Anti-Moro group resurfaces in NCotabato

John Unson - The Philippine Star

NORTH COTABATO, Philippines - The "Ilaga" is gone and Central Mindanao’s contemporary folks do not even have any vivid recollection of its exploits other than a lingering perception that it was a "tool" used in the  1970s by the Marcos regime to quell what was then a fledgling Moro uprising.

The term ilaga literally means rat in the Cebuano and Hiligaynon dialects.

A handful of armed non-Moro villagers claiming to represent the “new Ilaga,” showed force somewhere in the province Thursday and warned Moro forces of the serious repercussions of their wanton abuses against hapless farming communities.

The group was led by someone who introduced himself as Mike Santiago, who covered half of his face with a camouflage shroud as he faced the camera.

Santiago and his men failed to hog the headlines. Long-time Mindanao journalists, who are well-versed and conversant of the intricacies and ramifications of the Moro issue, just dismissed their show of force as “psyops” in the military parlance.

The original “Ilaga movement” of Christian settlers in what was then Cotabato Empire Province became notoriously popular after President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

The group was born after the activation of the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) by the revolting, firebrand Cotabato Gov. Datu Udtog Matalam, who got agitated with the death of dozens of young Moro military recruits in the “Jabidah Massacre” on March 18, 1968.

From the MIM came the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and, subsequently, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), where the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters had splintered from,

Talks about the resurgence of the Ilaga have been spreading like wildfire in North Cotabato since Wednesday, amid the seemingly never ending spate of attacks by the BIFF since the late 2011.

The latest of these forays, which happened only last September 23, dislocated 2,147 families in Midsayap town in the province, where BIFF bandits held hostage more than 20 innocent folks for more than 10 hours and beheaded a villager, Ricarte Dionio, 31, and executed another, 22-year-old Erwin Vinluan, as they retreated to the swampy border of North Cotabato and Maguindanao .

A former North Cotabato congressional representative, Anthony Dequiña, said the vigilante group had long “passed away” and there is no more chance of any easy "rebirth,” as being insinuated by certain quarters.

“But the intention of the people to protect their families from atrocities is like a flame, being fanned by helplessness and despondency. This is a concern we need to address through cooperation among all sectors and stakeholders, regardless of religions and tribal identities,” said Dequiña, whose patriarch, Nicolas, former mayor of Midsayap, was one of the seven founders of Ilaga.

There have been irreversible socio-economic, historical and political evolutions that changed the security landscape of North Cotabato and surrounding areas over time that a resurgence of the Ilaga, in just a snap of fingers, cannot be possible.

Not only are the pioneers of the Ilaga are now so old, if not dead, but  their present non-Moro elected leaders and community elders have either openly been supporting the Mindanao peace process, or are engaged in livelihood activities, such as farming and other entrepreneurial ventures needing peace and calm in the surroundings.

A former Ilaga member, who asked to be identified only as Alberto, 76, a retired public school teacher, said he is against any move to revive the once dreaded group owing to his having eleven grandchildren out of the wedlock of her three daughters to ethnic Iranon Muslims, whose clans are identified with the MILF.

“Attacking Moro people with shotguns, Carbine and Garand rifles supplied by the Philippine Constabulary then was a great adventure for us. The situation has changed. We have realized that co-existence and respect for each others' religions and cultures are the better means of achieving peace in our communities,” said Alberto, who is of pure Ilonggo descent.

The Ilaga group was founded sometime in September of 1970, or thereabouts, during a gathering in a restaurant in Cotabato City, by the older Dequiña and his political peers, then Mayors Wenceslao Dela Cerna of Alamada,  Pacifico Dela Cerna of Libungan, Bonifacio Tejada of Mlang, Conrado Lemana of Tulunan, Jose Escribano of Tacurong, and Esteban Doruelo of Pigcawayan.

The hometowns of the Ilaga founders belonged to the Cotabato empire, but eventually got grouped together under what is now North Cotabato, after having been split into smaller provinces, to include Maguindanao, South Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat, through a declaration by President Marcos in 1974. Tacurong, which was to become a component town of Sultan Kudarat, is now a chartered city.

The founders of the Ilaga accordingly had two anti-Moro benefactors, then Capt. Manuel Tronco and Col. Carlos Cajelo, who both belonged to the now defunct PC. Cajelo, also an Ilonggo, was to become governor of North Cotabato and deputy defense minister for civil relations of Mr. Marcos.

It was widely construed that Cajelo was, if not the real brain behind the Ilaga, the “director” of the bloody show the group had put up, him being the provincial PC commander then of the empire province. The atrocities done on Moro people by the Ilaga, however, only escalated the Moro secessionist activities in the area, bolstering anti-government sentiments immensely.

The Ilaga’s rampage and slaughter of Moro people started March 22, 1970, in what is now North Upi town in Maguindanao, through an amulet-wearing commander, “Toothpick,” whose real name was Feliciano Luces, also of Ilonggo descent.

Luces and his men, armed with World War II vintage firearms and machetes, attacked an isolated Moro village, killed and mutilated six Moro villagers.

Call it coincidence, or a twist of fate, the incumbent mayor of North Upi, Ramon Piang, an ethnic Teduray chieftain, and whose family was among thousands that became “internal refugees” during the height of the MNLF uprising in the 1970s, is a key member of the government's peace panel presently negotiating with the MILF.

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with