News Commentary

Of national dementia: The Malisbong Massacre, 42 years after

Theirs was a story that was only told openly after almost four decades of silence.
To remember them was an act of defiance to an imposed silence. This imposition later became almost a pact for the community, a form of resistance expressed in whispers and nonchalant conversations among elders; a spell-binding story of horror and violence that will bind them together as if to sever their ties to a nation that decided to move on and let go of the past.
This is our version of ‘national dementia’, where a country deliberately remembered only what it wanted to forget. What Malisbong was to the grand narrative of this nation’s history was nothing but a murmur of muted admission of shame or a gap that continuously refused benign closure.
The victims and the community were being asked to forgive, forget, and move on for the sake of a national conscience so it can slowly build itself as a strong nation-state.
Theirs was a story that happened during the Martial Law years, when about 100 heavily-armed men entered the rural community of Malisbong, in Palimbang, now part of Sultan Kudarat, one September morning in 1974, during the holy month of Ramadan.
A day before, it was reported that helicopters had been hovering above the village dropping pamphlets bearing words on peace and loyalty to the government. The legitimate military operations then in Malisbong were part of the Marcos government’s pacification campaign against rebels that infiltrated communities in Central Mindanao.
‘Pacification’ during the Martial Law years meant that the men of the village were to be forcibly sent to the village mosque, while women and children were dragged for interrogation to warships docked nearby.
Theirs was a story of how words used by a dictatorial government — words like ‘peace and order’ or ‘pacification’ — can carry several meanings. And these meanings were determined by those who had the power in the regime.
Pacification then for the people of Malisbong was a euphemism for mass murder.
Their story is about how almost 300 houses were burned in Malisbong during that fateful day of September 24, 1974. Boys as young as 11 and men as old as 70 were shot point-blank inside the Tacbil mosque, a structure that still stands as witness to the carnage that befell the village of innocent and non-combatant Moros.
Women of all ages, girls and grandmothers alike, were raped inside the boat and were only released the next day. Some of them lost their minds.
The Malisbong Massacre claimed the lives of 1,500 men, women and children as the entire village was razed to ashes. Their story ends with death—and the deafening silence of the nation after.
Our story of Malisbong is this: The armed men were members of the Philippine Army, all Filipinos.
The rape of women and mass murder of men, and the destruction of property in Malisbong were, without question, sponsored by the state. It was an act of violence against the people of Malisbong under the auspices of then President Ferdinand Marcos.
Our story was premised on nation-building, of what is to be a nation. But Malisbong was already living a life with dignity before then.

'Carrying the burden of shame'

The story of Malisbong Massacre will stand as a unrelenting question for all Filipinos of this generation on how we should move forward without carrying the burden of this shame. The shame that, until now, victims or the surviving relatives are still crying for justice.
It seems to me that forgetting is simpler than remembering — and acknowledging — the mistakes we have committed as a nation. It is likely to happen as with several incidents of mass murders, state-sponsored terrorism, and kidnappings during the Martial Law years, Malisbong was never documented properly, probably because of either shame or state censorship.
This act of forgetting, or even just the attempt to remove Malisbong from the history of the Filipino as a nation that is struggling to move forward is, in effect, silencing the victims and their families.
We are all accomplices to this national dementia.
In my observation, this ‘forgetfulness’ is not just common among younger Filipinos. It was heartbreaking for me to realize that young Moros who were supposed to be closer to the experience and the bearers of my people’s narratives were as naïve as their counterpart millennial Filipinos.
Whenever Marcos and the atrocities of the Martial Law years were discussed, the defense for this ‘forgetfulness’ is always framed in a ‘moving on’ that is devoid of empathy and acknowledgement of historical injustices. That, if we want to move forward as a nation, why can't we just tell the positive stories of Moros and Filipinos working together to build a nation?
Young Moros should never fall into the trap of reconstructing their own history through their privileges without taking into account the personal narratives of older relatives who were either victims of, or had witnessed, the wars.
It must be pointed out, though, that young Moros like the majority of millennial Filipinos rely on social media memes to learn about their history.
This gap between generations is no less evident in the community now in Malisbong. The young Moros have proposed to replace the Tacbil Mosque with a new structure, but the Moros of old reject this idea. How can this structure, a reminder and testament to the crime committed against their people, be the cause of a rift in the community that struggles to remember its past?
The Moro people constantly finds itself in a seemingly perpetual tension between abandonment and looking for a past that will lead their future in the right direction: That of a bangsa (nation) in peace and freedom.
As young Moros are eager to move forward, to compete among the other young people in the country and elsewhere, forgetting their communities’ dark past has been relegated as the price to pay. While the elders, choosing to constantly look to the past for lessons, are a reminder of why the struggle continues.
But the crux of the matter is not whether to abandon or to look back with nostalgia, but whether injustices have already been resolved.

'Forgetting is a privilege'

The younger Moros should realize that justice is yet to be claimed by the victims in their community, and forgetting is a privilege reserved only for those who are free to chart their own destiny as a people.
Inclusivity is a necessity in nation-building. And a country like the Philippines, with a history of violence against it own people, can never move forward with dignity unless historical injustices are addressed accordingly.
You cannot premise peace on deception and the promise of a moving forward while perpetrators are still in power and victims are still struggling for justice in silence.
Two years ago, the Philippine government, through the Commission on Human Rights, officially recognized the Malisbong massacre and government representatives apologized to the surviving relatives of the victims.
The victims were officially acknowledged by virtue of Republic Act 10368, the Human Rights Victims and Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013, a piece of legislation that aims to provide remuneration to the families of all the victims of Martial Law.
This month, the people of Malisbong commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the massacre and they will speak of the incident. The community will insist that the narratives of this sordid past to be integrated in our national consciousness and in our national conscience.
We have to listen to their story. Time heals all wounds but only for those who remember.
Amir Mawallil is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the country's biggest organization of Muslim professionals.

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