OPINION: The Malisbong Massacre and the privilege to remember

Amir Mawallil

Posted at Jul 30 2016 05:14 AM

Let me tell you a story.

It happened one September morning in a quiet seaside community of farmers and fisherfolk, when about 100 heavily armed men entered the community.

The men of the village were forcibly sent to the mosque, while women and children were dragged for interrogation to warships docked nearby.

This was the beginning of a bloody carnage, one of the darkest days in history.

Almost 300 houses were burned, while boys as young as 11 and men as old as 70 were shot point-blank inside the mosque. Women of all ages, girls and grandmothers alike, were raped, only to be released the next day. Some of them lost their minds following the grueling experience of rape and torture.

When it was all over, the world became a silent witness to how 1,500 men, women, and children died, and how an entire village was razed to ashes.

That day, humanity looked sideways, revealing the face of a monster as an entire country kept its horrified silence. The rest of the country went on with their lives thinking that this day, as with many other dark days, shall pass unnoticed and be eventually forgotten. 

That day, the world witnessed the brutality of people and their capacity to kill. That day, the world found ways to justify this horrendous act.

This didn't happen in Syria, nor did it happen in Palestine where Muslims, innocent children included, are murdered by the dozen by state-sponsored violence. This wasn't done to the Rohingyas in Burma where Buddhist nationalists went to the extreme of exterminating their own countrymen who happen to be Muslims and racially different from the majority of Burmese stock, even if Rohingyas pledged loyalty to the country, claiming that they, too, are Burmese.

This unimaginable horror happened within our shores, in the coastal town of Malisbong, Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat.

The armed men were members of the Philippine Army, all Filipinos. It happened during Martial Law under the Marcos dictatorship. The rape of women and mass murder of men, and the destruction of property in Malisbong were, without question, sponsored by the state, sanctioned by the ruling family, and executed by its citizens. 

It was an act of violence against the people of Malisbong, under the auspices of then President Marcos.

The Malisbong Massacre of September 24, 1974, is a part of history that slowly being removed from the national narrative.

This is because forgetting is simpler than remembering -- and acknowledging -- the mistakes we have committed as a nation. Like other 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 in the history of the Filipino as a nation that is struggling to move forward is, in effect, silencing the victims and their families.

It took 40 years for the Philippine government, through the Commission on Human Rights, to recognize the Malisbong massacre and apologize to the families of the victims. The victims were officially acknowledged by virtue of Republic Act 10368 or 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.

For four decades, the victims kept their silence as they sought justice in the dark. Perhaps they thought that their voices will not be heard, as the rest of the country was building a stronger nation following Martial Law.

Once, during a conference, I was asked by a young Moro why there is a need to remember Malisbong and all these massacres. 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?

I was a bit embarrassed to hear this from a young Moro, and found his question rather unbelievable. My first thought was that young Moros, privileged as they were compared to their older relatives who were either victims of or had witnessed the wars, were probably as naive as the majority of young Filipinos who rely on social media memes to learn about their history. This is dangerous if left unchecked and if we, the people who know the truths of our history, fail to address it.

This gap between generations is no less evident in the community currently residing 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 stark 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 at a crossroads, with the youth sometimes choosing to move forward and forgetting their dark past and the elders choosing to constantly look to the past for lessons and remember why the struggle continues. 

But the question should not be whether to remember or forget, but whether injustices have already been resolved. The younger Moros should realize that justice is yet to be claimed by the victims in their community, and forgetting is a privilege only for those who are free to chart their own destiny as a people.

Building a Filipino nation should be inclusive, and part of this inclusivity is to address historical injustices and that involves a mutual agreement between parties to memorialize the pain and suffering of the victims.

To remember only the positive stories is to sanitize Philippine history of its murky eras and bitter lessons, to the advantage of the ruling elite running this country.

You cannot build a strong nation on deception and promise to moving forward while perpetrators are still in power and victims are still struggling for justice in silence.

This September, the people of Malisbong will commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the massacre and they will speak of the incident; they will insist that the narratives of this sordid past as the story of their community be included in our national consciousness and in our national conscience.

We need to listen to them. We need to listen to learn so that Malisbong will never happen again anywhere in this country. 

While the promise of a lasting peace may still be elusive, I know there is a glimmer of hope among those concerned that the current government of President Rodrigo Duterte, the state -- and the public in general -- will address the grievances of the Bangsamoro people and of the Mindanaoans who were also victims of Marcos’ destructive war during the Martial Law years.

In his first State of the Nation Address, President Duterte said that in a conflict where soldiers and rebels usually fill the news, "what I see instead are the widows and the orphans. And I feel their pain and grief. And no amount of cash assistance or the number of medals can compensate the loss of a human life. Sorrow cuts across every stratum of society. It cuts deeply and the pain lasts forever."

Choosing to forget is not an option, especially not when we have a president who remembers and is willing to take steps toward healing instead of forgetting.

Never again. Never forget Malisbong.

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Amir Mawallil is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the country's biggest organization of Muslim professionals.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.