In 1967 the president of Philippines Diosdado Macapagal authorized what would become known as “Operation Merdeka”. It was a codename for a destabilization program where the end goal was the annexation of Sabah, a resourceful region in north-east Malaysia.
The operation was the result of a long dispute originating in several events, primarily the controversial creation of the Federal Republic of Malaysia, the Sultanate of Sulu and the Madrid Protocol from 1878.
The sultanate of Sulu was an Islamic state under the Empire of Brunei.
The Sultanate consisted of parts of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and it existed from 1405 to 1915 when it was annexed by the Spanish empire in 1851 according to Spain, or signed a peace treaty and gave up parts of its territory while remaining a sovereign nation until 1915 according to the Sulu. The different version stems from two different translations of the Treaty signed between the Sulu and the Spanish. The Spanish interpreted the treaty to mean that the Sultanate of Sulu would become part of the Philippines which was under the sovereignty of the Spanish Empire. And the Sultanate interpreted the treaty to mean a peace agreement between two equal states in which the Sultanate would give up parts of its territory, in particular the Sabah region in what is todays Malaysia and thus continue to exist as a dependent state under the Spanish. If you thought this was somewhat confusing, well it doesn’t get any clearer than that. The history in this region is to put it mildly, murky and muddy.
But the background history between the Sultanate of Sulu and its Filipino areas is an important part of what would happen in 1968, more specifically, the cultural plurality in an area consisting of indians, malays, arabs, persians, chinese and various other ethnic groups had everything to do with what happened.
You see, during the British decolonization program, former colonies would be ceded from the British and either become autonomous nations or (as in the case of Malaysia) have several vastly different areas lumped together to be big enough to be counted as a “nation”, in Malaysia’s case, these areas lumped together included parts of the Sulu Sultanate. And here we arrive at the problem, (1) the Sulu areas which included the Sabah region were ceded to the Spanish, who during the decolonization with the British had every right to give the area to create Malaysia, thus making the land belonging to the Malaysian state. Or (2) the Sulu peace treaty with the Spanish allowed the Sultanate to continue existing as a autonomous state, only giving up some land and leasing the Sabah region to the Spanish, thus when the Sultanate in 1915 merged with the Philippines, the Sabah region was given by the Sultan of Sulu to the Philippines, making the land part of the Philippine republic.
And so, the conflict started when Malaysia was created. And it is still going. Both nations lay claim to the area, and both nations have had various military programs and operations to annex or maintain control over Sabah. In the case of Merdeka, in 1962 then president Diosdado Macapagal renewed the Philippines 1922 claim of Sabah, and his successor Ferdinand Marcos followed up this claim by authorizing Major Eduardo “Abdul Latif” Martelino, a muslim convert, to take charge of the Merdeka operation. The plan was to have trained commandos infiltrate Sabah in order to destabilize the region by targeting Malay governmental institutions and incite anti-Malay rebellions in the local population which consisted of Kadazandusun, Bajau, chinese and other non-Malay muslim groups.
The hope was that despite all the micro-national clashes between the various groups, their resentment to the Malay minority would be stronger than their hatred for each other. Once the region was destabilized the Philippines would have a legitimate claim to send in military forces in order to stabilize the region and make the area safe again. After all, as far as the world knew, the local population was fighting against Malay rule and would welcome a Filipino intervention. The operations leadership, as far as we know to date, included Major Eduardo Martelino, the generals circle of the AFP (Armed Forces of Philippines) and Defense Undersecretary Manuel Syquio, with indications that President Disdado successor Ferdinand Marcos was also in on it.
The operation was started for full in 1966 when Major Martelino went to the muslim regions in order to recruit Sulus and Tawi-Tawis to be the commando unit, named Jabidah. The Jabidah forces had a training camp hidden in the jungle around the Tawi Tawi village Simunul. And from August to December 1967 the camp was expanded to house and train 200 men, around that time Lt. Eduardo Batalla was brought in to assist Major Martelino, and the forces were expanded with more recruits from the Tausugs and Sama people, where many were former smugglers, pirates or fishermen. The Simunul camp, named Camp Sophia after Martelinos second wife, was camouflaged as a coconut plantation, so as you might imagine it was a very large training camp. The training exercises included infiltrating the local villages to gather intel, planting bombs, using crowds of protesters to assassinate targets and sabotaging Malay infrastructure like electrical transistors and telephone stations as well as effectively spread propaganda material.
Once they all had basic training, the first phase of the operation started. With the help of a local big-time smuggler and millionaire, 31 year old Lino Bocalan, they used his fast moving fishing boats to start smuggling Jabidah forces into Sabah. The Jabidah men would pose as forest rangers, mailmen and police. They blended into the Sabah communities and started work on organizing pro-Filipino communities which would be supportive of a Filipino military invasion. They did this by starting to contact the Filipino minority in Sabah, many of whom had migrated from Mindanao, then they started organizing other non-malay groups in Sabah. The end part of phase one of Operation Merdeka was 17 Jabidah agents enter Sabah 3 times to stock dynamites, and plant bombs, mines and other forms of traps and ambushes which targeted both civilians and Malay government institutions.
They also conducted reconnaissance in order to prepare stretches of land, ports and harbors where Filipino ships and planes could land en masse for the oncoming intervention.
When the Jabidah force set up camp in Sabah, they secretly converted a bombed out hospital in Corregidor to HQ, barracks and a make shift landing strip for airplanes to bring in supplies. Corregidor has a lot of historical value, as the place where the remnants of the Filipino-American resistance made their last stand against Japanese forces in WWII. It was though that this particular location would inspire a sense of patriotism and duty in the Jabidah force. But as time went on, and they carried out attacks, spread propaganda and carried out a particularly hard training regiment with parachute training, improvised bombing and live fire maneuvering, the Jabidah men started to question their mission and whether or not they really wanted to be a part of it.
Living conditions were, understandably, not particularly good, and much of the operation was financed by the smuggler Lino Bocalan in return for the Filipino government turning a blind eye to his smuggling operations, so as to avoid any monetary ties between the Jabidah and the government, this meant that pay and salaries were inconsistent. But more importantly, the Jabidah men, who were Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Sama and Tausugs were starting to oppose the killing of fellow muslims in Sabah, a predominately muslim region. They started to view their targets as not enemy Malay conspirators, but as fellow muslims, and the operation as not a fight to promote Filipino goals, but as an attack on muslims.
Starting to sense the mens resentment, Lt Rolando Abadilla and the other officers started to take shifts guarding their own barracks at night. And when 62 of the Jabidah men wrote a petition to Ferdinand Marcos to complain, Major Martelino met with the 4 leaders of the complainers, to this date 3 of these men are still unaccounted for. The night after the meeting the officers arranged a food fiesta for the Jabidah men, with goat, beef, nescafe coffee, milk, music and dancing. For the next few nights the partying and entertainment would go on while the remaining complainers behind the petition were disarmed, and effective March 1, 1968, all 58 of them were considered resigned. Meanwhile around 60 to 70 Jabidahs were transferred to Camp Capinpin in Rizal. And on March 16 another batch was taken away from Corregidor camp. On March 18 yet another batch of 12 Jabidahs were told to prepare to head home, and at 2 AM they left camp, to date these men as well are unaccounted for. You might start to sense a pattern here, as on the same day another batch of 12 men were told to prepare, and left at 4 AM. Some of the remaining Jabidah started to ask why only batches of a dozen left each time, because the plane, the officers reassured them, could only carry twelve passengers at a time. There was a survivor from this second batch, Jibin Arula who have shed some light on what was really happening with the men who was supposedly sent home, in his words:
“We went to the airport on a weapons carrier truck, accompanied by 13 (non-Muslim) trainees armed with M-16 and carbines. When we reached the airport, our escorts alighted ahead of us. Then Lt Eduardo Nepomuceno ordered us to get down from the truck and line up. As we put down our bags, I heard a series of shots. Like dominoes, my colleagues fell. I got scared. I ran and was shot at, in my left thigh. I didn’t know that I was running towards a mountain….By 8 am, I was rescued by two fishermen on Caballo Island, near Cavite.”
Nepomuceno, along with the other officers were later killed in Corregidor under mysterious circumstances. But it is very clear that when the leaders of operation Merdeka realized the Jabidah men no longer wanted to partake in the secretive operation, they were executed in order to cover up the tracks. In fact, once the Jabidah men had been taken care off, a presidential helicopter carrying a detachment from the Armed Special Forces landed in Corregidor in order to clean up any trace of anyone having ever been there, supplies and camp equipment were torn down, and every single bullet case in the area was meticulously picked up and taken away. Everything found in the camp was wrapped in ponchos, loaded onto the helicopter with stones tied to them, and dropped in the ocean. At least according to the me from the Special Forces, they didn’t know what had happened, their only order was to clean the area. As for the bodies of the Jabidah men, they were tied to trees and burned beyond recognition.
According to then President Ferdinand Marcos, there never was any incident in Sabah, the men of Jabidah never existed, poor villagers suddenly disappearing was relatively common and 200 men missing were nothing out of the ordinary Marcos claimed. And when senator
Benigno Simeon “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr launched a senate hearing over the missing men and rumors of an incident, his political work got Eight officers and 16 enlisted men from the Army court-martialed in 1968, but they were all cleared of any charges in 1971 and senator Benigno Aquino along with the other political dissidents got arrested in 1972 and assassinated in 1980.
You can read Benigno Simeon Aquino Jr. Senate speech here. I highly recommend it.
As for Eduardo Batalla he was killed in 1989, Rolando Abadilla was killed in 1996 but this was probably because during his time in Military Intelligence he arrested and killed political activists. As for Martelino it is unclear what happened to him, after the Jabidah incident he disappeared, but some say he died in a Sabah prison, while others say he is still alive in a Malaysian prison somewhere. But anyone connected to operation Merdeka is dead, and to put it lightly, none died of old age.
There are many opinions on what made this operation fail. Some say it was the lack of salaries, some say it was poor living conditions, and others say the men were just without discipline (a statement which implies they were put down the way you would a disobedient dog).
But i believe there is a whole other reason for it, and it has very much to do with identity. You see, everyone in the Philippines believe Sabah is rightfully a Filipino region, and most citizens would support and have supported programs and operations to take back the area. My point is, a Filipino soldier would most likely not care to much about the living conditions in his barracks or the irregular payment for his services. As a Filipino soldier, what he did in Sabah was for the Philippines, his country, and his people.
Thats what went wrong. The men of Jabidah, as most people in post-colonial plural nations like the Philippines, where there is little to no sense of a national unity stretching across religion and region, did not see themselves as Filipinos.
They had, what i would call a “micro-nationality”.
In their mind they were Muslims first, Sama or Tawi-Tawi second, and only third were they Filipinos. From a lack of national identity, i.e. seeing themselves first and foremost as citizens of the Philippines and Sama or Tawi-Tawi second, they found another identity to view their place in the world. And that was the same label as the enemy happened to have.
This is what made “Oplan Merdeka” fail so catastrophically.
And this is why we should remember Merdeka, its lessons about identity, and more importantly micro-identity is showing us the basis for much of the conflicts in many other post-colonial nations, like Iraq (with people first being Kurd, Shia or Sunni and Iraqi second) or Kongo (Hutus and Tutsi) or any other post-colonial nations.
We even see this micro-identity come to play in Crimea and Ukraine where the locals identify as Ethnic Russians first, and Ukrainian citizens second. In fact, looking at the way the Crimea situation has progressed with Russia and Ukraine, you might even being to wonder if the lessons from Merdeka are well remembered by Russia.
If you’d like more information focused on the Malaysian side, you can go here.
If you’d like to read about the incident as explained by terrorists, you can go here to MNLFs homepage. The terrorist group Malaysia created to destabilize Mindanao after they learned of Operation Merdeka. Yes, thats right…