There is still some debate on whether classified military operation Oplan Merdeka, whose supposed goal was the secession of Sabah from Malaysia, really happened at all.Operation Plan Merdeka, a classified operation under the Philippine Constabulary, began with the recruitment of Tausug and Sama Muslims in Sulu. These peoples’ close cultural and commercial ties with Sabah meant that they could infiltrate the island without causing any alarm. The special commando unit that would infiltrate the disputed area was to be called Jabidah; they would convince the Sabah residents—without force—to secede.
The Constabulary is said to have promised the recruits a Php 50 monthly pay and admission to an elite unit of the armed forces; they got none of these after their secretive training on Corregidor Island. The recruits’ demands for pay and decent food and lodging, as well as their reluctance to carry out the operation on Sabah with force, is believed to have caused the massacre. In what is now known as the Jabidah Massacre, around 60 Moro trainees were allegedly killed by government troops. Their bodies? Burned and thrown into Manila Bay later on.
News of the killing of Moros in an isolated island in Luzon—whether fact or fiction—added fuel to the burgeoning Muslim separatist movement, a brewing rebellion that would legally justify Martial Law.
Though having a historic win—he was, after all, the first Philippine president to win reelection—already Marcos’s second term was rife with accusations of election fraud and corruption. He used foreign currency reserves to fund his re-election campaign, which would contribute to the foreign debt problem the country would have later on. Even so, he gave a strong inaugural speech, saying:
“Political and social institutions that merely perpetuate entrenched privileges based on the accident of birth must be remolded or replaced with new ones that promote genuine democracy. I am sure the need for such profound changes may well give the forthcoming Constitutional Convention its greatest challenge. We must not be afraid of innovation in our social, economic, political, and cultural life.”
In the same speech, he said:
“The democratic dialogue must be preserved. The clash of ideas is the glory and the safeguard of democracy. My countrymen: We have reached a turning point in our history. The choice is yours. Shall we venture into this brave new world, bright with possibilities, or retreat to the safety of our familiar but sterile past? I am for crossing the frontier.”
The protests that would constitute the First Quarter Storm began to show that fewer and fewer believed in these statements day by day.
Outside the old legislative building—now the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila—around 50,000 demonstrators threw stones and placards at Marcos’s entourage after his State of the Nation Address inaugurating his second term as President. By then, it was becoming clear that there was mass dissatisfaction with the leader.
But what is believed to have really instigated the storm of protests from January to March that year was the failed dialogue between Marcos and known student leaders at the time, among them Edgar “Edjop” Jopson. Jopson is said to have demanded that Marcos sign a document stating that he would not seek a third term; Marcos, infuriated, would not sign it. A violent dispersal followed the failed dialogue, resulting in the death of four protesters. The dispersal is today known as the Battle of Mendiola.
On February 12, protesters from different sectors of civil society would gather at Plaza Miranda to memorialize these deaths in what is said to be the largest rally Plaza Miranda has ever seen: 100,000 people from different sectors together in the historic square.
While the February 12 protest was nonviolent, the following People’s Congress of February 18 was bloodier, with protesters storming the US Embassy to denounce US imperialism, seen to be Marcos’s primary ally in neutralizing the communist insurgency and thus securing his desires of a long-term rule. Similar protests would happen again until March, with Plaza Miranda and the US Embassy as recurring places of protest.
Two hand grenades were thrown onto the stage as the Liberal Party (LP) held its miting de avance in Plaza Miranda, killing nine and injuring around a hundred. Immediately injured were those onstage, including prominent opposition politician Jovito Salonga, who lost sight in one eye and became deaf in one ear as a result of the bombing. Another politician onstage, Eddie Ilarde, still carries shrapnel in his leg to this day. Both Salonga and Ilarde believe that Marcos did not stage the attack. However, they agree that it was a precursor to what would unfold in the year to come. Following the bombing, Marcos suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. The suspension allows arrest even without arrest warrants in order to round up suspected enemies of the state more easily. The suspension was an attempt to stifle the growing communist insurgency, which Marcos held responsible for the attack at Plaza Miranda. There were suspicions that the attack was staged by Marcos himself, particularly bred by Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison, but opposition members—those hurt in the attack—would later say that Marcos was far too smart politically to have done it. The suspension of the writ is considered by many to be the prelude to the Marcos dictatorship.
“A speeding car rushed and passed the escort car where I was riding. Suddenly, it opened several bursts of gunfire toward my car and sped away. The attack was so sudden that it caught everyone by surprise. No one in the convoy was able to fire back,” writes Juan Ponce Enrile in his 2012 autobiography. Here he talks of an ambush directed at him on the eve of Marcos’s public and televised declaration of Martial Law in the country. The original story claimed that Enrile had only escaped certain death because he happened to be riding his bodyguard’s car instead of his usual vehicle.
Although he speaks of it as though it were real in his recent memoir, Enrile admitted in 1986 that the ambush was staged, confirming the suspicions of many. Enrile had known about the plan the entire time. As Marcos’s former media man Primitivo Mijares tells it, the night of the incident, Marcos told Enrile over the phone:
“Make it look good. Kailangan siguro ay may masaktan o kung mayroon mapatay ay mas mabuti. O, hala, sige, Johnny, and be sure the story catches the Big News or Newswatch and call me as soon as it is over.”
In any case, it is widely believed that this ambush became Marcos’s ultimate scapegoat as to why martial rule was needed in the country.