Sworn statements of survivors attest to more than a thousand names of victims.
The murder of hundreds that took place in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat on September 24, 1974—48 years ago —is only the most heinous day of torturous weeks of killings visited by the Philippine military two years into Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law.
The largest number of Palimbang victims killed in a day involved men gathered by the army in the mosque of the Tacbil family of Barangay Malisbong. They were machined gunned, and grenades were lobbed in. Prior to that day, groups were taken out from the mosque following no apparent pattern, the men never to be seen again.
Others were killed through various cruelties in the several weeks the Philippine Army encamped in Palimbang, including deaths from prolonged exposure to the elements through hunger and illness. Some were thrown alive from a Philippine Navy ship; some, picked out for target practice.
The 1,011 names collected are an incomplete roster. But this number should give pause. At this scale of murderousness, a culture of impunity is fully emerged, during a martial regime that created the conditions for excessive military violence.
In 2010, the Municipality of Palimbang completed the “7-Man Committee Fact-Finding Report” on the 1974 atrocities in Palimbang. The report was subsequently received by the Commission on Human Rights; and in turn by the Human Rights Violations Victims Memorialization Commission. Both government bodies confirmed the findings. The latter Commission recently published a book-length exegesis of the Palimbang killings.
Here are excerpts from the Palimbang municipality report:
“A survivor and student…[saw] one of the hostages whose mouth was mask taped, his hands tied at the back, his feet tied together and tied to a coco tree, then his stomach was slice down to his private organ by a drunkard military man.”
“To continue…one of the living survivors, Ando Tuandatu…was brought out from the mosque with Mangacoy Adol, Esrael Pendatun and Kasim Mastura, then their hands tied at their back and feet together and two of them submerged to the stagnant and muddy water but when they were struggling to come out from the water to breath an air they were fired simultaneously. And thereafter the military untied their hands and given shovels with the order to make grace but every time he bends his body down to the hole he strikes with that shovel the nylon cord in his feet and was cut off…”
“A wife of victim has seen about 40 naked men whose hands tied at their back at the shoreline of Malisbong were simultaneously fired by the military men.”
“To continue…a young lady in the name of Neneng Zainal was raped by militarty men 50 meters away from the evacuation center and thereafter, she was shot to death.”
“In the following day, Hadji Abdulrahman Mosadi who was standing in prayer inside the mosque was picked up by the military and brought about 100 meters away from the mosque and burned alive.”
“After about three months of said massacre, a mother of three in the name of Guimantan Piang Suling whose husband who was also one of the victims of massacre who was riding in a pump boat going to Cotabato City with her two children were held-up at the military check point at Barangay Kidayan, Palimbang, and her one year old baby boy was taken by the military and thrown to the air like a ball and shot to death and her 6 year old son and the operator of the pump boat were also killed, then the mother was raped and killed.”
Terror as cultural form
The Marcos Administration denied these events. Martial Law architect Juan Ponce Enrile is foremost among those who publicly refuted what was completely obvious, at least in southern Mindanao of the 1970s. But there was also, on the other hand, rationalization: that in war, shit happens.
The Philippine Army fought a secessionist movement in the south for 50 years, starting in 1969. Palimbang happened only 2 years into Martial Law, in 1974. In 1973, the newly formed Central Mindanao Command battled the Moro National Liberation Front fiercely, through months, in the area of Lebak, in the same province of Sultan Kudarat as Palimbang. CEMCOM’s Commanding General, Fortunato U. Abat, was to write the book “The Day We Almost Lost Mindanao” about the prolonged battle in the Lebak area.
The killings in Palimbang happened a year after this near-loss for the Philippine Army. The perpetrators were soldiers who understood (with body memory) the scale and nature of enemy strength. Suspecting Palimbang Muslims of harboring separatists, the soldiers exercised cruelties laced with the fervor of terror campaigning.
It seems very much the case that the terrorizing soldiers were also terrorized soldiers: an army that could barely take the upper hand during the war at that point. They landed at the coastline of South Cotabato—on the Palimbang coastal villages of Baliango, Maguid, Kolong-Kolong, Culobe, Butril, Libua, Kabuling, Lumitan, Kraan, and Malisbong, and one village, Pinol, of the town of Maitum, Sarangani—and used shock strategies that communicated widely about military bravado that recognized no bounds.
The horrors visited on these villages were part of a much larger map of events that defied the Geneva Conventions. The same report cues to that larger map. “Some of the victims of this heinous crime were municipal and barangay officials and evacuees from Municipality of Sharif Aguak, Maguidanao, and Municipalities of Maitum and Malapatan, Sarangani, during the Philippine Constabulary Ilaga tandem rampage against the Moros way back in 1972-72.”
Of the ilagâ, much more needs to be said in other articles. But the matter needs direct mention because the culture using grisly methods to subdue restive Muslim villages had already emerged in Mindanao with ilagâ impunity that started in the late 1960’s, also in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat (and nearly immediately, Lanao); also under the auspices of the Philippine Constabulary and the Armed Forces. Also under President Marcos.
Terror as cultural form—that is to say, employing hideous strategies against people who are designated outside the perpetrators’ fragile identity—played hugely in Mindanao immediately before and during Marcos’ Martial Law.
The events in Palimbang and many other Muslim Mindanao villages are in fact impossible to deny. In Palimbang alone, deniers need only to exhume the mass grave. More importantly, however, these events are impossible to comprehend without recognizing the pan-Mindanao impact of the Marcos years.
Terror as cultural form did not begin with Duterte. He is, rather, a product and willing actor perpetrating a history of horrors that Marcos deliberately cultivated. That Duterte paved the way for a Marcos restoration does not facilitate a national “moving on.” Instead of a clear view of the future, Filipinos are detained in the past by a culture of impunity that plays out just beneath the surface of the politesse of social life.
The horrific events in Palimbang in 1974 are memorialized in the exhibition, “Weaving Women’s Words on Wounds of War” at the Ateneo Art Gallery until the first week of October 2022. The artwork on Palimbang consists of granite blocks with the names of more than 1000 victims engraved carefully and permanently. This artwork responds to Palimbang residents’ appeal for memorialization, raised often during research trips under the larger project, “Weaving Women’s Voices for Transitional Justice” of the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University.
Marian Pastor Roces works internationally as an independent curator, critic of institutions, and analyst of culture and politics. Through her corporation, TAOINC, she curates the establishment of museums. She is also a founding Partner of the think tank, Brain Trust, Inc.She has long argued that governance, civil society action, and policy making in the Philippines are weakened by the absence of cultural analysis. Such analysis, in turn, needs to work with updated data. Hence Pulitikultura, Roces’ platform for probing the intersection of culture and politics.