THERE’S another battle going on in the wake of the battle that raged in Mamasapano on January 25, which claimed the lives of 44 PNP-SAF commandos and 18 rebel fighters of the Moro Islamic liberation Front (MILF).
It’s the battle of words on how to describe what happened and what is now happening in the effort to bring the crisis and tragedy to resolution.
This is to be expected, because we’re now at the stage where all sides—government, MILF, opposition, media, and citizenry—are engaged in a battle for hearts and minds.
Misencounter vs. massacre vs. incident
At first, the battle of words was simply about nomenclature and terminology—what word to use in describing the event. The Aquino administration, led by Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, started the verbal hostilities by quickly calling the incident “a misencounter.” This was quickly echoed by the top leadership of the MILF and the government’s peace panel.
When “misencounter” did not fly with the media and the public, the government along with the PNP and AFP turned to calling it just an “incident,” which is the more generic term in military and civilian circles.
Discerning sectors of the media and the public, including The Manila Times, did not get confused and did not mince words. They quickly called what happened in Mamasapano a “massacre”, “carnage” or “tragedy”.
Some timid souls floated the word “skirmish”, as if what happened were a picnic. It was predictably dismissed.
Mar Roxas and the rest of the government had the good sense to drop “misencounter” from their vocabulary. Even President Aquino, for all his clumsy tendencies, did not adopt it in his two turns to address the nation on Mamasapano.
Clash vs. cover-up
Now, after lessons and insights were learned in the initial testing, the battle has shifted again.
As numerous inquiries have been launched, and as the public conversation has zeroed in on questions of accountability and possible US involvement, and with President Aquino taking much of the heat, there is a concerted move to bring in new terms to reframe Mamasapano.
The administration—on the advice of PR strategists and spinmasters—with the support of various government departments and units of the AFP and PNP—decided to describe the Mamasapano incident as a “clash,” and so they tag everything as the “Mamasapano clash.”
The crony media, not surprisingly, have fallen in line. GMA news—on the air and online—has evidently adopted “clash’” as a matter of policy.
Its top rival, ABS-CBN, whom everyone expects to be more yellow because of Cory and Kris Aquino, surprisingly demurs. It prefers to use “incident” and occasionally uses “massacre,” especially its radio arm, DZMM.
Among the broadsheet dailies, the Inquirer trumpets “Mamasapano clash” in its online edition. The printed edition may be a little more thoughtful.
In sharp contrast, critics of the administration’s policy and actions in Mamasapano—from virtually all sides of the political spectrum and all sectors of society—have uniformly adopted the word “cover-up” to describe what the government is doing today in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Wherever we look, the suspicion and apprehension is one and the same. The administration—with the support of both houses of congress, and all the official inquiries—is deliberately trying to cover up the facts and the truth of what happened in Mamasapano. One apparent objective is to dilute the extent of President Aquino’s accountability as president and commander-in-chief by muddling the facts and the issues.
All to no avail. “Cover-up” is the word that is sticking. The ordinary citizen hardly knows the word “clash.” But cover-up, because it vividly conjures the image of covering and hiding something, is popular.
Where is this battle of words headed?
Without doubt, to the court of public opinion. Because it is the people, as the true sovereign, who will decide who wins.
When the Senate resumes today its public hearings on Mamasapano, we think the public should be on the lookout to see who is the senator or resource person who uses the word “clash” to describe what happened in Mamasapano.
And that goes as well for the reporting and commentary on the hearing. Whatever you are—journalist, senator, administration official, investigator, soldier or policeman, cleric or just plain citizen—if you choose to call Mamasapano as just a “clash,” you are part of the cover-up.
The people and the families of the slain commandos will remember where you stood during this difficult time of reckoning.