IN trying to make sense of what happened in Mamasapano last January 25, and why it’s so hard for President Aquino to clean up the mess, it is best to remember that this tragedy opened its first act in Tokyo on 4 August 2011.
That was the day, the month and the year President Aquino embarked on his grandiose plan for peace in Mindanao by secretly meeting with the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
It was there and it was then that Aquino first displayed his recklessness, his amateurism, and his contempt for protocols and procedures in high office.
It was there and it was then that government peace advisers and negotiators showed the worthlessness of the advice they were giving Aquino, and their fundamental blindness to the real situation in Mindanao.
It was there and it was then that MILF leaders and even its base commanders saw close-up what kind of leader our republic has (totally unknowing of peace and security issues) and how needy he was to cut a deal.
Unannounced, unprecedented and bizarre
The meeting took place on Thursday, August 4, 2011, in a hotel near Narita Airport in Tokyo. The affair was so spur-of-the-moment, Aquino left Manila unannounced. It was so hush-hush, the summiteers did not find time to go to downtown Tokyo. It was so hurried, Aquino held talks with Murad that Thursday night, and he and his party left Tokyo at 10 am the following morning.
Ebrahim went to the meeting accompanied by key MILF leaders like Chief Peace Negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, Political Affairs Chief Ghadzali Jaafar, and four of the MILF base commanders (to show military muscle perhaps)
Aquino went to the meeting accompanied by his most trusted advisers and colleagues: Chief Peace Negotiator (now Supreme Court Justice) Marvic Leonen; Peace Adviser Teresita Deles; Budget Secretary Florencio Abad; Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima; Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin , National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda. (Abad and Purisima were there to assure the MILF of billions forthcoming if they cut a deal).
It was Leonen who explained to the media what transpired during the meeting, and it was Deles who provided a photo of the meeting. Lacierda for some reason was ordered to go mute.
Aquino and Ebrahim met for two hours and then posed for pictures with their respective entourages.
Leonen revealed at a press conference that it was Aquino who had sought the meeting. The clandestine meeting had been in the works since late June 2011.
Leonen said that during their talks Aquino and Murad agreed to “fast-track” the peace negotiations and that the implementation of any agreement must happen during the term of Mr. Aquino.
Leonen explained what transpired in the talks as follows: “The meeting was cordial but consisted of a frank and candid exchange of their views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement.”
He revealed that Aquino presented “a pragmatic and principled view” on how the talks could move forward. The MILF head also presented “principled and pragmatic realities in terms of the negotiations and in terms of our country.”
Then, to assure everyone, he said: “There was no secret deal made at the meeting.”
“The meeting was very cordial. I was in the room. I was the note-taker and I saw there was a certain chemistry between the chair of the MILF and the President,” Leonen said.
For its part, the MILF generously called Aquino’s secret diplomacy a “grand gesture” that gave “a tremendous boost to the peace process.”
Leonen said Japan was chosen for security reasons and because it is the closest member of the International Contact Group, a grouping of nations that seeks to promote trust between the two sides. The other members are Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
Back in Manila, Aquino must have relished the surprise of the entire nation about the diplomatic feat that he had pulled. He had cast the die for peace, and everyone must now live with it.
Country no fiefdom of Aquino
But the President’s meeting with the MILF rebel chief drew negative reactions from Congress, the media, and even the Foreign Affairs department.
One of the President’s close allies in the Senate, Sen. Francis Escudero, thought the President was ill-advised to meet personally with Murad, who is not even his counterpart. He said Deles should “protect the President from such things.”
In the House, the reaction was strong and stinging.
Then House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman said Aquino had broken his promise of full transparency and had taken unnecessary risks without getting any tangible gains from the meeting with the MILF leader.
Lagman said: “The country is not the personal fiefdom of President Aquino. Any presidential move which has a bearing on national interest and national security must be transparent and discussed with the Cabinet and the National Security Council.”
At the Department of Foreign Affairs, one diplomat who asked not to be named said what the President did was “an act of treason.”
She said: “A President is not supposed to go on secret missions. A head of state can never be the equal of a rebel leader, but [Aquino] probably does not know that. He should be meeting with someone on his level.” The Department of Foreign Affairs was left completely out of the loop.
That August 2011, Aquino already showed the tendencies and misjudgments that would prove costly for the Mamasapano mission.
Aquino showed that he would ignore protocols and procedures to do what he wants. He left the DFA and the National Security Council out of the loop in his diplomacy. This would mutate to his ignoring of the chain of command in the Mamasapano operation.
Once Aquino believes in a particular initiative (like impeaching Corona), he will go for broke, and will not suffer opposition.
Aquino does not begin an initiative by getting all the information and the best counsel he can muster. Instead he just defers to hirelings, like his peace advisers.
The Aquino administration’s original judgment and apprehension of the situation in Mindanao never had much to do with facts; it was rather just a reflection of prejudices and hunches. Aquino was obsessed to show up President Arroyo and prove that his peace agenda is better. And he was waylaid by the inducement proferred by Deles and Leonen that he could win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Moral confusion and lunacy
From 2011 onward, Aquino would betray a deep moral confusion about the serious stakes in Mindanao, and a naivete about the real threat posed by terrorism.
It was just, as some have charged, like a computer game to him.
This lunacy would have real consequences in the operation to get Marwan and Usman in Mamasapano. It would cost the lives of 44 SAF commandos, 18 rebel fighters, and several civilians.
This lunacy led Aquino to appoint a suspended police general to head the operation. It led him to authorize a time-on-target policy that effectively bypassed the chain of command.
Most of all, this lunacy deluded him into thinking that the agreements he had signed with the MILF leaders already guaranteed a sound level of peace and stability.
Lacking realism in the planning and the shaping, President Aquino’s policy toward the MILF and the peace talks has blown up in his face.
And now, he must pay.