Op-Ed: Mr. President, Feel for the Fallen

The Commander-in-Chief spoke to the nation on television, three days after it happened. Forty-four men of the national police’s Special Action Force were killed in central Mindanao, and after a 12-hour gunfight that looked like carnage in the Sunday morning of January 25, Muslim rebels stripped the dead of their uniform, took away their arms, stole whatever possessions they had on them.

President Benigno Aquino read a prepared speech without emotion, in a tone rushing to get the task of speaking over with. What he had to say: that the operation, which was planned to arrest two wanted terrorists, had gone so horribly wrong; the men of the police commando died as a result; they were heroes in the line of duty; let’s have a day of mourning, and then let’s get back to work.

Because what’s at stake is the peace process that had taken years to reach the point close enough to becoming a reality for a Bangsamoro land in Mindanao, the southern Muslim region that had seen waves of wars. The law giving autonomy to Muslim Filipinos in four provinces is in Congress’ hands; if that is to be stopped “status quo will remain,” he said.

“If that happens, we cannot hope for the anything but the same results.”

A tribute image of the 44 PNP-SAF officers slain in the 12-hour firefight in central Mindanao (Source: wikipedia.org)

A tribute image of the 44 PNP-SAF officers slain in the 12-hour firefight in central Mindanao (Source: wikipedia.org)

The Commander-in-Chief had entered a forest and can’t seem to find his way out. Mindanao, burdened by the weight of its history and its complex narrative, has once again shattered hopes and illusions for many who wanted peace. It’s as if we are seeing the same old story, predicting an end before it can even start. But the president, effectively the leader of the armed forces and the police, has lost himself at this point.   

The rebels that killed his men were of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its smaller, breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). With the government having signed a historic peace agreement –- yet another –- with the MILF barely a year ago, Aquino said, “great strides” had made the two sides “trust one another.” Let’s be friends again, he seemed to be saying, “hopeful,” he added, that the MILF would show evidence of their solidarity by getting to the bottom of this bloody event.

There, for a moment, was a stunned silence.

Mr. President, at the very least ask them to return the firearms. At the very least ask them to surrender the terrorists so they could be brought to justice -- one by the name of Zulkipli bin Hir, a Malaysian training local Islamists in bomb-making and was responsible for the bombing in Bali that killed 202 people, the other, Absulbasit Usman, a Filipino who was said to have been involved in bombing incidents in Mindanao. There have been warrants for their arrests for the past dozen years.

At the very least, Mr. President, put them in their right place.  

The Special Action Force would not have gone there on its own, a full load of about 400 men, without higher orders that cut off others from the plan.

You spelled out the tactical blunder; obviously there was one, a big one that pinned the blame on lack of coordination under a cease-fire mechanism. Where on paper does it say that you have to tell the MILF you’re about to catch high-value targets? But yes, the police should have known better than to walk into a lair.

Any veteran of the Mindanao wars will tell you that the marsh in Maguindanao province, where the terrorists were hiding in the town of Mamasapano, is a difficult terrain to navigate; it’s the ideal enclave for the rebels. It was no surprise, none at all, that the elite police unit had lost the element of surprise, and so it happened: the single biggest loss of government forces in recent memory.

As Commander-in-Chief, wouldn’t that be enough to jolt you?

You’ve heard the warmongers calling out for vengeance, drumming into our ears the chants of war. That came especially from former President Joseph Estrada, the movie actor who flushed out the MILF from their camps in the grand military campaign of his time 15 years ago, driving the rebels to the fringes and forcing them –- eventually –- to sit at the negotiating table. What an atrocious irony it is that the worst president we’ve had (himself driven out in a popular coup) had gained a strategic victory vis-à-vis the rebels.

For you peace is victory, the road less traveled. It has got to be done before your term ends next year, and there’s little time left. But now this mess. Do you see any other way out without retaliation? Does a signed piece of document guarantee peace after all this? What is peace in Mindanao if you don’t understand what it means for the people?

In the firefight, the MILF and the BIFF banded together in a pintakasi –- an all-for-one against the enemy. They do that because they are families connected one way or another; blood ties bind them stronger than the name of the armed group they’re supposed to be fighting for. To understand the rebel structure, you have to know the filial connections of clans in a feudal setting.

You have to know that Mindanao is no longer the single entity that it was in the days of intense secessionist rebellions in the 1970s. The very reason the rebels themselves have failed to unify, splintering into groups over the decades, has had to do with their ethnic differences. Giving the power of autonomy to the MILF, which is largely Maguindanaon, does not quite make the Tausugs of Sulu happy. And what of the Maranaos, the Iranuns, the Samas and Badjaus, and the other marginalized non-Muslim tribes?

How about if we step back from this? Let’s not look at past attempts at granting Muslims autonomy as failures, if we don’t know where the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law will take us in the future. The answer to peace may no longer be in the crux of this law, not after what happened when a cease-fire was supposed to be in place. It should not have taken long for the rebels to withdraw, but they kept at it, strafing the police as the morning light rose.

Forty-four of your men died, Mr. President. It is not an isolated case. It is not an ordinary fighting incident that’s meant to be forgotten.

Remains of the 44 Philippine National Police-Special Action Force officers arrive at Villamor Airbase (Source: www.gov.ph)

Remains of the 44 Philippine National Police-Special Action Force officers arrive at Villamor Airbase (Source: www.gov.ph)

If you think peace can’t be had without this law, let me take you to a town in Sulu where people had made it come true, before the vetting of others for gains in promotion blotted it out. You might want to know that you have good officers out there pushing for peace in their own creative ways, working quietly without so much publicity, caring for the local Muslim population when the civil servants could not be bothered.

There are small successes elsewhere too, in other parts of Muslim Mindanao; have a look and go from there. Take a map and plot out which of your hawks and which of your doves in the army should be put in each province; let them build a development plan in a military-civilian partnership, private groups would be more than willing to help. Make a cutting-edge move in the so-called peace strategy you had touted when you came into office. Change the old worn-out repetitive system, if you want Mindanao to be on good terms with the republic.

Which brings us to a delicate issue: How deep were you really involved in this operation? How much of the intelligence given by the Americans –- according to sources –- had led you to pursue this, keeping Mar Roxas your secretary of interior and local government secretary, who is directly in charge of the national police, in the dark?

The Special Action Force would not have gone there on its own, a full load of about 400 men, without higher orders that cut off others from the plan. The Army’s 6th Infantry Division, whose headquarters is not too far from the Liguasan Marsh, had to have known that a special unit of that size was there, but it probably would not have carried out an operation as sloppy as that.

There sat your loyal men when you went live on television to tell us nothing will stop the peace process that you had started. They’re the same faces around you whenever a crisis strikes your government. It may be about time to let go of your circle of friends.

Under your leadership, you have chosen generals who were likewise your friends in the presidential guards when your late mother, President Corazon Aquino, was besieged by coup attempts in the 1980s. They and an odd, paradoxical mix of other generals who had also wanted to overthrow her. This doesn’t make sense, and many officers realize that you have changed little of your predecessors’ old practices.

As you spoke to the nation, the men both in the police and the military were looking for a true commander-in-chief, indignant and angry as they were, not a cold automaton impatient to move on. You ought to know that a true leader is also a soldier who loves his men, who feels a stab in the heart whenever one of them is lost. Perhaps it’s time for you to be one. This alone could be your legacy.

Criselda Yabes

Criselda Yabes

Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.

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