Remembering the ‘Jabidah massacre’

Forty-five years on, details of an alleged secret plot to destablise the Philippine province remain hard to come by.

It’s the 45th anniversary of what’s known as the “Jabidah massacre”, a previously under-acknowledged yet pivotal point in modern Philippine history.

Jabidah was the name of a special commando unit reportedly trained by the government of then-president Ferdinand Marcos to wreak havoc in Sabah in the 1960s. This was all part of an alleged secret plot to destabilise Sabah so that Marcos could begin proceedings to officially regain control of it from Malaysia. (The dispute over ownership of Sabah dates back to a Sultanate which ruled until the 19th century, from a seat in the southern Philippines. Malaysia still pays a fee to the descendants of that Sultan.)

When the alleged “Take Back Sabah” plan was brought to light by the late opposition senator Benigno Aquino Jr, the Muslim fighters Marcos reportedly recruited from the southern Philippines were killed by government forces in an attempt to bury any evidence of the plot.

The jury is still out on whether all of this is fact, or fiction.

Regardless, the story has sparked deep divisions in the Philippines and led to one of the world’s longest insurgencies – a Muslim secessionist movement that has spanned decades.

Forty-five years on, and for the first time, an incumbent Philippine president led commemorative rites on the island where the massacre is believed to have taken place. In his speech, President Aquino III (the late opposition senator’s son), unequivocally stated that the killings “really happened”. This is being seen by many, however, as a strategically timed attempt to pacify a rekindled ire among (though not exclusive to) Filipino Muslims over Aquino’s perceived “mishandling” of a more recent, also Sabah-related, event: the stand-off at Lahad-Datu between a group of Filipino fighters calling themselves the “Royal Sulu Forces” and Malaysian government troops.

The Aquino administration has been criticised as having sold out or kow-towing to Malaysia by not doing more to stop the Malaysian security forces’ offensive against some 200 Filipino fighters who tried to reclaim Sabah acting independently of the Philippine government.

Not to be overlooked in all this is Malaysia. The intricacies of the connections through time and space on this story are dizzyingly labyrinthine. Malaysia has been brokering the peace between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels – which is now in its final stages. But – as reported on Al Jazeera last week – both Muslim rebel leaders and a former Malaysian prime minister admit that the Philippine Muslim rebellion got much of its backing from Malaysia itself, in the hopes that this would quell and distract the Philippines from its claim to Sabah. Unfortunately, the over 40 year insurgency also meant over million people tried to escape the fighting through the years by fleeing to Sabah – which then created a whole slew of other problems for the Malaysians.

So now what? Sabah is a sore subject domestically for, and between, the two countries. Malaysia has to deal with the migrant Filipinos who have long felt ignored on Sabah, and the Aquino administration treads a fragile diplomatic line, not only with neighbouring Malaysia, but also its own disgruntled nationals.