Monday, June 15, 2015


The year was 1968. President Marcos, a brilliant politician by all accounts, was nearing the end of his first term, and would surely run for reelection the next year. But there was a hitch. A young and ambitious senator, one of the rising stars of the opposition party was about to expose Marcos regime’s “secret military operation” to recover a lost territory, now unjustly occupied by Malaysia. “Tell your cousin Ninoy to stop spreading the rumor that the Philippines will invade Sabah,” President Marcos warned Senator Eva Estrada Kalaw as soon as news reached the Palace. Surprised with the remark, she meekly tried to defend him, but to no avail. “Tell him he is a congenital liar,” the president shot back.

Meanwhile, in the Senate that evening, the solons were having their usual debates when Senate President Gil Puyat banged the gavel for a recess and announced for them to assemble in his room. There, he apprised them of a national security matter: the possible sneak invasion of Sabah. “Shall we discuss it in private or bring it up on the floor?” he pushed. Probably unaware of the serious implications of the issue before them, all of the senators agreed: Ninoy shall take the Senate floor.

The following morning, the so-called “Operation Jabidah” crashed the headlines. “Open the ‘Bulletin’ and see if I’m a congenital liar,” Ninoy bragged to his prima over the phone. Obviously, the opposition Liberal Party (LP) lost no time in making political capital of the incident. LP leaders took turns on the Senate floor to lambast President Marcos and demand investigation of the massacre. Throughout the country, Muslim students took their indignation to the streets, crying out justice for the deaths of so many young Muslims in Corregidor. The demonstrations, led by then UP political science Professor Nur Misuari, went as far as Malacanang Palace and Congress chanting to the choruses of “Alahu Akbar!” urging Muslim youth to unite. Thus began that infamous episode in modern Philippine history dubbed as the Jabidah massacre.

A stab at diplomacy

After persistent diplomacy to take back Sabah from Malaysia in the early sixties, President Diosdado Macapagal finally forced the issue upon the international community. And so, under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), a referendum was held over Sabah. The locals, however, voted to join the Federation of Malaysia despite strong objections filed in the UN by Indonesia and the Philippines. It was an inconclusive election, to say the least. But as it was, the US government had spoken in favor of the outcome of the referendum, officially sealing the fate of the Philippine claim to Sabah.

Furious at leaders in Malaysia, the Philippines severed diplomatic ties with Malaysia, a hiatus that lasted until President Marcos re-established relations during his term. But President Marcos had a different agenda on the table. Unlike his predecessor, one of the notable facets in the President’s character was deep secrecy; he played his foreign policy cards close to his chest. As a result, by feigning peaceful intentions with Malaysia, President Marcos bid his time well in preparation for the grand adventure. Indeed, as they say, politics is drama, politics is theater.

Project Merdeka (Freedom)

It was against this background of general frustration that the covert operation codenamed “Operation Merdeka”—the recruitment and initial training phase—was hatched.

The original idea was to destabilize Sabah by sending as many Filipinos there so that when a referendum was held among the Sabahans, the majority would have the numbers to claim the province as part of Philippine territory. Since workers in Sabah were predominantly Filipinos with ties to the motherland or Moros, who paid homage to the Sultanate of Sulu, President Marcos believed that the locals would prefer sovereignty of the Philippines to that of Malaysia. From there, the Sultanate of Sulu, the rightful heir of the disputed land, would deliver the resource-rich territory to the Philippines.

To carry out his plans, President Marcos tapped the services of an air force major, a fighter pilot, by the name of Eduardo Martelino. A visionary in his own right, Martelino had written a book advocating the unification of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia into a single state to be called “Maphilindo.” As it was, Martelino proposed to send a commando unit to Sabah for the purpose of fomenting unrest and starting a civil war. Once the fighting ensued, the Philippines would then come in on the pretext of protecting the interest of Filipinos living there.

Named after Martelino’s first Muslim wife, camp Sophia was set up as a secret training camp in Simunul, the rustic island-town of Tawi-Tawi, where the first Arab missionary Makhdum had built the first mosque in the 13th century. Martelino, alongside Lt Eduardo Batalla, trained close to 200 young Muslim men—Tausugs of Sulu and Sama of Tawi-Tawi. What lured the young men to Martelino’s invasion project was the promise of being part of an elite unit of the Armed Forces after four months of intensive training.

But sometime in February 1968, the Muslim recruits were informed that they had to undergo “further specialized training,” and that they would be transferred to Corregidor—noted to be Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s last stand during the Filipino-American resistance where he delivered his oft-quoted “I Shall Return” speech. From Simunul, the troops, numbering around 135 to 180, sailed for two days and one night on board a Philippine Navy vessel bound to Corregidor. This signaled the end of “Operation Merdeka” and the beginning of “Operation Jabidah.”

The Jabidah Massacre

Legend has it that the name “Jabidah” refers to a beautiful princess in Moro folklore. But like the pilgrim who spent the night with a beautiful queen who they thought was Nefertiti, the Muslim trainees too were in for a surprise. When morning came, and the veils were opened, the legend turned out to be a hideous woman of the night—a horror tale.

In the new island fortress, Martelino formed two commands that would separate the Tausugs from the Sama trainees. The “Sadlupan” command was composed of the Sama, and the Tausugs, on the other hand, belonged to the “Subangan” command. It appears, however, that the military officers despised the Tausugs because they were obstinate, always complaining at every turn, but they favor the Sama, gave them their allowances and would treat them fairly well. Thus, during their stay on the island, the Sama recruits were merely confined to one area while the Tausugs were kept elsewhere under rigid schedule. And so, the Jabidah planners decided that the Tausugs would be the first wave of Muslim commandos to invade Sabah. At this point, the recruits were informed what their true mission was. All along they thought that they would only be part of a peace-keeping force to be assigned in the Muslim areas. When they were told that their mission was to infiltrate Sabah and stir up an uprising there, right off, the Tausugs trainees got angry. They were sprawled all over, numb and dispirited at the revelation. The situation was complicated further by the non-payment of the P50 monthly allowance, a promise made by their superiors in Simunul.

Then something happened. Some immediately wanted to leave Corregidor and be returned home. When the Jabidah progenitors prevented them from leaving, the Tausugs mutinied. For some reason, they had to be disarmed— they had to be silenced.

The story is oft-told that one night, the rebellious trainees were taken out of the barracks in groups of twelve. At a nearby remote airstrip, they were instructed to proceed farther on while their escorts, armed with guns, stayed behind. When asked by one of the survivors, Jibin Arula, where they were supposed to go, the answer he got was a volley of shots. Arula dropped to the ground, rolled over the edge of a cliff at the far end of the airstrip and threw himself to the sea. Although shot in the knee, Arula managed to stay afloat for many hours, feigning death. He swam across several miles of Manila Bay, and the next day, was rescued by a Cavite fisherman who brought him to Governor Delfin Montano.

From there, the garrulous opposition Senator Ninoy Aquino Jr., a journalist by profession, picked up the story. After hearing Jibin Arula’s story, he hurriedly called for an urgent press conference. From the moment Ninoy opened his mouth, the Muslim leaders who flanked the press conference listened gape-mouthed as he unveiled the massacre that allegedly happened in Corregidor. It was definitely one of the biggest snares of Marcos’ reign and the itch, they say, that started it all.

Decades later, amidst the killing of the 44 Fallen SAF heroes, the assertion of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and the desire to alienate Mindanao and make it a separate entity from the Philippines, and the seemingly unending war between Muslims and Christians, allude to the Jabidah massacre is almost impossible. When however, the air clears and dust has settled, the intention that led to Jabidah, not to its failed mission, nor the itch that ignited the Muslim-Christian rift, remains valid: Sabah is ours. And Marcos’ operation to assert our right over it, no matter how it failed, is definitely not a hoax.

Photo credit: Xiao Chua