Muslims, martial law | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Muslims, martial law

/ 08:48 PM September 17, 2013

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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TAGS: Amina Rasul, Michael L. Tan, MNLF, muslims, opinion, Pinoy Kasi, zamboanga standoff
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