In the Philippine presidential election of 1965, the Nacionalista candidate, Ferdinand E. Marcos (1917-90), triumphed over Diosdado Macapagal. Marcos dominated the political scene for the next two decades, first as an elected president in 1965 and 1969, and then after his 1972 proclamation of martial law, as a virtual dictator. He had claimed to have served in the Battle of Bataan and later to have led a guerrilla unit, the Maharlikas. Like many other aspects of his life, Marcos's war record came under scrutiny during the last years of his presidency. His stories of wartime gallantry, inflated by the pro-Marcos media virtually into a personality cult during his years in power, have been comprehensively debunked.
Under Marcos, the Philippines became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), established in 1967. Although on the surface, Marcos spruiked regional stability, disputes with fellow ASEAN member Malaysia over Sabah in northeast Borneo, however, continued under the cover of plausible diplomatic deniability.
Historically, the Bangsamoro people had settled the geographical areas we now describe politically as Mindanao and Sabah. How they lost their land of origin to foreign governments is a peculiarly interesting saga of statecraft, with all its attendant aspects of greed, power and colonialism. It is also a story of Oil. I will avoid those issues here, for the direct relevance is that Sabah was the intended prize, and Corregidor simply a means to that end.
Following the eviction of the Japanese and the departure of the formal American influence, the Philippine government had re-established primacy over the Bangsamoro settled areas of Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan islands on July 4, 1946. During the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal in the early 1960s, the Philippines began again to look towards re-establishing by diplomatic maneuver a more direct control over Sabah’s wealth.
The basis of the Philippine claim relied on the assertion of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu (the Kirams) that the Sultan of Borneo had given Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu as a reward for helping quell a rebellion in Borneo. Suspicions abounded at that time that the Marcos Administration had wangled from the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu an agreement of sorts whereby Marcos would obtain part of resource-rich Sabah as "contingent fee."
Malaysia, naturally, vigorously opposed the claim, arguing that a certain Baron de Overbeck had "purchased" Sabah from the sultan of Sulu before later assigning his rights to the British East India Company. Malaysia further argued that Sabah had become part of Malaysian territory when Britain granted independence to the Federated States of Malaysia. The Philippines, by reply, argued a case of bad semantics, insisting that in 1876 de Overbeck had only "leased" Sabah from the Sultan of Sulu. The alleged contract between de Overbeck and the Sultan of Sulu used, they argued, the word padjak, a Malay term that could mean either "lease" or "purchase."
When Malaysia regained her independence from British colonial rule, it had colonized Sabah, continuing the payment of “rental” to the family of the Sultanate of Sulu. By the device of a referendum, it ultimately annexed Sabah in the early 1960’s. The integrity of the referendum was a matter of significant debate, for claims arose that Malaysia had stage-managed a semblance referendum, utilizing and bribing some Moro leaders from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi to represent the “political” interest of Sabah and Mindanao.
Parallel with diplomatic attempts, planners within the Philippine military associated with Marcos conceived a plot sometime in 1967 of establishing a force of commandos to destabilize Sabah, then ultimately to take advantage of the instability by either intervening in the island on the pretext of protecting Filipinos living there, or by "the residents themselves deciding to secede from Malaysia."
Marcos could not have chosen a more auspicious time to try and reclaim Sabah. Malaysia was only a fledgling state at that point, made even more wobbly by the secession of Singapore in 1965, two years after its independence from Britain. Too, Malaysia was embroiled in a border dispute with powerful Indonesia. And there was the Philippines' Sabah claim to boot. It was all that Malaysia could do to prevent itself from coming apart at the seams.
The codename for the destabilization plan was Operation Merdeka. The plan involved the recruitment of nearly 200 Tausug and Sama Muslims aged 18 to 30 from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and their training in the island-town of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi. Simunul was where the first Arab missionary Makhdum built the first mosque in the Philippines in the 14th century. The recruits felt giddy about the promise not only of a monthly allowance, but also over the prospect of eventually becoming a member of an elite unit in the Philippine Armed Forces. That meant, among other benefits, guns, which Muslims regard as very precious possessions. So from August to December 1967, the young recruits underwent training in Simunul. The name of the the commando unit: Jabidah.
On December 30 that year, from 135 to 180 recruits boarded a Philippine Navy vessel for the island of Corregidor in Luzon for "specialized training."
This second phase of the training turned mutinous when the recruits discovered their true mission. It struck the recruits that the plan would mean not only fighting their brother Muslims in Sabah, but also possibly killing their own Tausug and Sama relatives living there. Additionally, the recruits had already begun to feel disgruntled over the non-payment of the promised P50 monthly allowance. The recruits then demanded to be returned home.
For the Jabidah planners, it seemed that there was only one choice.
THE JABIDAH MASSACRE
As the sole survivor later recounted, the plotters led the trainees out of their Corregidor barracks on the night of March 18, 1968 in batches of twelve. They were taken to a nearby airstrip. There, the plotters mowed the trainees down with gunfire. Jibin Arula, the survivor, said that he heard a series of shots and saw his colleagues fall. He ran towards a mountain and rolled off the edge on to the sea. He recalled clinging to a plank of wood and stayed afloat. By morning, fishers from nearby Cavite rescued him.
The truth of the massacre took some time to emerge. In March 1968 Moro students in Manila held a week long protest vigil over an empty coffin marked ‘Jabidah’ in front of the presidential palace. They claimed “at least 28” Moro army recruits had been murdered. Court-martial proceedings were brought against twenty-three military personnel involved. There was a firestorm in the Philippine press, attacking not so much the soldiers involved, but the culpability of a government administration that would ferment such a plot, and then seek to cover it up by wholesale murder. The matter even made its way to the Supreme Court in 1970, on a preliminary issue.
Although the exact number of deaths still continues to vary depending upon the source of the reference, there is no denial of the fact that Corregidor was host to a massacre on that night.
In a series of articles smuggled from prison, and published in the Bangkok Post in 1973, Benigno Aquino wrote of the worsening rebellion by communist guerrillas in Luzon and by Muslims in the South seeking to avenge the execution of 25 of their “brothers.” The Bangkok Post printed a caveat against taking the clandestine Aquino Papers as “gospel truth” though in the main those warnings were about other aspects of the story. “In his clandestine writings, the Senator has been helped by his journalistic training and his accounts of various important events have a professional precision but the reader must keep in mind that he is a politician with great rhetorical skill,” the Bangkok Post wrote.
The Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility, in referring to the Jabidah Massacre speaks of those massacred “numbering from 28 to 64.” The Moro National Front, a less objective and more partial source, claims a massacre of “more than two hundred Muslim trainees.”
Nonetheless, sufficient evidence was amassed in time to lay court-martial charges against twenty-three members of the Jabidah group, and in time honored Philippine tradition, matters descended into the thickets of the Philippine legal system until most everyone's attention became focused elsewhere.
Whatever the figure, it is clear that the rich tapestry of Corregidor's history did not cease to be woven simply when the United States returned it to the Republic of the Philippines.