CORREGIDOR ISLAND, Philippines (UPDATED) – It was the father who exposed the killing of at least 23 young Moro trainees on Corregidor Island in March 1968, a massacre that sparked the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao. Forty-five years after, it is now the son who will attempt to heal the wounds of the past.
President Benigno Aquino III spoke here at very airstrip where the Moro trainees were believed to have been shot then burned to death, becoming the first Philippine president to grace the commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the Jabidah Massacre on Monday, March 18.
“Binubuksan natin ang sambayanan ng mamamayan tungkol sa Jabidah massacre. Totoo pong nangyari ito,” the President said. (We are allowing the nation to take part in the commemoration of the Jabidah massacre. It really happened).
He said he has instructed the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to declare the Mindanao Garden of Peace here as a national treasure.
The President noted that the current Sabah standoff, however, as proof that the country has not learned from the past. Both were part of a conspiracy, he said. “Trahedya po ang nangyayari ngayon sa Lahad Datu. Ngunit ang pinakamalaking trahedya ay tila hindi pa tayo natututo sa nakaraan.”
Aquino’s father, the late senator Benigno Aquino Jr, was the opposition leader then who revealed before the Senate the atrocities that occurred on the island on March 18, 1968. (Read: Sabah, Merdeka and Aquino)
In 1967, Filipinos from Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga were recruited to be part of a commando unit called Jabidah under a secret plot hatched by Marcos to invade Sabah and reclaim it from Malaysia. The plot was called “Operation Merdeka.”
But the plan did not materialize. Aside from not receiving stipends promised them, the trainees were subjected to harsh training conditions, lacking basic amenities with only ruins left behind by the World War II as their shelter. (Read: Jabidah and Merdeka: The inside story)
It has also been said that the trainees were not informed that the real purpose of the covert military training was to invade Sabah. Burdened by this, members of the Jabidah unit wrote a petition to then President Ferdinand Marcos to air their grievances.
To curtail the impending mutiny, the training officers of the unit transferred some recruits to other camps but shot and burned the others. It was the massacre, which Marcos had insisted never happened, that pushed then University of the Philippine professor Nur Misuari to form the Moro National Liberation Front.
When the atrocities were exposed, a Senate investigation was carried out. Marcos ordered the military officers involved in the incident to be court-martialed. But the investigations led nowhere and all the suspects were acquitted. Up to now, the victims have been unaccounted for.
The Philippines’ claim to Sabah has also been left unresolved.
The 45th anniversary of the Jabidah massacre comes as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front prepare to sign a final peace agreement by April.
As Aquino attempts to start closing a dark chapter in the Philippines’ history, another conflict arising from a new attempt to claim Sabah clouds today’s commemoration.
In Ferbruary 2013, armed followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III sailed to Sabah from Simunul, Tawi-Tawi, to revive their stake on the territory. The standoff turned bloody, resulting in 61 casualties from both sides, and has soured relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur.
As of Monday, Malaysian authorities are still hunting for Kiram’s followers. More than 2,000 Filipinos have since fled Sabah and returned to their communities in Mindanao.
Before the 200 followers of the Sultan of Sulu travelled to Sabah by boat on Feb 9, 2013, they met for 3 days on the island town of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi – the hometown of the man who led the charge in the Sabah standoff, Raja Muda (Crown Prince) Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. (Read: Jabidah recruits plotted Sabah standoff)
Forty-five years earlier, before the Jabidah unit was transported to Corregidor Island in 1967, they were trained in Camp Sophia, also located in Simunul – a camp named after the wife of then Major Eduardo Martelino, the man in charge of Operation Merdeka.
Here in Corregidor, the only traces that remain of what transpired in 1968 are graffiti markings left behind by members of the Jabidah unit in a derelict building hidden from the main road traversed by tourists.
Tours and ghost hunting
At the height of World War II, the building served as the hospital for Filipino and American troops. For the Jabidah unit, it served as their shelter.
The site is not part of the regular tours operated on the island. The history of the Jabidah massacre is also not included in the script of the tour guides.
The simple reason behind it, according to the staff of the tour operator in the island, is that the road leading to the hospital has not been developed and is therefore hard to be reached by the custom-made tour trams that ply the island.
But at night, lessons in history on the island give way to ghost-hunting activities.
Before being brought to the Malinta Tunnel, which served as the hospital of the Filipino and American troops during World War II was bombed out, guests staying overnight at the hotel are brought to the hospital. One of the rooms that served as the shelther for the Jabidah unit had been a morgue.
In Simunul as well, there are no traces left of the original location of Camp Sophia, now filled with overgrown trees and weeds.
What can be found in another part of Simunul today is the camp of the followers of the Sultanate of Sulu, which served as the meeting point of Kiram’s followers behind the Sabah standoff. Agbimuddin’s wife also continues to reside in the area, which is now secured by government troops.
Jabidah and the ongoing Sabah standoff operate in different circumstances and different contexts. But both have been mired in blood and violence. Both share a common point of origin in Simunul.
They represent two distinct events in history that although separate, are also closely linked, not only through Simunul but also through the participants in both attempts to claim to Sabah.