Fifty-two members of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police (according to the latest report) are dead. They were massacred, many of them mutilated, in an armed encounter in barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao last Sunday with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway faction of the MILF.
This happened while the Aquino government was trying to fast-track the passage in Congress of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (Babala), which seeks to create a new political entity for the MILF to replace the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was created earlier by law for the Moro National Liberation Front. It is supposed to be a formula for peace.
Mohaqher Iqbal, the MILF chief negotiator and presiding officer of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, called it a “mistaken encounter,” caused allegedly by the government’s “failure” to notify the MILF about the movements of the police, who were reportedly in pursuit of a notorious terrorist in the supposedly “government-recognized” MILF enclave under the current ceasefire agreement with the MILF.
Despite the incident, in which the MILF sustained only light casualties, the ceasefire still holds as far as the rebel group is concerned, Iqbal said. But the immediate reaction of Congress was to denounce the massacre and suspend its hearings on the Babala. “How can you negotiate a peace process when one party is still at war?” Senator Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr., chairman of the Senate committee on local government, which was conducting the hearings in the Senate, was quoted as saying. Some senators, although never known to be the paragon of moral integrity, have disowned their previous co-authorship of the Babala because of the incident.
In the House of Representatives, the ad hoc committee chairman, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, suspended the hearings upon motion by Muntinlupa City Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, a former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. There was hardly any dissent from any member; on the contrary, a number of them aired their grievance against the MILF’s “continuing recruitment” of fighters in their respective areas in Mindanao, even after it had signed the peace agreement with the Aquino government.
“It cannot be business as usual,” said Zamboanga Rep. Celso Lobregat, a staunch critic of certain provisions of the peace agreement.
Several things defy our understanding. The government has said–and nobody has tried to contradict its statement–that the SAF contingent had entered the area in hot pursuit of Malaysian “bomb expert” Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as “Marwan,” said to be a member of the Indonesia-based al-Qaeda cell, Jemaah Islamiyah, in the company of Basit Usman, a Filipino bomb-maker and BIFF commander. They had warrants for the arrest of the two notorious suspects. The policemen were all in their official uniform, and they were clearly embarked on a law enforcement mission rather than on a military operation. Assuming they had failed to give the MILF prior notice of their operations–precisely they did not give such notice to avoid a security leak that could alert their “high-value targets”—-was a “take-no-prisoners” assault the only way to deal with the “unauthorized intruders?”
Since both parties profess to be genuinely committed to the peace process and to making the ceasefire hold, shouldn’t the MILF have challenged the “unauthorized presence” of the SAF “intruders” first, before opening fire? At the outset, shouldn’t the government have insisted, in the peace agreement, that no MILF “camp or controlled-territory” should be used as a safe haven or sanctuary for terrorists, criminals or bandits, and that the MILF would cooperate with Philippine authorities in apprehending persons wanted by the government for terrorism or other related crimes who would seek refuge in their areas?
Not everyone, especially those who have a little understanding of military matters, is willing to accept the whole incident as a “mis-encounter.” Many look at it simply as a cold-blooded massacre. A highly trained company of law enforcers simply walked into hostile territory and was wiped out without a fighting chance. They were apparently overwhelmed before they had a chance to respond. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, those who did not fall at the first burst of MILF gunfire tried to pull back, but they were instantly stopped by the BIFF. And they were not just killed, many of them were savagely mutilated.
These questions have to be asked: What kind of intelligence was made available to the SAF “commandos” before they entered the area where they were all killed? Did they have any inkling at all that the area they were entering was some kind of “rogue territory” whose population was heavily infiltrated with anti-government elements?
When the commandos ran out of ammunition, and sent out distress calls for reinforcement and replenishment of supplies, who received these calls and who decided to simply ignore them? Isn’t it unspeakably tragic that while the MILF, which from the very beginning had enjoyed every advantage over the commandos, got reinforcement from the breakaway BIFF, the commandos got no relief or assistance from any allied units because no one wanted to risk any undue consequences to the ongoing peace process?
So 52 brave policemen are dead, while the peace process, as a consequence thereof, also lies in extremis. Do we honestly believe the Babala would survive, or should survive? Why have we not heard anything at all from the Secretary of Interior and Local Government, who commanded the last siege of Zamboanga where a couple of hundred MNLF fighters were killed and 10,000 homes were razed to the ground? Indeed, why have we not heard anything from the President and Commander-in-Chief himself, who oversaw that disastrous Mar Roxas operation from his own quarters inside the Western Mindanao naval base? Why the Sphinx-like silence?
Have we not run out of sand in our shores where this particular ostrich could hide its head while this crisis rages?
As for the rest of the Aquino government, is the suspension of the Babala hearings the best possible response we could expect from Congress? Wouldn’t it have been better if the Congress had summoned the highest leaders of the MILF to explain to the nation why the massacre was necessary, and the mutilation of some of the dead policemen could not be avoided? And why we must remain as eager as all those foreign NGOs, the Malaysian government and the other foreign powers in defending a peace process that, as of now, seems to promise so little peace.