sharing a rare angle on mindanao through the lens of a soldier’s wife.
At the Libingan ng mga Bayani
By Amelia H.C. Ylagan
ANCIENT ACACIAS stretch their limbs to the skies in the exuberant yawns of their leafy canopies. Filigrees of light and shadow from leaves trembling in the slight breeze speckle the grass — while on the horizon, visible waves of steely white heat vibrate silent reverence. Someone up there quietly peers through the acacias in perpetual care of those buried under the mute white crosses at the Libingan ng mga Bayani — the national cemetery for heroes.
Alas, that the sacred silence would be intermittently violated by the crass zoom of low-flying jumbo aircraft landing at the international airport nearby. Maybe the juxtaposition of sound and silence at the Libingan has some meaning: for the majority of those lying under the white stone crosses were soldiers killed in action — in World War II, in Korea, Vietnam and in troubled Mindanao since the Libingan ng mga Bayani was first established in 1947. Somehow the boom from those descending commercial aircraft sounds terrifyingly like whistling war bombs or the thunder of monstrous artillery.
“Killed in action” (KIA) seems incongruous a classification for a dead soldier in a post-war democracy, specially for those who were killed in Mindanao. Initial tally of KIA was said to be at 13,000 in the first four to five years of the 14-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos that started in 1972. In a University of the Philippines study of the Mindanao conflict it was said that “from 1972-1982(?) the 30,000-strong MNLF funded by Malaysia and Libya tied down 70-80% of the Philippine military, inflicting an average of 100 casualties per month.
The United Nations (UN)-inspired Norwegian International Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) places the post-World War start of conventional warfare in Mindanao as 1970, when then President Ferdinand Marcos declared an all-out military anti-insurgency campaign, perhaps then conjuring a preamble to martial law. This was after the horrible 1968 Jabidah massacre off the northeastern seacoast, when Muslim Filipino fighters were killed by Marcos operatives, after the Muslim mercenaries discovered that they had been deceitfully hired to infiltrate and kill fellow — Muslim insurgents.
There was no democracy then, in those years of the antithetical dictatorship. Soldiers were marionettes to keep alive a puppeteer’s story of a need to protect the country from threatening powers here and abroad. Sadly, dying was very real, and not play-acting for the soldier. Nor was he aware and in control of any options, aside from the baffling dilemma of renegading towards equally mind-bending communism. Those were the days of cadaver bags quietly ferried from Mindanao to Manila in rattling World War II-vintage C-47 aircraft. On the widows and orphaned families was imposed the vow of silence about their painful, unexplainable loss — to “unduly stir unrest” among the unknowing other citizens would be “subversive.”
And of course there were no obituaries to announce those KIA, for none of the government-controlled newspapers would print them. But the news spread quickly and efficiently by word of mouth, and wakes overflowed with sympathizers silently shaking their heads as they hugged condolences without alluding to the war in Mindanao, exacerbated by the strongman’s political bungling with “peace mediator” Libya. Yet no government stoolie would tell on sincere friends and grieving relatives walking behind the horse-drawn caisson at the funeral of a fallen soldier. No eye would be dry at the plaintive call of the bugle to the soldier’s “Taps” breaking the painful silence at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
The peace problem in Mindanao has always been how to distinguish between the mercenary brigands, warring clans and foreign-fed terrorists of Southern Philippines on one end, and on the other, those thinking, principled Muslim Filipinos who are fighting for recognition and deep-rooted culturally identified property rights of since five decades ago. Unfortunately, the soldiers who died in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan had no time, in the face of ambushes, snipers and massacres, but to fight aggressive, often suicidal terrorists. These foreign-backed rebels brag of superior weaponry contrasted to government soldiers’ failing ammunition and obsolete weaponry.
Perhaps the biggest treachery in history of Muslim Filipino rebels against brother-Filipino Christian soldiers was the massacre of Brig. Gen. Teodulfo Bautista with 34 of his men (including five colonels) in Patikul on Jolo island, in October 1977. Bautista came trustingly for peace talks with Osman Salleh, a rebel leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who promised that 150 of his men would switch to the government side.
Today, Bautista’s son, Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, is commanding general of the Philippine Army. Though he had reportedly repeatedly asked to be assigned to Jolo and other hotbeds in Mindanao in his more junior years, it was probably thought by prudent superiors that a murdered general’s son would be perverted target for perverted rebels in those areas. But does not Bautista, the son, being in his father’s vulnerable shoes today, 35 years gone, beg the key questions that must be answered for peace in Mindanao?
Who is fighting whom, and with whom should the government talk peace? In the five or so “peace agreements” in the post-war government efforts to settle the conflict in Southern Philippines, the internal rivalries, lack of unity and leadership on the Muslim Filipino side held back the implementation of such attempts at peace. “Bangsamoro” (unity of “Moros,” a Spanish name for Muslims) was the goal of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, led by Nur Misuari) when the MNLF and the government were discussing peace for Mindanao. Misuari shed separatist ambitions and participated and won in national local elections for the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao).
While the MNLF suffered Misuari’s vainglory and alleged corruption, the splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), gained respect and wrested political dominance. So, negotiations for peace were then with the reformed, re-engineered MILF, representing the “thinking” side that soon embraced the October 2012 peace agreement with the government of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III — the “Bangsamoro Peace Accord,” to be implemented over four years, coterminus with Aquino’s term.
But now Nur Misuari, resurrected hero of the MNLF, is belly-aching why he was not involved in the Bangsamoro Peace Accord, when Bangsamoro was his battle cry for the earlier, likewise properly agreed talks. Some analysts suggest that the convolution of political changes abroad, like the political fall of Egypt, the liquidation of Libya’s Moammar Khadaffy (said to be supporting MNLF/MILF at some point or other), the suspected ties to terrorist al Qaeda, even to the terrorist of the US 9/11 attack, have had bearings on the shifting power structures in Muslim Mindanao, and on several attempts at peace accords.
So, will this latest peace accord succeed, a Mindanao State University (MSU) anthropology professor, (a Muslim Filipino) was asked at a recent history conference? His cryptic reply: Come to visit me… at your own risk, he added with misplaced mischief. Have you ever been to Jolo, he challenged.
Yes, I have been to Jolo. I brought my husband home to the Libingan ng mga Bayani, many unchanging decades ago.