CORREGIDOR—While it happened 45 years later, the crisis in Sabah is a “tragic” rerun of the controversial Jabidah Massacre in 1968, President Aquino said Monday.
Under a searing afternoon sun at the purported massacre site here, the President drew parallels between the two incidents that he said both exploited the Muslim people as he rebuked the “provocateurs” behind the Feb. 9 incursion by Agbimuddin Kiram, an heir of the sultanate of Sulu, into Sabah.
And to avoid a repeat of the massacre, the President ordered the National Historical Commission to declare Mindanao Garden of Peace, a memorial for the Jabidah Massacre victims, a national landmark.
“Till now there are those attempting to exploit the ordinary Moros for their own ends. Aren’t we seeing a repeat of history in the events that unfolded during the past weeks?” Aquino told a crowd of Cabinet officials and hundreds of peace advocates in the middle of an airstrip.
“There are still those exposing them to danger and risking their safety, while the leaders are comfortably watching the events from afar,” he added.
“What’s happening in Lahad Datu is a tragedy like the tragedy that happened in Jabidah,” he said. “But the biggest tragedy is that it seems we’re not learning from the lessons of the past; that following the law and respecting rules are the just response to the challenges we’re facing.”
Then as now, the President said, it is clear in the Constitution that the country renounces war as a national policy.
It was the first time a Philippine leader traveled to Corregidor, a tadpole-shaped island at the mouth of Manila Bay that was the site of one of the bloodiest chapters in World War II, to commemorate the Jabidah Massacre. Aquino attended the groundbreaking rites for the memorial garden.
On March 18, 2008, in the 40th year of the Jabidah Massacre, then Anak Mindanao Rep. Mujiv Hataman and some of his allies made a symbolic journey to Corregidor to unveil a commemorative marker honoring the slain Muslims. Hataman, who was appointed by Aquino as chairman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, accompanied the President to Corregidor on Monday.
Aquino used the event to address the Sabah crisis, putting it in the context of “Operation Merdeka,” an alleged top-secret plan by the Marcos administration to invade Sabah, which the Philippines claimed was part of its territory.
When the Muslim recruits, who were transported to Corregidor on Jan. 3, 1968, refused to take part in the mission after belatedly learning of the covert plan, the training officers fired on them before dawn on March 18. One trainee, Jibin Arula, escaped but reportedly died in a vehicular accident in Trece Martires, Cavite, in 2010. (See In the Know on this page)
The President chafed at the key personalities who masterminded the incursion into Sabah of the sultan’s men, which prompted a Malaysian air and ground assault.
“Instead of telling them: ‘Go home, your life is important,’ they keep on agitating, they keep on provoking, as if they’re mere bullets for their hidden intentions. This is what I can say: If others consider the lives of Moros loose change—loose change that they could put on the line for their personal interest—this view is wrong,” he said.
That was why, Aquino said, he had appealed to Agbimuddin and his followers to come home since after all, “violence amounts to nothing,” and “sober talks are more productive.”
The violence has left at least 62 dead, and sent hundreds of undocumented Filipinos fleeing Sabah after the Malaysian police and military cracked down on Agbimuddin’s followers.
Aquino said the sultan’s incursion was going to be costly for the government, which has to grapple with the possible influx of the 800,000 Filipinos living in Sabah because of the violence.
“If they come home en masse, that will surely affect the economy,” he said. “Based on a quick computation, if a family has five members, that will total 60,000 families. For food alone, that is P250 for three days, that’s equivalent to P4.87 billion for the whole year.”
Their housing needs is another matter, he said. “That will reach P32 billion, and that doesn’t include the land yet. We’re talking here of only food and housing.”
Their other needs such as providing them land to farm, building additional classrooms, enrolling them in Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), had to be considered too, he added.
“What program should we shelve to fill all these needs? How do we respond to the other Filipinos who also need assistance from the State? Can we whisper to them, Please bear with us; your upliftment will come later?”
This could have been avoided if the appropriate process was followed, the President said.
“No matter how hard we try to sympathize, it can’t be helped that we feel sadness, a sense of loss, and our patience is tested, because like what happened to the Jabidah unit, there were people who put their interest above the welfare of their fellow Filipinos,” he said.
Peaceful road map
Aquino reiterated that he had instructed Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., the Department of Justice and the Department of Foreign Affairs to draw up a “peaceful road map” for the Sabah issue.
“My job is to go back to history and spell out a direction that the country would take on the Sabah issue, a direction that will not employ violence,” he said.
Aquino acknowledged that his father, then Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., exposed the Jabidah Massacre in a speech at the Senate after talking with the lone survivor.
“And he said in his speech: ‘The life of a Filipino no matter how lowly he is … is as important as the life of a high official, as is important as the life of a President,’” Mr. Aquino said.
Speaking of the Jabidah Massacre, the President said he hoped that his presence at the commemoration would give official recognition to the wrong done to the Muslim people.
“Until now, there has been no official recognition from the government; it’s written in books and taught in schools as if it’s a mere gossip. There’s no concrete step to include it in our history as a wound of the past,” he said.
Aquino acknowledged that the prescriptive period for murder was 20 years, and that the perpetrators had been cleared by a court-martial in 1971, but these should not stop the government from searching for “true justice.”
“But then how do you heal a wound that you don’t even bother to look at? How do you right a wrong if you don’t face the truth?” he said. “That’s why today, we’re opening the eyes of the whole country to the Jabidah Massacre. This has indeed happened, and it’s our duty to recognize this as part of our national narrative.”
Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III said the President leading the first government commemoration of the massacre was a milestone.
Noting that the Jabidah Massacre triggered the secessionist movement in Mindanao in the 1970s, Quezon said that acknowledging the Moro grievances was crucial to the government’s desire to forge a lasting peace in the south.
“This is a time when the prospects of the peace process succeeding are very good. If you’re going to have peace, then the wounds and hurts of the past should be healed,” he said.