As I write this, I can almost picture my editor frowning over it and muttering to herself, “This isn’t really a business column.”
No, it isn’t. But I wish it was, because that would mean the extraordinarily horrifying circumstances of the past few days would not have trumped all discussion of the mundane. Too often we focus on business and the economy as though those things exist in a vacuum, but they don’t and never will, and so we must, when we are compelled to do so, occasionally turn our attention to some of the real world’s hard realities.
On Sunday, as we all know, more than 40 men of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force—the government says 49, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who killed them says 64—died in an 11-hour long battle near Mamapasano, Maguindanao.
The story as it stands now is that the SAF detachment of nearly 400 personnel was on a mission to capture two wanted Jemaah Islamiya terrorists, Zulkifli bin Hir, known as Marwan, and Basit Usman, when it was ambushed by a force of about 300 guerrillas from the MILF and its erstwhile “breakaway” group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Caught in the open, the PNP force was decimated, suffering as many as 80 casualties and losing a large amount of arms and other equipment. Many of the bodies of the slain PNP troopers were said to have been mutilated as well as stripped of boots, uniforms, and useful gear.
The mission was reportedly approved by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., who is also the head of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC), but not by PNP chief Leonardo Espina or Department of Interior and Local Government secretary Mar Roxas, both of whom have claimed to have been unaware of the planned operation.
The PNP-SAF force reportedly also did not coordinate its operation with nearby military units, nor, as has been the practice during the “peace process,” sought clearance from the MILF to enter “their” territory. This latter oversight was the excuse given by MILF political head Mohagher Iqbal for the slaughter, which he described as “self-defense.”
The government, for its part, has chosen to mock its dead servicemen by tacitly agreeing with the MILF that the half-day attack was justified, calling the battle a “misencounter.” As of today (Tuesday), three days after the disaster, President B.S. Aquino 3rd, who desperately needs the treaty-enabling Bangsamoro Basic Law passed in order to salvage some shred of dignity for his presidential legacy, has yet to utter a word on the topic.
What we know of the incident so far leads us to a number of alarming conclusions. Contrary to denials from the MILF, at least some of its forces are working in concert with elements of the BIFF, which has led to accusations that the BIFF is actually a MILF-backed “pressure group” aimed at forcing the government to quickly legalize the lopsided Bangsamoro peace deal.
Contrary to denials from the MILF, its “territory” is a safe haven for terrorists; Marwan and Basit Usman have both been on the run from authorities for 12 years. It may not be too much to accuse the MILF of actively harboring the two bomb-making experts, after all. Not only has the MILF failed to cooperate in all that time in bringing the pair to justice, the fact that MILF forces spent several hours—more than enough time for the concerned parties to find a way to contact each other and clarify their violent “misunderstanding”—trying and ultimately succeeding in preventing their capture or death fits most definitions of “protection.”
What is most disheartening is that the Aquino government abandoned its own servicemen. Elements of the 6th Infantry Division stationed nearby failed to come to the aid of their trapped police comrades when the latter made a desperate call for help. No military officer, whether he’s a general leading a division or a buck sergeant with a four-man squad, will refuse to support a friendly force if requested, unless he is ordered not to by a superior.
Clearly, the government decided these men were expendable, and that 50 or more lives of the country’s best soldiers were an acceptable price to pay to avoid further annoying the MILF.
MILF leader Mohagher Iqbal remarked on Monday that while the encounter was “a big problem” it should not be allowed to derail the peace process.
No. That is precisely what it should do.
The Bangsamoro deal has left a bad taste in the mouths of the entire country, except for those among the narrow, entrenched-for-decades political elite in Mindanao the MILF represents and their sycophants behind the walls of Malacañang. At best, all the Bangsamoro deal would achieve is to validate and strengthen the power of the class that is responsible for the moribund state of Muslim Mindanao in the first place; and as we now know from Sunday’s tragic incident, what the “peace agreement” would actually achieve instead is to confer legitimacy on an organization that provides support and protection for terrorists.
There needs to be peace in Mindanao, and it is everyone’s fervent hope that there can be, someday. But not like this.