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Tawi‑Tawi is a province in the Philippines situated in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) occupying the Sulu Archipelago and the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao in central Mindanao. Its capital is the Municipality of Bongao.

The province has a land area of 3,626.55 square kilometers or 1,400.22 square miles. Its population as determined by the 2015 Census was 390,715. This represented 10.33% of the total population of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, 1.62% of the overall population of the Mindanao island group, or 0.39% of the entire population of the Philippines. Based on these figures, the population density is computed at 108 inhabitants per square kilometer or 279 inhabitants per square mile.



Tawi-Tawi was previously part of the province of Sulu. On September 11, 1973, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 302, the new province of Tawi-Tawi was officially created, separate from Sulu. The seat of the provincial government was established in Bongao.

Below is an article about the history of Tawi-Tawi from the Government of Tawi-Tawi The folklore of the Tawi-Tawi Samals holds that the seafaring people came from the Malay Peninsula. The links with the rest of Southeast Asia are very strong and these contacts have helped shape the culture and the history of the islands.

Tawi-Tawi claims the distinction of being the earliest home of Islam in the country. In 1380, Sheik Karim ul-Makhdum established the first mosque on Philippine territory, in Simunul. Makhdum’s tomb in Simunul (others claim the tomb in sibutu municipality) continues to be revered by Philippine Muslims. From the time of the Sulu Sultanate’s inception in the 14th century, Tawi-Tawi had traditionally been part of its realm.

During most of the Spanish period in the Philippines, Tawi-Tawi remained free of western intervention. In 1882, the Spaniards made their first attempt to control the island group by establishing a garrison on the island. They withdrew from the islands at the close of the century as a result of the Philippine Revolution.

The Americans established control over the islands and incorporated Tawi-tawi into the province of Sulu in 1914. Parts of the Tawi-Tawi islands were repurchased from Spain as a consequence of omissions in the Treaty of Paris. Sibutu and Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi were bought for an additional $100,000.

In 1948, when the Turtle Islands were returned to the Philippines by Great Britain, they were constituted as part of the island group. The islands remained part of Sulu until 1973 when the province of Tawi-Tawi was created through Presidential Decree No. 302.

Tawi-Tawi was incorporated into an autonomous regional government for Western Mindanao in 1979 following agreements with the Moro secessionist movement. In 1989, the province voted overwhelmingly to become part of an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.



Widely known as the “Sea Gypsies” of the Sulu and Celebes Seas, the Sama Badjaus are scattered along the coastal areas of Tawi Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, and some coastal municipalities of Zamboanga del Sur in the ARMM. Amongst themselves, they’re known as Sama Laus (Sea Sama) and are found living on houseboats where they make their livelihood solely on the sea as expert fishermen, deep sea divers, and navigators. They come to shore to barter their harvests for farmed produce such as fruits and cassava, as well as, replenish their supplies and/or make repairs to their houseboats. Unique to their cultural rituals is the concept of life and their relationship to the sea: For example, as a childbirth ritual, a newly born infant is thrown into the sea and members of the clan dive to save the newborn. Other traditions such as marriages are prearranged by the parents for their sons and daughters; the process similar to other ethnic groups, in that, a dowry is often presented to the parents of the woman a man wishes to marry. And, only the Sama Bajau leader can consecrate a marriage. Therefore a leader is chosen based on individual inherent virtues, wisdom, and “charisma”…an inate ability to attract followers.

Sadly, due to the ongoing conflict in the region between revolutionary Muslim groups and the government, many Sama Bajaus have migrated to Sabah in Malaysia and Sulawesi and Kalimantan in Indonesia. As a result, they now comprise the second-largest ethnic group in Sabah, despite the fact that many of them are illegal immigrants. There, the Badjao speak nearly (10) languages of the Sama-Bajau subgroup of the Western Malayo-polynesian language family.