Mindanao in transition: How to deal with the past?

Angela Casauay

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Mindanao in transition: How to deal with the past?
An independent body is created to study recommendations on how to correct historical injustices and collect real narratives on what really transpired over the decades-long armed conflict in Mindanao

MANILA, Philippines – It was under the regime of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos when the spark that lit the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao – the 1968 Jabidah massacre – occurred.

Four years after the massacre, the Marcos regime declared Martial Law, jailing and killing thousands of activists. To address this dark page in history, the Aquino administration has implemented a landmark law providing financial and moral compensation to victims of Martial Law

The project formalizes the government’s acknowledgement of human rights violations committed during Martial Law and seeks to collect narratives from the people who lived through them to allow future generations to know what really transpired. 

But here’s the catch: victims of the Jabidah massacre are not entitled to compensation under this initiative.  

The law only covers human rights abuses committed within the Martial Law period – one month before September 21, 1972 and one (1) month after February 25, 1986. The Jabidah massacre occurred on March 18, 1968.  

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.” (READ: Jabidah and Merdeka: The inside story)

The plan did not push through. In an attempt to bury the plot and silence disgruntled trainees, who were later revealed to have been duped about the real purpose of the training, they were killed, burned down, and thrown out into the sea.  

The last living survivor of the massacre, Jibin Arula, has died. Close to 50 years since the incident, the exact number of victims have yet to be determined. Meanwhile, two Jabidah recruits who left Corregidor Island before the massacre occurred figured in the March 2013 standoff in Sabah – a proof that the wounds of the past have yet to be healed.

Determining how this chapter in history will be closed is one of the many roles of the Switzerland-led Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).

As Congress tackles the technical details of the law that seeks to install overhaul the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the emotional aspect of the peace process is also in the agenda.   

How will wounds inflicted by 4 decades of armed conflict be healed, now that a peace agreement has been signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)? How does one push for reconciliation among people of different tribes, religions and beliefs? 

Legitimate grievances

These are some of the questions that the TJRC will seek to answer as it embarks on a one-year study to provide recommendations on how the “legitimate grievances” of the Bangsamoro people can be addressed and how historical injustices can be corrected towards healing and reconciliation.  

Mô Bleeker, special envoy and head of the task force for Dealing with the Past and Prevention of Atrocities, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), chairs the commission. 

Joining her are lawyers Cecilia Jimenez (nominated by the government) and Ishak Mastura (nominated by the MILF) and Jonathan Sisson, who will serve as senior advisor. 

Transitional justice 

Transitional justice is the link that connects the historical past to the present and which will usher in the future, said government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer.

Bleeker stressed there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” template in transitional justice, but there are basic factors that must be considered in designing a system for it. 

The TJRC’s study will consider the following: 
  • It should have strong necessity of ownership
  • It must be gender sensitive – women sensitive or children sensitive but truly gender sensitive. “How many men have lived in terrible situations because they have gone through conflict? How will combatants heal their own wounds when they are decommissioned?” Bleeker said. 
  • It must be culturally sensitive, foster conflict transformation and promote trust 
  • Most importantly, it must respect the pace of the peace process and be realistic and feasible. “It’s about what can be done, not what we can dream about,” Bleeker said. 

The commission is expected to provide recommendations based on 4 principles:

  • The right to know
  • The right to reparation
  • The guarantee of non-recurrence
  • The right to justice

Under the right to know, the TJRC will recommend what kind of documentation, archives and history books should be created or corrected. The body will also study what kind of fact-finding bodies will be established and whether there is a need for a truth commission. A registry for missing persons will also be created. 

The body will propose the most appropriate form of compensation and restitution that should be provided to war victims, which could be in the form of financial compensation, memorials, public apologies, and educational initiatives. 

How war crimes will be given justice will be part of the study. Some options include civil lawuits; alternative dispute mechanisms; international, domestic, and hybrid courts; witness support; and protection and trial monitoring. 

To guarantee that conflict will not recur, the body will also propose institutional reforms and study how decommissioning and reforms in the security sector could play roles in establishing a new autonomous government.

The TJRC will organize a “systematic” consultation process that will commence by the end of October or the first week of November. 

It has already conducted two public sessions – one in Cotabato City and another in Makati City. 

The TJRC has until September 2015 to produce a report. It will provide an initial report after 6 months. 

The commission notes it will not be in charge of implementing the recommendations – that will be the responsibility of the transition authority and the future Bangsamoro government. 

TOWARDS RECONCILIATION. Under the final peace deal, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front agreed to decommission their firearms. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP


Jimenez said the body will try to be as inclusive as possible and consult both local and national bodies, including the military.   

Asked whether other armed groups that are opposed to the peace process will be consulted, Mastura said the commission will try to reach out to them but participating in the process will still depend on the groups’ willingness. 

Secretary Teresita Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, said putting what happened in the past on record is essential in moving forward. 

“This is the flaw of our character as a people, that our history is just moving on – there is no memory, no truth-telling, no justice about World War 2, Martial Law, and that’s how we are. We prefer to just move on, forget everything. I’ve been saying this for a long time. It’s a major factor why we keep repeating our tragedies and our mistakes. I’m so glad that we have deliberately decided to do this in a most deliberate way,” Deles said. – Rappler.com

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