From Jolo to Marawi
The fighting in Marawi and the declaration of martial law in Mindanao reminded me of the siege of Jolo, the capital of the province of Sulu, in 1974, which we need to recall in order to pick out lessons for the current crisis.
The Moro National Liberation Front was established in 1972 by Nur Misuari, mostly composed of the Tausug, the predominant Muslim group in Sulu and parts of Zamboanga. The MNLF rapidly grew in strength. In September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, citing the communist New People’s Army and the still young Muslim secessionist movement as reasons for invoking emergency powers.
The year 1973 saw many military operations especially in Mindanao, but the rebel forces continued to grow. In a brazen challenge to Marcos and martial law, MNLF rebels entered Jolo, taking over strategic parts of the city including the airport.
Marcos sent in his troops and, for four days in February 1974, they fought to regain control of Jolo. They succeeded, but the fighting resulted in the city being razed.
More than 40 years after the siege of Jolo, there are still controversies regarding what had happened, mainly who did what. What we do know is that a large part of Jolo was destroyed, and that there were heavy casualties, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to 20,000.
We have to remember that because of martial law, there was heavy news censorship, leading to many rumors. Years later, civilian eyewitnesses began to write their memories of the siege and posting these on the internet. Notable postings are the ones by Said Sudain Jr. and Mucha Sim-Arquiza, written from the heart rather than as pro- or anti-government propaganda.
I will get back to these accounts later but need to move into the present. The fighting in Marawi erupted last Tuesday after government troops raided a house where Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf, was believed to be hiding. The Maute Group affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf retaliated by sending some 100 gunmen into the city, which then led to President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao, and his threat to be as harsh as Marcos.
Which is why I hope Mr. Duterte’s military advisers will study history. The siege of Jolo may have been seen as a victory for Marcos, but it did not quell the secessionist movement. In fact, that movement has grown, with later groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf gaining new recruits by recalling Jolo and other examples of the oppression of Filipino Muslims.
The Abu Sayyaf now poses the greatest threat to the country. Established in 1991 as a breakaway group of the MNLF, it first espoused secessionist goals and engaged in criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom, but also became known for its terrorist activities. It was behind the bombing of Superferry 14 in 2004, which killed 116 people. In 2014, its leader Hapilon swore allegiance to the international terrorist group Islamic State.
The Abu Sayyaf has been ruthless, and is known for beheading its hostages. No longer, too, is it confined to Sulu and Zamboanga, as we see now in the clashes in Marawi, which is in northern Mindanao.
It’s history catching up.
Moro rights groups like Suara Bangsamoro have warned against the indiscriminate use of martial law, citing the battle last year in Zamboanga between the Abu Sayyaf and government troops. A year after, there are still homeless refugees stalked by disease, hunger and death.
Suara Bangsamoro has called on the government to stop stoking anti-Muslim fears and to look into protecting civilians. Being much older, and aware of the siege of Jolo in 1974, I do worry about the government repeating the mistakes of that era. The worst fears right now are of the government resorting to aerial bombardment, and this is where the siege of Jolo becomes salient again. People remember the damage from those attacks, where “collateral damage” or civilian casualties greatly outnumbered those of armed combatants.
Death of chivalry
At the same time, especially in times of war, people do remember restraint and kindness. Said Sadain, who was 15 at the time of the siege of his city, recalls the carnage—corpses in the streets covered with newspaper pages—as well as the efforts of Rear Adm. Romulo Espaldon to save lives by sending in naval boats to pick up Jolo residents from the pier and transport them to safety in Zamboanga City.
The Feb. 12, 1973, issue of Time had an article, “War on Suppression,” describing Marcos’ initial attempts to control rebels under martial law. The author of the article, David Aikman, wrote about the tensions in the government operations in Mindanao, yet ended his article thus: “For all its fierceness, the conflict seems to be governed by an almost anachronistic chivalry on both sides.” He quoted Col. Alfonso Alcoseba: “These people are gentlemen on the battlefield. They don’t mutilate or desecrate the dead.”
Much of chivalry disappeared in subsequent battles and, in 1974, in the siege of Jolo. Marcos’ martial law came and went, and the conflicts continued, escalating in intensity and brutality.
I’ll end today’s column by returning to Sadain’s account, available on the internet, where he describes how his mother, herding her children to safety, discovers that her son had been lugging his beloved guitar all that time. The wise mother ordered him to leave the guitar in one of the houses, fearing that it might be mistaken for a rifle. I presume Sadain heeded his mother despite his great love for the guitar, with recollections of how he would strum it, using Jingle music magazines (older readers will remember) and singing Cat Stevens songs. He mentioned “Moon Shadow” and “Wild World,” and I could almost hear the music.
I smiled with sadness on reading that part, remembering that I was also young at that time in Manila, also with Jingle magazine and guitars. The entire country was under martial law and there were also raids on homes, and arrests, and disappearances, but nothing that came close to the burning of Jolo.
Now, another generation of Filipinos will witness martial law again. When we refuse to learn from history, we find it not only repeated, but its adverse consequences also spiraling, condemning new generations to greater suffering.
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