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Behind Jabidah: warlord vs warlord

Bocalan, who claimed Marcos asked him to finance and help run Operation Merdeka. Photo and caption from the book, “Bossism in the Philippines” by John Sidel

The Manila Times, March 22, 2013

Last of Three Parts

The allegations that Muslim youths were massacred in 1968 in Corregidor in a plan gone awry to take Sabah from Malaysia, as I explained last Wednesday, effectively buried our county’s claim to that territory.

Then Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. in his speech on the controversy March 28, 1968 claimed the Malaysians had a hand in creating conditions for what was hyped in media as “the Jabidah Massacre. ”

But behind the controversy was, as Filipinos term it, “pulitika”, politics in its most pejorative sense.  “Jabidah” was a propaganda weapon in the political war between two warlords for the control of Cavite in the 1971 elections as well as for the Philippine presidency.

How exactly did the allegations of a “Jabidah massacre” break out?

The sole person who alleged, and even claimed to have witnessed, that Muslim commando trainees were killed in 1968 in Corregidor was Jibin Arula, whom the Aquino in his speech described as a second-grade drop out from Tawi-Tawi.

Arula’s story was that after escaping into the sea while his comrades were mowed by down by the military, he was rescued off Corregidor by Cavite fishermen, who brought him to the province’s chief of police Melencio Sagun.

He claimed that after telling the police chief his story – and after being beaten up as he was instead suspected to be one of the many Muslim pirates who roamed the seas off Cavite – Sagun brought him to then governor Delfin Montano.   The governor, from a clan accused of the so-called 1952 “Maragondon Massacre” of its political enemies, surprisingly, became an ardent human rights champion. He put Arula under his protection, sustained him financially, and had him file the case against the military men responsible for the alleged killings at the Cavite Court of First Instance.

That the governor was keenly interested in the case, and funded it, is obvious in that Arula, a poor Muslim, managed to file a case later at the Supreme Court to contest that a court martial took over the case from the civilian court.

Who was this “human rights champion” Montano who took on not only the Armed Forces of the Philippines but President Marcos himself, whom Senator Aquino accused of being the mastermind of the “Operation Merdeka”, the plan to train a Muslim commando unit to infiltrate Sabah?

Montano was the scion of the most powerful warlord clan that ruled Cavite until martial law. His father, the clan’s patriarch Justiniano Montano was a Liberal Party pillar, who was the lone congressman of Cavite from 1955 until Congress was abolished under martial law in 1972. His son Delfin was governor during the same period, the longest-serving governor ever of the province.

The Montano warlord clan was one of Marcos’ political archenemies before martial law.  After the 1965 presidential elections in which he heavily lost in Cavite to his rival Diosdado Macapagal,  Marcos laid siege to the Montanos’ kingdom, attacking the smuggling businesses that were under their protection and even getting such criminals as the legendary “Nardong Putik” out of jail as a counter-force to the warlord’s “private army”.  mt

Matters came to a head for the Montanos in the 1967 local elections.  Marcos threw everything against them: disarming their men while letting their rivals keep their arms, putting the entire province under Comelec control, and throwing massive funds for the anti-Montano candidates.  For the first time in decades, the Montanos had their grip on Cavite weakening, losing several of their municipal bastions.

A Marcos coup was the defection of the Montanos’ richest crony, the infamous “smuggling lord” Lino Bocalan to his camp.  In exchange for being allowed to continue his smuggling business however, Marcos required of him certain services.

What these were were dramatically described in a 2000 book that has pandered the myth of a “Jabidah Massacre”, but whose authors however seemed remarkably unable to connect the dots in front of them:

Bocalan had also been among the financiers of ‘Operation Merdeka.’ In his coastal home in Cavite in 1998, Bocalan, 70, hesitates to talk about his participation in Operation Merdeka. Halfway through a bottle of whisky on a Sunday midmorning, he relents a bit. “Marcos told me he needed help for Sabah,” Bocalan says in Filipino.” My duty was to finance the operation. I spent millions (of pesos)…I fed the Filipino trainees in Sabah, paid their salaries. I supported them. I sent my brother and my people to Tawi-Tawi and Corregidor to give food and money (to the recruits).


The Montanos knew of Bocalan’s involvement in Operation Merdeka.  But exposing a plan for the Philippines to take over Sabah would just sound unpatriotic, pro-Malaysian, even treasonous.

They found a way to go around this problem to hit at their ungrateful crony Bocalan and even politically wound their enemy Marcos for the 1969 elections: Arula’s allegations of a massacre in Corregidor in a botched secret operation the smuggling lord financed and helped run.

The smuggling lord would have certainly been implicated and indicted if the case had been tried at the Cavite Court of First Instance. But the Supreme Court upheld the AFP’s move to have the case tried by court martial.

The Liberal Party with the Lopez clan’s Manila Chronicle and ABS-CBN Network went to town over the issue.  A UP Muslim instructor named Nur Misuari – together with his colleague in the university, the master propagandist Jose Ma. Sison – with their student organizations made it so much of a cause célèbre that the myth of a Jabidah massacre” continues to this day.

Too bad though that it cost the country its claim to Sabah.


 Alleged whistle-blower Arula was not hailed as a hero nor even given refuge by the Muslim secessionist organizations.  He never returned to Tawi-Tawi, not even to Mindanao, and spent the rest of his life under the Montanos’ protection.  When he lost the governorship for Cavite in 1971, governor Montano gave him some P20,000 to get out of Cavite. Rather than in Mindanao, Arula chose to settle in Antique island in the Visayas.

Arula returned to Cavite in the late 1990s and given some kind of employment by the son of Melencio Sagun, the Cavite chief of police who brought him to governor Montano in 1968. His death in a vehicular accident in 2010 was discovered only in 2011 when organizers of a commemoration event over the alleged massacre looked for him as their star participant.  Nobody even knows where he is buried; no relative of his has come out.

Contrast this alleged whistle-blower’s lonely fate to that of Major Eduardo Martelino, who ran Operation Merdeka, whom Arula accused of ordering the killing of Muslim youths.

One would think that a fatwah would have been imposed on him for killing Muslim youths and  MNLF assassination squads would be mobilized until he is killed.

Not so.  Martelino – who had written a 1959 book “Someday Malaysia” published in New York which then UN General Secretary Carlos Romulo hailed as a  “valuable contribution” to scholarship — was promoted to colonel before retiring in 1972. Having converted to Islam before the Jabidah episode, he settled with his Muslim wife Sofia in Simunul in Tawi–Tawi, where Muslim recruits were first trained before their final training phase in Corregidor.  There are unconfirmed reports that he was killed in 1978 in Sabah.

Simunul was recently reported as being the launching pad of the “Royal Army” of the Sultan of Sulu’s expediton to Sabah. Media interviewed old-timers there talked proudly of their training as commandos by Major Martelino.


* * *

What of the other officers whom Arula accused of killing the Muslim recruits? Writers who have pandered a Jabidah massacre highlight Col. Rolando Abadilla,  wh became notorious allegedly as Marcos’ hit man.  But Abadilla was just a lieutenant then, in charge of logistics.

The officers involved in Operation Merdeka went on to have distinguished military careers, three of whom we have traced.  Then captain Teodoro Facelo got to be at least full colonel, to become the commander of the Army’s 503rd infantry brigade in 1986. Capt. Cirilo Oropesa was a brigadier general when he retired in the 1980s.  Lt. Eduardo Batalla got to be brigadier general, and became the Philippine Constabulary Commander for Western Mindanao, where he treacherously killed by Muslim rouge cop Rizal Alih.  I have been unable to get any information on two officers in Operation Merdeka, Capt. Ruperto  Amistoso and Capt. Alberto G. Soteco.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Adelaida C.

    Was that information extracted from Col. Ruperto Amistoso’s book?

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