective the issues – historical, socio-cultural, political and legal, which are related to the Cabatangan problem. Through the publication of this book, she made available to the community the results of an extensive research work that spanned a period of 26 years and had contributed to a much-needed intellectual appetence in a developing and diverse society as Zamboanga and its environs.
Both visionaries and strong supporters of autonomy, under PD 1618, Rear Admiral Espaldon and Chairman Bob Tugung envisioned the Regional Center to serve as the central hub whereby an accelerated pace of economic, social and political growth can be better achieved and maintained. Most of the National Departments’ regional offices were to be relocated to this site (and this was done to some extent) to allow the efficient monitoring and implementation of developmental efforts within the region, most specifically of projects that involved the participation of different national offices. The Center’s mission was to create a realistic and practical approach to regional development, like a “one stop shop.”
Incidentally, the first occupant of the Regional Center was my late father, Ulbert Ulama “Bob” Tugung, Al Haj, and its last occupant was my mother, Chairperson Elnorita Pamaran Tugung. As Chairman of the Regional Executive Council, or Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook, of Region IX, Bob erected the imposing white building, which he aptly named “Astanah Kasanyangan,” or “The Palace of Peace.” A champion and one of the fathers of autonomy, he, being the first head of the Regional Autonomous Government (RAG) of Region IX (covers the following geopolitical entities: Provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga del Norte and the cities of Zamboanga, Pagadian, Dipolog and Dapitan), which is the forerunner of the current ARMM, together with RAG Region XII, Bob envisioned an autonomous government that is peaceful, united, fair, dynamic, progressive, and a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” with the Center serving as the epitome of such maxim. In general, this was the rationale behind the purchase of the properties in Cabatangan and which is known then and now as the Cabatangan Regional Government Center, which was officially the seatof the Sangguniang Pampook (Regional Legislative Assembly) and the Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook (Regional Executive Council).
Cabatangan, which has a land area of 897,313.40 square meters or approximately 90 hectares, is by and large a public land. However, some, if not most of the occupants, claimed ownership by virtue of long standing physical possession, as manifested by the houses they have constructed. Technically, therefore, in the absence of a title, they are squatting on a public land but with putative rights of acquired ownership due to the length of their occupancy. And with rights vested due to prescription, they can apply for title to the lot that they occupy under the Homestead Act.
This then paved the way for the purchase of the “rights”, lot by lot, from the residents residing or squatting in the area. And it was Atty. Lidinila Reyes, legal counsel of AFP Southern Command (Southcom), Office of the Regional Commissioner (ORC) and LTP later, who was commissioned to buy the homestead rights from all of the residents residing within the boundaries of the conceptualized Cabatangan Regional Government Center. This was not an easy task to do. Atty. Reyes had to painstakingly convince and cajole the residents in the area to sell their rights. That process even continued during the tenure of Chairpersons Sali Wali and Noring Tugung who took over the helm of LTP IX, successively. Ditto, the process of donating lots to national government offices by Bob Tugung and his successors. And these donations were done by a mere Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) and not by a deed of absolute sale, or deed of transfer, because LTP IX had not yet titled all of the purchased lots.
Unfortunately, however, because of the complexities involved in the sale, and the untimely abolition of the Regional Autonomous Government IX, there were still lots that were untitled; such that, when the ARMM took over LTP IX in 1990 under RA 6734, all they had was the legal possession of the Regional Center but no title to all the lotscomprising the Regional Center. And due to the confusion during the transition, and the absence of proper guidelines in the turnover, there were select contiguous areas to form part of the Center whose former occupants had already sold their “rights”thereto but were then able to secure title to their respective individual lot. These title-backed lots were not transferred to the Republic of the Philippines. And since Zamboanga City was not part of the ARMM, and there was no functioning “satellite office” to speak of, the former LTP IX office became literally a “white elephant” without a caretaker to oversee the property. And due to ARMM’snegligence and total absence of vigilance and exercise of due diligence, the former owners of the lots started to return and re-occupy said lotswhile some claim ownership surreptitiously. Squatters also started to teem.
Since the Regional Center became a non-performing asset, the City of Zamboanga, under then the late City Mayor, Ma. Clara “Caling” Lobregat, and perhaps looking for a place to transfer the City Hall out of the congested streets downtown, and for other considerations under its strategic urban renewal plans, took a strong interest in the property. And just like Bob Tugung before her, she saw the potentials and advantages of the property as an ideal site for an office.  Because of Atty. Reyes’ familiarity with the Cabatangan property, Caling commissioned her to submit a comprehensive history of the property, and to update the status of ownership and consolidate and reconcile all the properties within the Center vis-a-vis existing claims. Most important, the census would help her untangle the web of possible fraudulent encroachment and occupancy as a result of possible fraudulent sales by unscrupulous individuals. Enthused by the findings of Atty. Reyes, Mrs. Lobregat then allegedly offered the purchase of the property from the ARMM government in the amount of P40 million. Unfortunately, despite her aggressive efforts, and the offer to voluntarily work on the titling of the property at the City Government’s expense, the ARMM government (from Regional Governors Zacarias Candao to Zaldy Ampatuan) refused to sell the property. Thus, the deal fell through the cracks because the ARRM’s Regional Governor, the Speaker of the Regional Legislative Assembly and its 24members could not agree on the offer. And to make matters worst, and perhaps out to spite Caling Lobregat and the Zamboangueños for not joining the ARMM for the second time in the 1989 plebiscite, and despite the vehemence of Caling, PresidentAquino signed Executive Order No. 429 transferring the seat of the administrative Regional Center of Region IX from Zamboanga City to Pagadian City.
Premises considered, if the City Government of Zamboanga, now or in the future, will once more show interest in the purchase of the Cabatangan property, I personally believe it has nothing to do with politics, and neither, is it against us Muslims or against the ARMM or Bangsamoro. It is simply just part of the City’s strategic urban planning scheme, nothing more and nothing less. To stretch the accusations against the City government officials that the intended purchase of the property is a manifestation of their biases, prejudices and bigotry against us, the Bangsamoro, is not only unfair but also irresponsible, naive, and outrightly preposterous and malicious. So, too, I consider it as baseless and unfounded the reckless indictment by some of the self-proclaimed pundits of the City government’s anti-Moro leadership that the purchase of the Cabatangan property is to remove any semblance and foothold of the Moro presence in Zamboanga.
Finally, it now begs these logical and rational questions: What will the ARMM, and later the Bangsamoro, do with the Cabatangan Regional Government Center and the offices that seat on it when Zamboanga City is not part of its geopolitical jurisdiction? And assuming it decides to sell the property to the City of Zamboanga, how could it transfer ownership or sell the property when it does not have in its possession the legal title or the deeds to the lots?  And as far as La Bella Zamboanga is concerned, I guess at this juncture, buying the Cabatangan property is like buying a big headache considering the gargantuan tasks it would entail to reconfigure and reconcile this property now piece-by-piece with each of the hundreds of individual lots located within the Center; not to mention the time it will take to navigate the labyrinth of the fraudulent sales that were made by some scrupulous individuals and the relocation issues spawned by the illegal occupancy by many presently residing in the Regional Center.
To resolve this 24 year-old problem, as a concerned citizen, I humbly recommend that Reps Nuño and Lobregat make a strong representation to President Benigno Aquino III to donate, through the issuance of an Executive Order, the Cabatangan property to the City of Zamboanga without cost. Or in the alternative, in their capacity as members of the BBL Ad Hoc Committee, to submit a proposition to the Ad Hoc Committee to include in the Transitory Provisions of the BBL the transfer, with or without cost, of the Cabatangan Government Regional Center to the City of Zamboanga.
On the other hand, if the current ARRM, or the Bangsamoro, is sincere in their desire to achieve true, comprehensive and lasting peace and unity in this regard, all they could do is simply sell at its fair market value the Cabatangan Regional Government Center to the City of Zamboanga.  By this act, the magnanimity of the Moro people (incidentally, I belong to the Sama Tawi-Tawi and Yakan tribes) will go down in the annals of history, with epic proportions, as the penultimate and sincere gesture of the Bangsamoro for a peaceful co-existence and oneness towards its Christian brothers and sisters in Zamboanga City. More than a symbol, it could serve as the finishing touch that will finally resolve the decades-old protracted, contentious and incendiary issues surrounding the Regional Center.
This is a time for reconciliation in our region. In this age and time, the 21st century can and must be an era of democracy, prosperity and justice and, of course, peace. But this can be realized if we learn not only to respect but to honor our differences. The Government of the Philippines and the Bangsamoro can build on the momentous achievements of its Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro(CAB) so that this generation may grow up without fear. It’s high time we move hatred to hope and let this delicate issue: the Land, Cabatangan, be laid to its final rest.  — Yusuf Ashraf  “Joey” Pamaran Tugung is chairman of the  Bob Tugung Peace and Development Foundation, Inc.