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Philippine peace deal must take hold

Publication Date : 15-10-2012


In the Jabidah Massacre, about 68 Filipino Muslim military trainees were killed at a tadpole-shaped island off Manila by the Armed Forces of the Philippines in 1968.

The murdered young Muslims were part of a plot by the then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to infiltrate and destabilise Malaysian state of Sabah.

The military ordered the kill because some of the trainees objected to Operation Merdeka, a covert mission to either take over Sabah or to encourage Sabahans to secede from Malaysia.

The massacre sparked a Muslim rebellion. In 1969, a university professor, Nur Misuari, founded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to establish an independent Moro nation through the barrel of a gun.

Four decades later and with 150,000 people killed, the Muslim rebellion is still raging in southern Philippines.

As a Sabahan, I have seen how in some ways the fates of the rebellion and my home state are entwined.

“Malaysia took its revenge a year after the Jabidah killings,” wrote Marites Danguilan Vitug and Glenda Gloria in their book Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao.

“It provided succour to rebels from the secessionist MNLF, aiding them with arms and military training in Sabah. For years, Sabah was home to the MNLF.”

In 1974, in one of the most notorious battles of the rebellion, the Philippine army burned down Jolo, Nur Misuari’s hometown.

This had a profound effect on Sabah. About 80,000 Tausugs (the ethnic group that populates Jolo) fled the island in boats to my home state, where they were accepted as refugees.

In Kota Kinabalu, the refugees (who in Sabah are called Suluks) were housed in Pulau Gaya. The stilted homes of the refugees on the island, about a 15-minute boat ride from the city’s waterfront, are an eyesore for most Sabahans.

Pulau Gaya – although unfairly, as a bulk of the illegal immigrants come from Indonesia – is the symbol of Sabah’s longstanding illegal migrant problem, which is now under investigation by a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

If you asked Sabahans about Jolo, there was a time when many would not be able to tell you what or where it is.

That changed on April 23, 2000 when Abu Sayyaf bandits kidnapped 21 people – including 10 foreign tourists – in Sipadan island, off Sabah’s Semporna. The captives were then put in a boat and taken to Jolo island.

If you connect the dots, the roots of the kidnapping can be traced to the Muslim rebellion. Here are the dots: unrest leads to lawlessness and poverty that breed armed bandits, who see foreign tourists as a commodity.

When I covered the Sipadan kidnapping in Jolo, I saw what a rebellion could do to a province. In Jolo, I felt like I had walked into an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie about an armed rebellion in a Third World country.

The Sulu governor (Jolo is part of the Sulu province) travelled in an armed convoy.

“Can you imagine the Sabah Chief Minister riding in a convoy led by an APV (armoured patrol vehicle)?” I joked to P.K. Katharason, my editor.

When Katharason and I travelled from Jolo town to interview the Abu Sayyaf commanders and hostages in Talipao where the hostages were held, the concrete road was filled with potholes and every few kilometres there were checkpoints manned either by the Philippine army, the MNLF, the Abu Sayyaf or a lost command (bandits for hire).

Poverty was also apparent. Many of the villagers lived in houses which most Malaysians would say were fit only for breeding chicken.

Most of the Abu Sayyaf commanders we interviewed could speak Malay.

“I was in KK (that’s how Sabahans fondly call Kota Kinabalu),” Ghalib Andang @ Commander Robot told us as he fiddled with a live bullet.

Later, we were told that the notorious bandit once worked as a ticket collector in Capital Cinema in Kota Kinabalu.

“You Sabahans are rich, unlike us. What we have here is only war,” Commander Robot added.

Lawlessness and poverty were also evident when Katharason and I visited Maguindanao in 2001.

“That will change when the economy in Mindanao gets better,” said Jose Torres Jr, who wrote Into the Mountain: Hostaged By The Abu Sayyaf, while drinking a San Miguel light at a grill bar in Makati (Manila) on Saturday night.

“The economy is picking up in Mindanao. (Because they have jobs) the Muslim youth would rather be on Facebook than carry arms,” he said.

Yesterday, when Katharason and I arrived in Cotabato City in Mindanao, there was a sense of hope that the deal brokered by Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur will bring peace.

Until peace becomes a reality, the people caught in the conflict zone will have to contend with killings and bombings that have become part of their life in the four-decade Moro war.

If the latest peace pact fails, the ghost of the Jabidah Massacre will continue to haunt Sabahans.


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