Murder at Malacañang Park?

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

AMID rising complaints against police extra-judicial killings in the murderous drug war, President Rodrigo Duterte got a shot in the arm last week when China handed over 3,000 M4 assault rifles, three million rounds of assorted ammunition and 90 sniper scopes, worth $3.3 million, to replace a botched US sale of 26,000 M4 rifles to the Philippine National Police, which American legislators had nixed in 2016 in protest against such killings.

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However, the possible scandal arising from the suspected murder of a presidential security officer inside the Malacañang Park, close to the President’s living quarters, could nullify whatever propaganda mileage DU30 could generate from this gift of arms.

An arms delivery
Indeed, the new arms delivery would give the Philippine National Police additional weapons; but whether it would reduce the killings in the bloody “war,” upgrade DU30’s standing with the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and others, who are all critical of the killings, or improve his chances of overcoming the rising threats to his six-year term is another matter altogether.

While DU30 tries to cozy up to China, or China tries to cozy up to DU30, the world has become a much more dangerous place as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, a Chinese ally, threatens to unleash his ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons upon the world and US President Donald Trump vows to deal with him.

Assessing China
Newsweek reports that at the last US Senate confirmation hearing for the reappointment of Marine General Joseph Dunford as chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the general said North Korea had already surpassed Russia and China as security threats “in terms of urgency” since his 2015 assessment. But China would soon outpace Pyongyang because of “demographic and economic considerations,” Dunford said. It could become the greatest threat by 2025, he added.

China maintains the world’s largest standing army, and is now “focused on limiting (US) ability to project power and weakening our alliances in the Pacific.” Its widespread defense reforms had “the potential to degrade core US military technological advantages,” Dunford declared.

Independent defense analysts tend to share this view. RAND Corporation, the US military think tank in Sta. Monica, California, in a 16-page report (“Conflict with China revisited”), says chances of an armed conflict between the US and China have increased since its first report in 2011. RAND analysts say they have a lower margin of confidence that confrontation between the two powers could be avoided.

US security ties
In an armed conflict between the US and China, the Philippines cannot be a neutral party or a fence-sitter. The Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1998 and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement of 2014, supported by active political, economic and military cooperation, have linked the Philippines to the US in war and in peace.

Unless the sitting Philippine President abrogates these treaties and agreements and declares war on the US, as wartime President Jose P. Laurel declared war on the US and the Allied Powers on September 22, 1944, at the behest of the invading Japanese authorities, Filipinos will have to fight shoulder-to-shoulder once again with the Americans.

We hope this day would never come, and that we could instead become an effective instrument in moderating the rivalry between the US, as Asia’s dominant power, and China, as the rising Asian power. But that remains a dream.

Friend, not foe
In last week’s ceremonies, a visibly pleased Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua was photographed with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año on the front page of some newspapers inspecting a copy of the rifles from China North Industries Corp. (Norinco), China’s biggest arms manufacturer. The arms transfer was meant to show that despite their bitter maritime conflict in the South China Sea, China regards the Philippines “not as a foe but as a friend,” the ambassador said.

The rhetoric is shared by DU30, who has pivoted to China and away from the United States by refusing to assert Philippine sovereign rights over maritime areas within its exclusive economic zone in the Spratlys, despite a July 12, 2016 arbitral ruling in its favor from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague; by calling former US President Barack Obama and the former US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg “sons of a whore” for expressing their concern about his drug killings; and by announcing his military and economic “separation” from the US and aligning himself with China and Russia “against the world,” during his October 2016 state visit to Beijing.

Master-client relationship
DU30 managed to parlay his “pivot” into $24 billion worth of Chinese investment and loan pledges during that visit. DU30 views this as a great accomplishment, but some Filipino critics think DU30 has turned the Philippines into a client-state of China in a new “master-client” relationship with Beijing. Of course, both governments reject this criticism.

The arms transfer was the second such transfer within months from the Chinese government. Last June 28, China handed over 3,000 assault rifles, 100 sniper rifles and 6 million rounds of ammunition valued at P370 million. China apparently intended both arms deliveries to be given to the military, but DU30 reportedly decided the police, who are under fire for the upsurge of killings, including of minors, in DU30’s drug war, needed the firearms more.

Moreover, the military is said to have a strong built-in bias against foreign-made weapons which are not compatible, or “inter-operable,” with the weapons and equipment sourced mainly from the United States. Philippine military officers are familiar with the performance of US, British and Israeli weapons, but not with that of the Chinese. They do not seem ready to shift to Chinese-made arms, despite the reported rapid modernization of China’s weaponry, along with its war-fighting capabilities. Thus, only the sniper rifles and the sniper scopes in the two arms deliveries have become part of the military inventory.

Unexplained incident
This means that other than these sniper rifles, no China-made weapons are in the hands of members of the Armed Forces. But it now appears that at least one Norinco 45 caliber pistol is responsible for the unexplained death of one officer of the Presidential Security Group inside his office at Malacañang Park, close to the President’s sleeping quarters.

On September 26, the lifeless body of Maj. Harim Gonzaga, 37, of the PSG, was found inside his office with a gunshot wound to his heart, and the Norinco pistol beside him.

There is no definitive official finding about what happened. To the best of our knowledge, no crime scene investigation was ever conducted; neither the National Bureau of Investigation nor any police unit was called in by the PSG; no forensic examination of the body was done; no effort to determine the immediate origin or ownership of the firearm used, or how and by whom it was used; the trajectory of the bullet was never ascertained. In short, nothing that responsible and professional police investigators always do in such cases was ever done. Why? Everything looked like a cover-up, but what was being covered up?

The media release on the incident was completely controlled, and the usually curious newspapermen, both outside Malacañang and those covering the President, have not bothered to ask the basic questions about it. Not a single media organization has bothered to make any deep inquiry. None of the “fast guns” in the Senate who are ever ready to investigate anything and anybody at the proverbial drop of a hat have shown any interest in finding out what happened within the security perimeter of the President’s living quarters.

DU30 undisturbed
And not a word has been heard from the President himself, who was the ultimate commander of the dead PSG officer, and who had every reason to be concerned about any officer getting killed under his nose. There is no report that he shed any tears for the dead officer as he reportedly did for the distant victims of the latest violence in Las Vegas, but it appears he and Brig. Gen. Lope Dagoy, the PSG Chief, are inclined to write off this incident as a closed case. Why?

Interviews with the major’s widow, who works with the Presidential Escorts, and who reportedly found her husband’s dead body, have revealed no plausible reason for the major to take his own life. So many things argue against it. But if anyone insists it was a suicide, the results of the forensic examination should support the alleged motivations for it. However, there are none. On the other hand, absent any proof that he killed himself, the authorities should have tried to find out why anyone would have wanted him dead, and who had the motive and the opportunity to have him killed. The President should have shown enough interest in knowing the answer to this.

The most important puzzle has to do with the Norinco pistol found beside the deceased. We do not need a Sherlock Holmes to formulate the issues for us. They all seem self-evident. Since no Norinco pistols exist in the AFP inventory, no Norinco pistols are issued to the officers and men of the Armed Forces, particularly the elite PSG. It seems fair to assume then that the major did not own the Norinco .cal 45; that the gun may or may not have been the weapon used to kill him; and that it was planted on him after he was killed.

A gun duel?
The first rumors—repeat rumors—that went flying out of Malacañang on that fateful day was that there had been a “gun duel” between two officers at Malacañang Park— something similar to the “gun duel” that PDU30 has proposed to Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th, among others, in one of his darker moments—-except that the details were completely vague. When the official story finally came out, there was no mention of anybody else present in the room when the major was killed. His wife simply found him dead.

But if our layman’s theory is correct, that the major could not have owned the Norinco cal. 45, then it means he had his own officially issued sidearm, unless it is now PSG official regulation that officers should report for duty unarmed. But if, in fact, he had a government-issued sidearm, that could no longer be found, and had been replaced by the Norinco pistol, which in theory did not exist. If he had no “officially issued sidearm” at the time of his death, then it means he was completely unarmed when he was killed, and either the Norinco pistol or another weapon was used to kill him, and the Norinco pistol was planted on him after he was killed.

The discovery at the crime scene of the Norinco pistol whose origin and ownership are not known is the single most important fact that leads us to wonder whether the major was not, in fact, killed by someone who got the weapon from a private source or directly from Norinco itself. It is important to remember that DU30 met with some Norinco officials in Beijing in December 2016. Did the Beijing firm, by any chance, give away any free pistols as gifts to any military officers who may have accompanied the President in that meeting? Would DU30 or perhaps Ambassador Zhao Jianhua care to ask Norinco about it?

The President cannot allow this death to remain a mystery. This is a grave state matter and the honor of the presidency is involved here.

fstatad@gmail.com

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