(Rappler Editor's note: On March 18, 1968 -- exactly 45 years ago today -- at least 23 Muslim trainees were shot to death on Corregidor Island in what has since been known as the Jabidah massacre. Below is a summary of "In the name of honor?," the chapter on the Philippine government's clandestine operation to invade Sabah written by Marites Dañguilan Vitug and Glenda M. Gloria in their book "Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao," which was first published in 2000.)
MANILA, Philippines - As it was a special government operation, details of Oplan Merdeka were known only to a few people. But the general concept was explained to the officers who were involved in it. The Philippines was to train a special commando unit -- named Jabidah -- that would create havoc in Sabah. The situation would force the Philippine government to either take full control of the island or the residents would by themselves decide to secede from Malaysia. Many Filipinos from Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and parts of Mindanao had migrated to Sabah. Oplan Merdeka was banking on this large community to turn the tide in favor of secession.
About 17 men, mostly recruits from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, entered Sabah as forest rangers, mailmen, police. The Filipino agents blended into Sabah's communities. Their main task was to use psychological warfare to indoctrinate and convince the large number of Filipinos residing in Sabah to secede from Malaysia and be part of the Philippines. Part of their job was to organize communities which would support secession and be their allies when the invasion took place. They also needed to reconnoiter the area and study possible landing points for airplanes and docking sites for boats.
The project did not exactly start from ground zero. Even before then Army Maj Eduardo Martelino sent his men to Sabah, Philippine armed forces intelligence was already eavesdropping on the island. In the early 1960s, there was concern over the possibility that a Pan-Islamic movement financed by Libya's Muammar Qadaffi would reach the southern Philippines.
Martelino himself went to Sabah 3 times on secret missions as head of the Jabidah forces, he would reveal in a newspaper interview on Aug 1, 1968. The landing points he used were Tambisan Point, Lahad Datu, and Semporna. Some of his men traveled on one of the 50 or more fast-moving fishing boats owned by big-time smuggler Lino Bocalan. They frequently travelled from Cavite to Sabah, where they loaded thousands of cases of "blue-seal" cigarettes. At that time, imported cigarettes were not allowed into the Philippines.
Bocalan, only 31 then, was already a millionaire. In his coastal home in Cavite in 1998, Bocalan admitted: "Marcos told me he needed help for Sabah. My duty was to finance the operation. I spent millions (of pesos)… I fed the Filipino trainees in Sabah, paid their salaries. I sent my brother and my people to Tawi-Tawi and Corregidor to give food and money (to the recruits.)."
Malaysia seemed an easy and vulnerable target at that time. The Federation was still new and fragile, having come into being only in 1963. Ferdinand Marcos cast his covetous eyes on a country that was still on its way to political cohesion.
On the ground, though, trade relations between Mindanao and Sabah picked up. Traders made regular clandestine visits and their business was classified as "smuggling." Feeling the need to reduce smuggling in that zone, the government looked for a special operations officer to map out an anti-smuggling campaign plan.
Thus, all 3 factors converged and became the context as well as backdrop for Oplan Merdeka: the fear of a Pan-Islamic movement creeping into Mindanao, a vulnerable Federation of Malaysia, and an anti-smuggling operation.
The training of recruits from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi was done in Simunul, a picturesque island-town of Tawi-Tawi (Read: Jabidah recruits plotted Sabah standoff). From August to December 1967, Martelino, assisted by then Lt Eduardo Batalla, set up camp and trained close to 200 men -- Tausugs and Sama (the dominant ethnic tribe in Tawi-Tawi) aged 18 to about 30. A number of them had had experience in smuggling and sailing the kumpit, a wooden boat commonly used in the area. What enticed the young men to Martelino's escapade was the promise of being part of an elite unit in the Armed Forces. It was not just an ordinary job. It gave them legitimate reason to carry guns -- carbines and Thompson submachine guns. It gave them a sense of power.
Camp Sophia, named after Martelino's second wife, a young, naive, and pretty Muslim, was inside a coconut plantation, fenced by barbed wire. A hut housed a powerful transceiver and served as a radio room. Bunks were made of ipil-ipil and makeshift twigs. A watchtower stood tall in the perimeter, facing the sea. It was a world of their own making, with the trainees wearing distinct badges showing crossbones and a black skull with a drip of blood on the forehead. Their rings were engraved with skull and crossbones.
Today, no trace remains of a military camp in Simunul, not a single marker. What was once Camp Sophia now looks deserted, planted to palm and coconut trees with wild grass.