Forty-five years ago, a massacre took place in the town of Malisbong, Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat. Those who were children then remember their fathers and older brothers being taken to the Tacbil Mosque, never to see them alive again; they remember their mothers holding their hands as they were herded to a naval boat named Mindoro where they huddled day and night under the heat of the sun and the cold of the night — no food, no water, no armor against the elements. They remember the elderly and children their own age getting so weak, sick, and being thrown overboard — bodies never to be found. They remember young women making themselves ugly in order not to be taken fancy to by armed groups and ending up being raped and sexually violated.
THE NARRATIVE OF BONES
In the years the followed, the town of Malisbong lived through their collective tragedy. A year after the massacre, 40 sacks of bones were said to have washed ashore; in 1983, human remains with hands still tied behind their backs unraveled themselves in the Tacbil fishpond; and bones were being found in places dug up for the purpose of constructing wells and water pumps in the early 1990s. Those remains were never identified but nonetheless given the appropriate burial. And once buried they can no longer be exhumed in accordance with Muslim culture.
But there are still those that have yet to be found, scattered all over the community. Malisbong, not only being a massacre site, might as well be a mass grave in itself. The community knew who died — they had their names. But they never really had a chance to be reconciled with them. There was no closure.
Politically, it was said that photos of the bones were taken and brought to Libya in relation to the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. In all likelihood, the photos were left there as part of the negotiation documentation. Other than that, there had not been any forensic initiatives at all to uncover what was still left undiscovered, to find out how people died, to identify their remains, to be reunited with their families, and, finally, be given a dignified burial they deserved — ending the chapter on the narrative of bones.
CARING FOR MEMORY: MOURNING AND THE AFTER
For the first time in 45 years, the official commemoration of the Malisbong Massacre finally happened, with support from civil society, national and local government agencies, and victims/survivors’ groups from difference parts of Mindanao. Conversations, negotiations, appeals, and consultations — moving back and forth, finding champions or even just those who empathized — telling/re-telling stories, justifying significance, and so much more. They all bore fruit!
For example, on Sept. 6, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) en banc issued Resolution CHR (V) No. AM2019-183 On the Recognition of the Palimbang/Tacbil Massacre and its Commemoration Every 24th September. On the day of the Malisbong Massacre Commemoration on Sept. 24 this year, Palimbang Mayor Joanime Kapina signed Municipal Resolution No. 2019-024 On Commemorating the Malisbong Massacre that Happened on Sept. 24, 1974 at Barangay Malisbong, Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat; furthermore, a resolution was also filed at the provincial government level to enact An Ordinance Declaring September 24 as Municipal Non-working Holiday in the Municipality of Palimbang, Province of Sultan Kudarat in Commemoration of the Malisbong Massacre.
But equally important apart from these institutional recognitions, was the unprecedented coming together of victims/survivors, combatants/armed groups and their leaders, and various publics in solidarity with the commemoration of the massacre in Malisbong. These were victims/survivors who participated in the Independent Working Group on Transitional Justice and Dealing with the Past (IWG TJDwP) Listening Process Sessions from Ipil, Labangan, Ambalgan, Manili, General Santos, Jolo, Zamboanga, and Marawi that joined the commemoration, along with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and their Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the Moro National Liberation Front and their National Guard, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Philippine National Police.
Although the work on getting institutional measures drafted and convincing various relevant stakeholders to participate in the commemoration was done by the IWG TJDwP — including the massive coordination that the event called for — it was a community-based group led by the women of Malisbong that formed the heart and soul of the commemoration.
VOICES: PALIMBANG AND BEYOND
From caring for memory and mourning the loss, what comes after?
Most definitely, with recognition come the necessary next steps that will finally concretize the different facets of transitional justice:
1. The right to truth. At the level of communities, collective narratives should be documented and preserved; at the level of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the Bangsamoro Parliament may enact legislation that would serve to institutionalize historical memory through gathering of victims/survivor testimony, engage in forensic missions to find the remains of those who have been lost for decades and give them a dignified burial, and encourage communities to memorialise their own narratives. Lessons can be learned from the experiences of Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica of Colombia.
2. The right to justice. Explore the possibility of creating a special domestic national court within our justice system to prosecute emblematic cases of mass atrocity crimes in relation to crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and (even possibly) genocide against the Bangsamoro and the indigenous peoples in Mindanao. The Bosnian War Crimes Chamber and the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh may be referred to as cases to point to.
3. The right to reparation. Consideration for setting up a permanent Human Rights Victims Claims Board by law in order to deal with claims that have never been submitted or that needed to benefit from an appeals measure. In this regard, it may be worthy to substantiate further bills previously filed along this trajectory such as House Bill 226 or An Act Amending Republic Act No. 10368 Providing Reparations for Victims of Human Rights Violations, Creating a Permanent Human Rights Claims Board, and For Other Purposes.
4. The guarantee of non-recurrence. Institutional reform definitely contributes to the realization of transitional justice. Governance infrastructure at all levels must be involved. For example, instrumental institutions at the national level are the Commission on Human Rights that could lead the way in recommending remedial legislation, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process that could implement a basic reparation program for conflict-affected areas not covered in the normalization agreement, or the Congress considering redress for other possible transitional justice issues such as the 2013 Zamboanga Siege and the most recent Marawi Siege. Of course, provincial and municipal governments are important institutional partners for community-based transitional justice efforts.
The first official commemoration of the Malisbong Massacre started as an idea — it was an impossibility that became possible because it was for the people. This is what caring to remember means — transitional justice organic to the community, to society. And Palimbang is now a model of a community-based transitional justice initiative.
Professor Ma. Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. She is also the Director of the Asia Pacific Center for the Responsibility to Protect-Philippine Office (APR2P-PO) and one of the Conveners of the Independent Working Group on Transitional Justice and Dealing with the Past.