The struggle for Moro self-determination continues, 49 years after the grim tragedy.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – On March 18, progressive groups in Mindanao and Manila commemorated the Jabidah massacre, the single biggest tragedy that ignited the Moro armed struggle for self-determination and led to the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
On March 18, 1968, young Tausug and Sama recruits from Sulu were shot dead by their military trainors in Corregidor Island. The Moro recruits reportedly staged a mutiny after learning that they were part of clandestine Operation Merdeka, codenamed ‘Jabidah,’ and were to be sent to create destabilization in Sabah or North Borneo, a Philippine territory under dispute with Malaysia.
In the forum “Remembering Jabidah Massacre,” held at the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) on March 17, Moro leaders and students recalled the massacre and the historic events that followed, as they said these are being erased by disinformation to disparage the continuing Moro struggle.
Amid the worsening conflict and the rise of new armed groups, Moro leaders say the need for unity is now even more urgent, as human rights violations against Moros continue, 49 years after the carnage.
“National oppression and plunder of Moro territories continue, and so does the Moro people’s struggle for the right to self-determination. Nothing has been resolved,” said Jerome Succor Aba, co-chairperson of the Sandugo Movement of Moro and Indigenous Peoples for Self-determination.
Tausug historian Julkipli Wadi, a professor and former dean of the UP IIS, also spoke at the forum and said he considers Jabidah “sacred.”
“Jabidah massacre is a defining moment, a crucial landmark in Philippine history, because it sparked and gave strength to Bangsamoro leaders and people to unite and cry for justice for the victims of Oplan Merdeka,” said Wadi.
Protests erupted, and oraganizing efforts paved the way to the founding in 1969 of the MNLF, which called for Moro secession.
But unlike how Moros banded together after Jabidah, at present, various splintered groups are treading different paths, either in peace negotiations with government or engaged in armed struggle. Such disunity becomes even more glaring as extremist and criminal groups claiming to be Muslim exploit the Moros’ discontent, such as the bandit Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
“The challenge is, if our bapa (elders) are not united, then it is the youths who should unite and continue the struggle,” Aba said.
Human rights violations, plunder of Moro lands continue
The past decades saw the signing of peace agreements between government and the MNLF, and more recently, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). These may have silenced the guns in certain areas, but failed to resolve the still raging war.
Under the Duterte administration, government continues “all-out war” operations, the latest of which was on March 13, when 6th Infantry Division troops launched air strikes against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Andabit village, Datu Saudi Ampatuan in Maguindanao province. Some 300 Moro families were forced to evacuate.
On March 8, three civilians were killed by soldiers in a supposed pursuit operation against the ASG in Tum-os village, Tabuan Lasa, Basilan. Killed were: Bayan Muna member Hadji Billamin Hassan, peasant Nuruddin Mussadul Muhlis and one-year-old girl, “Misha.”
Aba decried that military operations are “under the pretext of the war on terror” to justify military presence and pave way for development aggression that plunder Moro territories.
He noted that agri-business plantations have been opened in areas that were subjected to intensive military operations, supposedly to “flush out terrorists.” In Maguindanao, banana plantations now stand in the areas of the Mamasapano encounter and the Ampatuan massacre, and in the former MILF Camp Barbaran. US company Uni Frutti is reportedly expanding its plantation to Butig, Lanao del Sur, the site of recent all-out military operations against the Maute, a group of young ex-MILF members.
Jabidah: a culmination of events
Jabidah epitomized not only how the Philippine government disregards Moro lives, but also how it writes off the rich culture and history of Moros who wielded political power in Mindanao and Sulu and valiantly stood up against colonizers.
“Jabidah massacre is the culmination of a long string of events that cut across pre-colonial and colonial history,” said Wadi. He said it is linked to the Philippines’ historic claim to Sabah, as well as to the relations between Philippine and Malaysian governments.
In 1704, the Sultanate of Brunei ceded Sabah to the Sultanate of Sulu as a reward for helping it defeat his enemies. In 1962, the Sultanate of Sulu ceded Sabah to the Philippine government, but the latter has not asserted its territorial rights.
Marcos wanted to get back Sabah, but employed sinister means, thus the massacre. Maybe just as worse, succeeding administrations completely ignored appeals by the Sulu Sultanate to assert rights over the Philippine territory.
When MNLF was established, it received support from the Malaysian government, but Wadi said the latter’s real motive was its vested interests in Sabah.
“Malaysia saw that if the Bangsamoro gets its independence, this will bring a new competitor for Sabah,” he said. “By supporting the MNLF to pit against the Philippine government, this saved Malaysia.”
Wadi said that after MNLF signed the 1976 Tripoli Agreement with government, Malaysia’s support for the MNLF waned. In 1977, Marcos eventually dropped the Sabah claim, despite recognition from the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) of the Philippines’ territorial claim on Sabah in 1974.
“Never would Malaysia allow an independent Bangsamoro, because it would reopen the Sabah issue,” Wadi said.
As the government had dropped its claim on Sabah, so has it tried to erase Jabidah from history.
Wadi said that he recently got hold of transcripts from the congressional investigation on the Jabidah, but many parts were erased or missing. Military records were also unavailable.
The number of those killed in the massacre even varies, depending on sources, Wadi said, and cited a few. UP IIS former dean Cesar Adib Majul said 162 youths were brought to Corregidor. The book “Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao” by Maritess Dañguilan-Vitug said a total of 44 trainees were killed, with 22 persons in two batches. MNLF founder Prof. Nur Misuari said at least 200 were killed.
Wadi said that although there is no record on the actual number of victims, a glaring fact was that the trainees refused to become infiltrating forces and to fight other Muslims in Sabah, as testified by a survivor, Jibin Arula.
Wadi also lamented that the massacre was “politicized” and used by traditional politicians and landlords from Luzon, among them Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., who exposed the incident, which led to public outrage and congressional investigations. The expose propped up Aquino’s image as much as it marred Marcos’s.
Two Muslim autonomous regions
Among those at the forum was former Tawi-tawi Governor Almarim Centi Tillah, 72, who recalled how they mobilized for the protests in 1968. He said after coordinating with various Muslim and other student groups, he asked financial help from his Pan Xenia fraternity brother, UP Dean Conrado Benitez. The latter donated P300, with which they were able to hire a jeepney and sound system, buy materials for placards and even snacks.
On the day of the rally, youths and students – Moro and Christians – and other sectors, came out to join. “I was touched by the attendance,” Tillah said, adding that women even outnumbered the men.
Protesters marched from Echague street, paused and prayed at the Islamic Center, and proceeded to Malacañang in Mendiola. They were, however, stopped at the gates by presidential guards.
“We insisted that Malacañang is the house of the people,” Tillah recalled. But they were forced to just hold a program at the gates.
Tillah, who supports President Duterte’s move for federalism, said there should be two autonomous Muslim states: one, in the territories of the former Sultanate of Sulu, covering the island provinces of Sulu and parts of Zamboanga; and another in Maguindanao, along with Lanao and nearby provinces.
Need for Moros to unite
Wadi said the situation is worse now than at the time of the Jabidah massacre. In 1968, there were only two “strands” of Moro groups: the sultans from the once-powerful sultanates, and the American-educated traditional politicians who were members of big political parties. Along with Moro youths, then the emerging “third force,” they forged a unity in the aftermath of Jabidah.
Since the MNLF formation, breakaway groups had since been formed, unsatisfied with the signed peace agreements. Now the Duterte administration is set to hold talks with both the MNLF and the MILF, at the same time running after the BIFF and the Maute group. But other armed Moro groups have emerged, perverting the legitimate cause, like the bandit ASG, whose kidnap-for-ransom and other crimes continue to fuel Islamophobia and discrimination against Moros.
Aba singled out the underground group Moro Resistance and Liberation Organization (MRLO), which is allied with the revolutionary National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) that is establishing a people’s democratic government, mainly in the countryside.
“When this revolution triumphs, it said that it will also recognize the right to self-determination of Moros, and implement genuine autonomy,” Aba said.
Sandugo supports the peace talks between government and the NDFP, and had proposed a separate section in the NDFP draft Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (Caser) for the right to self-determination of national minorities.