The news was spotty at first. Toward noon of Friday, a report flashed on TV that said a firefight had erupted between the Malaysian security forces and the Kiram group in Sabah with minor casualties. Shortly later a correction was made that there was no firefight at all, the Malaysians had only fired warning shots. Still later, yet another correction was made that a firefight had indeed taken place with undetermined casualties. By nightfall, it was definite. The Malaysian security forces had stormed the Kiram group’s lair, killing 12 while suffering two casualties.
At the end of it all, I saw the Lapiang Malaya.
The Lapiang Malaya, for those who are not old enough to remember it, was a political-religious group that preached freedom for the poor along with the Second Coming of Christ. It contested the presidential elections in 1957, but its leader, Valentin de los Santos, expectedly lost.
Ten years later, in 1967, finding its dreams, or illusions, of achieving its goals thwarted by electoral politics, the group marched on Malacañang armed with bolos. It was blocked by heavily armed police. But believing in the rightness of its cause and the power of its amulets, the group charged at the defenders. It met with a hail of bullets which, alas, the group’s members proved only too vulnerable to. Some 33 of them died while 47 were wounded.
It was an event that began as farce and ended as tragedy. It shocked the nation, the Philippine Constabulary—and President Ferdinand Marcos—being blamed for excessive use of force. The furor eventually died down and was replaced by a general feeling of sadness and public wonderment about how people could be possessed by such a fantastical view of the world they would embark on a batty enterprise like this.
Arguably, the Kiram incursion into Sabah does not owe to cultist stirrings and millenarian aspirations. Arguably, the Kiram incursion into Sabah is more rooted, or so they think, in terra firma: on law and document, history and treaty. Arguably, the Kiram incursion into Sabah, with its more formidably armed component, poses a graver problem than did De los Santos’ bolo- and amulet-wielding ragtag band.
But for all that, it shares a great deal of the spirit of De los Santos’ deed. It had fringe written all over it. It had bizarre written all over it. It had deluded written all over it.
Certainly, it had futility and doom written all over it. What in God’s, or Allah’s name, did the Kiram group expect to happen from the decision to forcibly lay claim on Sabah? How in God’s, or Allah’s, name did the Kiram group expect it to end? That at the end of a long day it could pressure Malaysia to give up Sabah to them? That armed with the might of right and the right of might, they could force the Malaysian government to at least discuss terms with them? That as a result of their willingness to die to the last man for what they believed in, the Malaysian government would not in fact oblige them?
Last Friday night, AM radio had a slew of commentators who went to town lambasting government for the way it handled the Sabah crisis which resulted in this bloody pass. It was government’s cavalier attitude toward the Sultanate of Sulu, they said, that produced this perfectly preventable tragedy. Well, while I agree that government has its share of officials who are innately arrogant and dismissive, whose utterances subtract from the sum of human knowledge rather than add to it, or add to the problem rather than to the solution, the question remains: What could government have done to make things better?
If a group of Malaysians armed to the teeth suddenly materialized in some part of Sulu, claiming it in the name of the Muslim brotherhood, or the universal Islamic church, the ummah, that transcends national borders, how would we react? If a group of Malaysians armed with the Koran or some document from the first millennium after Christ, or after Mohammad, demanded that the Sultanate of Sulu proclaim solidarity with them as they have the Muslims of Sulu squarely behind them, how would we react?
Indeed, more to the point, if the Chinese armed with their claim on the whole of the South China Sea and the islands therein according to ancient maps suddenly occupied the whole of the Spratlys and demanded tong from merchant vessels for the use of the sea routes, how would we react? The only difference being that unlike the Malaysian government, we would be a lot more powerless to challenge it. But we would be exceptionally furious. And we could always express our anger and protestations, our ngitngit and himutok, in the most ardent ways.
Same question: How did the Kiram group expect the Malaysian government to react? How in fact did it expect the Philippine government, whom it had just put on the spot, to react? Give the group its heartfelt blessings and support?
People have been killed, Filipinos have been killed. That is a cause for monumental sorrow, that is a cause for monumental grieving, that is a cause for monumental bitterness. But you cannot blame anyone for it, you can only blame the people who plunged into this thoroughly reckless and muddled enterprise and caused this wasteful loss of lives. At the end of the day, all they’ve done is shoot themselves in the head. They’ve just doomed their cause forever. After this, no one will give the slightest thought to their claims to Sabah anymore: They’ve just killed it, as surely as they have 12 of their own.
At the end of the day too, after the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the dead, they will be forgotten. The way the Lapiang Malaya was forgotten, De los Santos himself was committed to a mental asylum where he was beaten to death. That is the way of tragic farces.
That is the way of farcical tragedies.