Pinoy Kasi

Muslims, martial law


Last Monday the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of the Philippines Diliman began a series of activities to mark the 41st anniversary of the declaration of martial law. We started with a symposium featuring Amina Rasul as guest speaker with the topic “cultural sensitivity.”

Now, what might the connection be between cultural sensitivity and martial law?

Rasul started her talk referring to the ongoing clashes in Zamboanga City between government troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Dozens of people have died and some 80,000 people displaced as Nur Misuari and remnants of the MNLF declared their own Bangsamoro state. Older Filipinos, including Muslims, shake their heads sadly, seeing this as a last hurrah, huling hirit, for Misuari and his ragtag but still deadly band, and wondering who’s playing (and preying) on his ambitions for a cause.

We forget that there is a link between this ongoing battle and martial law. After all, when Marcos declared martial law his excuse was that he needed to save the republic from two main threats: the communist insurgents in Luzon and the Visayas and the Muslim secessionists in Mindanao, referring to the MNLF which had been established only three years earlier.


Marcos was clever in citing the communists and Muslims, exploiting prejudices we’ve built up over the decades. Over-simplistically, we believed that the “reds” threatened our democracy, and Muslims, our Christianity.

In reality, the communists and Muslims were gaining adherents because of widespread social discontent in areas neglected by government. The communists’ New People’s Army was strongest in areas still caught in medieval feudalism, including Central Luzon and Hacienda Luisita. Likewise, the Muslim secessionist movement found fertile ground in some of the poorest areas of the Philippines, Muslims marginalized in their own ancestral lands.

The tensions in Mindanao had been simmering through the decades as Christian settlers moved in from the overcrowded Visayas, and the neglect of Muslim areas worsened. In March 1968, toward the end of Marcos’ first term, there was the infamous Jabidah or Corregidor massacre, where young Muslim recruits in the Armed Forces of the Philippines were killed by their own superiors in a training camp in Corregidor. The Muslims had been deceived into believing they were going to be trained for an elite group of combatants, and then realized they were going to be deployed for an invasion of Sabah, where they would be fighting fellow Muslims. As discontent grew among the soldiers, the superiors realized they had to do something, and they chose to liquidate them. The public came to know about the massacre through one survivor.

Shortly after the Jabidah massacre,  Misuari—whom Rasul described as a young soft-spoken Muslim professor from UP—founded the MNLF. Misuari and the MNLF became more radical with time, spurred by more atrocities against the Muslims. In June 1971, 65 men, women and children were massacred inside a mosque in Carmen, North Cotabato. The assailants were members of the Ilaga, a Christian paramilitary group that had been formed to fight the MNLF.  These were fanatics who believed that they were invulnerable because of amulets they carried.

Ilaga itself means “rat,” which may have referred to dead rats which they kept as an amulet.

Is Jolo burning?

After Marcos declared martial law, he went full force against the MNLF. In 1973 Marcos’ soldiers stormed into Jolo and burned it to the ground. I was in college at that time and had a classmate from there who would tell me, in tears, about what was happening there. She was Christian and said they had been able to live together with the Muslims for decades.

There was no news about Jolo in the newspapers, radio or television—a first taste of the surreal world that comes about with press censorship. Weeks after the carnage, I read about Jolo in a photocopied article from the Far Eastern Economic Review, a magazine published in Hong Kong. The article was being circulated through an underground network because the Review was banned from the Philippines. The photographs were heartbreaking: Nothing of this once beautiful city remained.

Jolo has never quite recovered but the residents do remember what happened in 1973. I have friends from Jolo who tell me that residents will sometimes point to empty space while referring to some landmark. It reminded me of the medical phenomenon of phantom limbs: After you amputate an arm or leg, the patient will continue to feel pain in the place where the limb used to be.

The war with the Muslims continued through the years, with the martial law regime using divide-and-rule tactics, fanning prejudice and hostility between Christians and Muslims. The Ilaga was only one of many fanatical paramilitary groups that emerged in Mindanao, fighting not just Muslims but also Christians suspected of being communists.

In 1985 one of the Ilaga leaders, Norberto Manero, assassinated an Italian priest, Fr. Tullio Favali, in North Cotabato.  Manero was convicted and imprisoned that same year but was released in 2008. There are still bands of the Bagong Ilaga roaming parts of Mindanao.

Some 120,000 people have died in the clashes between the government and the MNLF, and, later, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Peace has been elusive, with peace treaties signed with the MNLF, each time failing. The latest treaty has been with the MILF, with the MNLF feeling left out.

After listening to Rasul, I told Neil Santillan, one of my associate deans, that he and younger faculty must make sure to continue martial law commemorations in the years to come.  With younger Filipinos the challenge has been to remind them that there was a time when we were under martial law.  Last year, for the 40th-anniversary celebrations, one professor told me his houseboy actually thought martial law was imposed during World War II, by the Japanese!

But even for those who do know about martial law, maybe living through that era as I did, there’s still a tendency to think of it as a bygone era, a dark one certainly, but one which has ended. Rasul’s talk reminds us of the long shadow cast by martial law, for Muslims and Mindanao.

Beyond the martial law commemorations then, we have to take up the challenge Rasul posed to the audience that of keeping dialogues going, involving Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples in Mindanao. If martial law brought war to Mindanao for 40 years, the agenda for the future must be a determined waging of peace through a dismantling of cultural prejudice.


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  • josh_alexei

    Mr. Tan, I had a very factual testimony from a townmate about the Jolo incident which he related to me later while we were getting together in New York in one of Emelda’s Apartments which he had the privilege to use for partying. Before immigrating, he was one of the Palace guards and before that he was a Marine Officer during the Burning of Jolo, but smart as he always was, his troops Raided the banks and that was how he ended with lots of money and years after, I heard the news that he lost most of it in the New Jersey Casinos. I have not met him in the last 25 years or so.

  • ConnieLee90

    We have to remember martial law- I agree. As a people, we have short term memories. We never seem to learn from our past. We easily get excited and distracted by other things. To reinforce our memory of the past, we need to build a monument, not to glorify, but commemorate the infamy of the tyrant’s regime. That was the period when we lost our freedoms. That was the period when the country was raped and plundered at will, not by foreign colonizers, but by our own people- our governing elites. Through yearly observances, our people young and old would hopefully not soon forget. Hopefully, it would help us become vigilant and mindful of what it is to be a free people. And hopefully defend those freedoms, even at the price of blood, against those who unjustifiably wish to take it away.

  • simondj

    Jesus said, “peace i give you, not the the peace the world offers you”. question,, do you think the MNLF, MILF, BIFF is trully offering peace? do you think the GOVERNMENT really know what is meant by peace,, from MARCOS to this day? the bible is authentic when it says,,, every time they said they want peace, then sudden destruction comes. look around you, look at middle eat, look at current events. do you think the bible is wrong?
    peace is the problem of the heart, peace begins in the heart of a man. NUR wants peace provided you give him his kingdom in a silver plate, then another one will come after him to do the same thing, and so on and so on, how can you solve this problem of the heart?
    the government should focus/concentrate how to attack this problem of the heart

  • WeAry_Bat

    Misuari, Marcos. Men who had ideals and purposes at some early stage in their life. If you are into Star Wars, Jedis who became Sith lords.

    So what if Nur was that idealistic before? He had the illusion he was one of the sheiks, in lieu of Saharan palaces, he resided in luxury hotels. But he could not give economic development to the people, he lost the elections.

    What defines a man the most is what he is now. Nur is a terrorist, he has destroyed parts of Zamboanga as if Jolo can be an excuse to destroy a city in Mindanao. Couldn’t be brave enough for Davao though.

    Nur Misuari, RIP, is what he deserves now, na.

  • Ayjayar

    As a Mindanaoan and having lived through the 14 yrs of Marcos’ martial rule, I have often wondered how it would have been otherwise. To me, the martial law yrs was a benign period of peace, progress and prosperity and a time to raise a family under the New Society. Sure, Misuari was a bratty kid that came from the same university as mine and Marcos, but Marcos had a hard time w/ him because of the not-so-covert backing of Malaysia, Libya and virtually the whole Middle East. On the other hand, Marcos’ allies in Salipada Pendatun (Maguindanaos) and the Alontos (Maranaos) and the Rasuls (Tausugs) proved to be effective counterpoint to Misuari’s MNLF. Unlike the Communist bogey however, I was never convinced that Misuari was any other than a modern Tausug warrior w/ university-professor manners fighting for a basic Moro Homeland.
    Not so with Hashim Salamat and his MILF – they are more like businessmen who use guns as their currency, ready to make deals w/ the Malaysians (natural resources) and the Americans (military bases).
    And, they’re not terrorists?? God forbid!!

  • Cue_Vas

    I think any of the atrocities cited in the article (by the way, it only cited atrocities from one side, not the other) does not excuse the killings and burnings going on today in Zamboanga.

    Just saw two kids who died in their parents arms hit by stray bullets from the rebels.

    Someone said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. But, I just wish the people of Mindanao have instant amnesia and that place would be peaceful again.

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