Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For all the trappings of modernity that our world likes to revel in, human sacrifice has not really gone out of style. We still lay the lives of our young men and women on sacrificial altars, though not to the ancient gods the human race once worshipped. The names of the gods placed upon these altars have now changed: War, Nation, Freedom, Peace. Sometimes they have insidiously hidden names: Greed, Convenience, Political Ambition.
It has been five decades since the lives of young Tausug soldiers were sacrificed on Corregidor Island, also known as “The Rock,” for the valor of its stalwarts, who held out for 28 days after the Fall of Bataan. This island known for the heroism, gallantry, and honor of its defenders at the close of World War II became a sacrificial altar to the grandiose plans of a dictator.
If you want to trace the roots of the separatist movement of the Bangsamoro, you must look at Operation Merdeka during the Marcos regime, an operation through which young Moros were summarily executed in March 1968, in what has come to be known as the Jabidah Massacre. The number of Moros killed vary from 10 to 68, depending on the source.
Plot for freedom?
“Merdeka” is the Malay word for “freedom” or “independence.” Yet, ironically, the young Moros who signed up to be part of Operation Merdeka, a secret operation to destabilize the disputed territory of North Borneo, were denied the freedom to live and reach adulthood and old age by the government that recruited them for what they thought would be an operation to claim North Borneo, also known as Sabah, as Philippine territory.
Sabah was incorporated into the Malaysian Federation after the British granted the federation independence in 1957. The Malaysian government contended that Baron de Overbeck of the British East India Co. purchased the disputed territory from the Sultan of Sulu, but the territory rightfully belongs to the sultanate. It was rented out through a padjak or lease agreement to the British East India Co. in 1878 by the Sultan of Sulu. However, it is important to note that padjak for the British meant “cede,” while the Sulu Sultanate has always maintained that the term means “lease or purchase.”
To this day, Malaysia still pays the padjak rental to the heirs of the Sulu throne, and the heirs to the Sultanate still consider North Borneo to be rightfully their property. The claim of the Sultanate remains active, though no progress has been made in reclaiming the territory. The padjak predates both the creation of the Republic of the Philippines, of which the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu are now citizens, and the Federation of Malaysia.
This territory is part of the Moro homeland, a reward given by the Sultan of Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu for the bravery of the Tausug warriors of the Sultanate of Sulu who were deployed to help the Sultan of Borneo put down a rebellion. That land was won with Tausug blood, and it was given to honor that sacrifice and that valor shown by the warriors under the Sultan of Sulu.
“We received not a centavo. We were fed dried fish, and for coffee, we would use rice leftovers. The commanders were living in luxury while we were living with almost nothing at all.”
Marcos’ plan to reclaim Sabah involved recruiting nearly 200 Tausug and Sama Muslims aged 18 to 30 from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. From Aug. to Dec. 1967, the young recruits underwent training in the island-town of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi — the same town where the first Arab missionary, Makhdum, built the first mosque in the Philippines in the 14th century.
On Dec. 30, 1967, more or less 180 recruits boarded a Philippine Navy vessel bound for Corregidor in Luzon for “specialized training,” the second phase of their preparation.
One survivor, Jibin Arula, survived to tell of the fate of his comrades, according to the Bantayog website. If you visit Corregidor, a Tausug soldier left a piece of graffiti there: “Pvt. Plaza, Ladjasali from Bato-Bato Sulu was here in Corregidor on Jan. 3,/68”.
According to Bantayog, Arula gave his account of the massacre in interviews with the Philippine Daily Inquirer in March 2008 and March 2009. Arula died in a vehicular accident in 2010.
Arula had told the Inquirer he was among those who were brought to Corregidor island on Jan. 3, 1968, to train in guerrilla warfare to prepare for Operation Merdeka. He said that the operation was allegedly a top-secret plan of the Marcos administration to invade North Borneo.
The commando group of young Moro men was named “Jabidah,” after a beautiful woman in Muslim lore.
Despite being organized by the government, these young Moros would have been disavowed by the government that recruited and trained them, had the operation resulted in a formal complaint by Malaysia before the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Marcos government had planned to lie and say that these Moros were part of a private army of Sultan Kiram of Sulu.
Arula recounted in the interview with Inquirer that the Jabidah unit was promised an allowance of ₱50 a month — a tidy sum in 1968 — and went on to say that “we received not a centavo. We were fed dried fish, and for coffee, we would use rice leftovers. The commanders were living in luxury while we were living with almost nothing at all.”
Accounts mention several theories why the massacre happened. The common narrative is that the recruits mounted a mutiny. One theory said it happened due to the delay in the release of the recruits’ allowances, compounded further by the difficulties of jungle training, and an inadequate food supply. Another theory said the recruits felt they were deceived, and that they objected participating in an operation to infiltrate Sabah.
Aggrieved by this, the trainees wrote a secret petition to Marcos himself. The letter may have been intercepted by the military officers who were training them, and that may have led to the tragedy that followed.
Before dawn on March 18, 1968, the Jabidah trainees were summarily shot on the Corregidor airstrip. Their assailants, Arula said, were their training officers. Arula took a bullet to the left knee before he swam for his life in Manila Bay. He was rescued by fishermen off the coast of Cavite the next morning.
Root of secessionist efforts
Even today, there are still those who say the Jabidah Massacre did not happen. Efforts to cover-up the Jabidah Massacre were exerted not only by Marcos’ allies but by other parties as well.
Even Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., who was credited with the ‘Jabidah Massacre’ exposé in the Senate, expressed doubt that Moro trainees were killed — and he said so in a privilege speech delivered on March 28, 1963.
In 2013, Aquino’s son, former President Benigno Aquino III, led the commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the Jabidah Massacre in Corregidor. Aquino was the first Philippine president to recognize Jabidah as part of this country’s history.
"Binubuksan natin ang sambayanan ng mamamayan tungkol sa Jabidah Massacre. Totoo pong nangyari ito," former President Aquino said in his speech at the rites in Corregidor.
It took the Jabidah Massacre to push some Muslim leaders to rally behind the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which fought for a separate Moro homeland in Mindanao.
Why would the government want to help the Moros reclaim North Borneo, which is part of their original homeland? At the time, rumors were circulating that the Marcos administration had managed to get the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to agree to give it part of the resource-rich North Borneo as a “contingency fee” for reclaiming the territory for the Sultanate of Sulu.
Operation Merdeka was meant to be mounted parallel to diplomatic efforts by the Philippine government to reclaim the territory. Reports at the time said that if the destabilization was successful, the plan was to take advantage of the instability to either intervene in the unrest sown on the island under the pretext of protecting Filipinos living there, or to convince “the residents themselves” to “secede from Malaysia.” Malaysia was a very young nation then, and Singapore had just seceded from its federation in 1965. The timing was ideal as far as then President Ferdinand E. Marcos was concerned.
News of the massacre took time to come to light. In March 1968, Moro students in Manila mounted a week long protest vigil over an empty coffin marked ‘Jabidah’ in front of Malacañang. These protesters claimed that “at least 28” Moro army recruits had been murdered and demanded justice.
The Marcos government had planned to lie and say that these Moros were part of a private army of Sultan Kiram of Sulu, which was the farthest thing from the truth.
Some 23 military personnel became the subject of court martial proceedings related to the Jabidah Massacre, and the local press covered the story with alacrity and tenacity, pointing out the culpability of government and the Marcos administration over the nefarious plot as well.
The press also condemned the attempts to cover the plot with mass murder, as the case found its way to the Supreme Court in 1970, on a preliminary issue.
The exact number of deaths in the Jabidah Massacre varies from 10 to 68, depending on who tells the story.
Five decades have passed, and there is still no closure for this gruesome tale. Yet how can we forget the events that bring us to this time when we wait for the promise of peace, the promise of a homeland, to be fulfilled even as the Bangsamoro Basic Law is put before us?
We must remember the path we trod half a century ago to know where we will put our next steps as a people. This is the best way to move forward: With our history firmly and clearly in our memories. Our sacrifices five decades ago were costly and must never be made in vain.
We must consistently find our bearings and ask these questions: Where are we now in the Bangsamoro struggle for a homeland? What have we achieved thus far? Half a century has passed and Jabidah Massacre still lingers in our memories, quietly living with us every day as Moros, framing our daily struggles in our lives from the very personal to the most public like an old pain passed on from generation to another awaiting closure.