Operation Merdeka

Two weeks ago, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III went to Corregidor, the island that lies at the mouth of Manila Bay, and led the commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the “Jabidah Massacre.”

At the memorial, Aquino said: “On March 28, 1968, my father delivered a speech in the Senate about the events that history would come to know as the Jabidah Massacre. He revealed the Marcos regime’s plan to claim Sabah; it was called Operation Merdeka.”

Just a minute. The son gives too much credit to the father. In that speech 45 years ago, then Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. merely blew the whistle on strange happenings on Simunul Island in the Philippine south, and in Corregidor. He revealed the recruitment of young men of Tausug ethnicity for commando training, restlessness among the recruits because they had not been paid their allowances, and shootings in which a recruit, Jibin Arula, was wounded.

Ninoy mistook Jabidah for the code name of President Marcos’s “special operation to insure his continuity in power and achieve territorial gain.” He concluded that “there was no mass massacre on Corregidor Island.” He mentioned neither Operation Merdeka nor Sabah.

It would be in subsequent congressional investigations and in the writings of investigative reporters that a more discernible — but by no means complete — picture would emerge.

Jabidah was actually the name of the unit of hastily trained commandos that would infiltrate Sabah. Operation Merdeka was the code name of the adventure. The mission was to sow chaos by robbing banks, killing policemen and inciting rebellion. There was probably an intention to follow this up with a full-scale invasion.

In Corregidor, there were gruesome murders involving former communist rebels turned pro-government assassins. But the congressional investigations reached no firm conclusion as to the overall nature of these events. The officers and enlisted men involved in the Jabidah fiasco were court-martialed but were acquitted.

Malaysia was livid. The treachery was all the more malicious because it had not been a year since the Philippines and Malaysia co-founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, amid emotional avowals of fraternal unity.

Malaysia found its chance to retaliate when, right after Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, young Filipino Muslims formed the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front. Malaysia sheltered, trained and equipped the first three batches of MNLF fighters. Then followed a secessionist rebellion of more than four decades in which 120,000 Filipinos lost their lives and 20 million were displaced. Meanwhile, the proprietary rights of the Sultanate of Sulu were neglected.

I don’t see the point of commemorating the Jabidah Massacre. With the Jabidah Massacre, the Philippines lost the moral high ground in its dispute with Malaysia over Sabah. It was a day of infamy that the Philippines must fully investigate, recognize and live down.

The Philippines must negotiate for a realistic closure to the Sabah question to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, including the Sulu sultanate and the people of Sabah. The holdouts in Lahad Datu must be brought back home safely. Both sides must face the truth of what has happened, and move on. Asean should help: this is a natural job for its Institute of Peace and Reconciliation.

Finally, the sultanate must set its house in order and unite behind a single sultan without government interference. It must forget its dream of a financial windfall and seek to become an enduring social institution that is a nemesis of government corruption and a force for spirituality and progress.

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