Mamasapano’s other casualties

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

If truth is the first casualty of the Mamasapano incident, the peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government is fast emerging as the second.

Thanks to the likes of JV Ejercito, Alan Peter Cayetano, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and their like- minded fellows in both houses of Congress, as well as those police and military generals who are all trying to evade responsibility for what happened through calculated disinformation, the difficulty of getting at the truth and the resulting confusion are almost inexorably leading to the trashing of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

The passage of the Basic Law is critical to the implementation of the March 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). But despite an earlier commitment to act on it by March, what is emerging in Congress is majority reluctance to even discuss the Basic Law because of the Mamasapano clash.

Even more critically, among the majority non-Muslim populace as a whole, the Mamasapano incident in which 44 commandos of the Special Action Forces (SAF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP), 18 MILF fighters and six non-combatants were killed has provoked levels of antagonism and hostility against the MILF and even against Muslims in general. In many instances, the hostility has revived demands for “total war” and the abandonment of peace negotiations — a policy straight out of the short-lived Estrada administration, which adopted and implemented that very same failed approach.

Supplementing and even stoking resurgent anti-Muslim and anti-peace sentiments, much of Philippine media have weighed in through unashamedly biased reporting and commentary. They have laid the blame for the Mamasapano incident squarely on the MILF, arguing that rather than the result of mismanagement at the highest levels of government, what happened is just one more indication of MILF treachery.

In one news program, for example, the instant experts of one of the major TV networks — who have no inkling of the historic roots of the Bangsamoro struggle and even less understanding of Muslim culture and society — argued that MILF malice and insincerity were evident in its forces’ “attacking” the SAF while “protecting” and “coddling” alleged terrorists Zulfikli bin Hir (a.k.a. Marwan) and Basit Usman, despite the MILF’s denial that it even knew that either were in their area.

Although the truth of the MILF denial has yet to be verified, what is evident among many media practitioners, whether in broadcasting or print, is a mindset that regards whatever the MILF would say as a lie — despite the statement of the mayor of Mamasapano that Marwan’s residence was not only in an area that was virtually inaccessible but was also outside MILF territory, and that he himself was not aware of the former’s presence in his municipality.

It’s a disturbing indication of how tenaciously the biases of the media as well as of much of the populace have survived years of efforts to educate them both on the roots of the “Bangsamoro problem” (the MILF’s words), the futility of using purely military means to address the demands of armed revolutionary movements, and the imperative of forging mutually acceptable peace agreements based on a common commitment to address legitimate grievances.

It’s not only the media and too many citizens who are afflicted by biases based on misconceptions about such groups as the Muslim community. The government’s own security forces are as burdened, one of the indications being, for example, their framing of what happened between the PNP-SAF and the MILF as a firefight between “us” and “them,” or between “us” and “the enemy.” The consequence of this mindset, which they share with much of the media and the populace, is the presumption that only the readiness to use force against the MILF and kindred groups could have resulted in the arrest of Marwan and Usman.

Was there at all any other alternative to affecting the arrest of both without entering territory with which the SAF commandos were essentially unfamiliar? Did it at all occur to anyone in the PNP — or the entire government for that matter — to demand that the MILF surrender Marwan and Usman?

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano lamented during the Senate hearings on Feb. 10 that the MILF did not surrender Marwan to Philippine authorities despite its allegedly knowing that he was within MILF territory. Was it then the MILF’s responsibility to do so even without any request from the PNP or any other government agency, assuming that it knew about the presence of Marwan and Usman in Mamasapano?

To justify the PNP’s refusal to coordinate with the MILF and even with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) when it sent nearly 400 SAF commandos into Mamasapano last Jan. 25 to serve both with warrants of arrest or to kill them (Marwan had a bounty on his head of $6 million, and Usman, $1 million), the PNP claims that the MILF was coddling both. (In a public demonstration of mutual distrust among the country’s security forces, the PNP even implied that coordinating with the AFP could result in the operation’s being compromised!)

Was this the real reason? Or were there seven million reasons in all?

In the welter of conflicting and contradictory accounts of what happened, what seems certain is that the key factor that caused the heavy casualties the PNP-SAF suffered was the decision not to coordinate with either the MILF or the AFP.

Equally crucial was the exclusion from the loop of both the officer-in-charge of the PNP and the Secretary of the Interior, apparently on the say-so of then suspended and now resigned PNP Chief Alan Purisima — a decision about which President Benigno Aquino III was at least aware, or for which he was even responsible.

What happened last Jan. 25 has been described by some officials, including some congressmen, as a mere “police operation.” It was no such thing. What it was is an argument against leaving decisions on war and peace to armchair strategists. Its primary consequence is the distinct possibility that the peace in those areas of conflict in Mindanao that only less than a year ago had seemed so near at hand will not only prove beyond reach, but will ironically even lead to further conflict.

The various Mamasapano inquiries should not be focused on convincing the entire country about the patriotism of policemen or the viciousness of MILF fighters, despite how the media, the police and the politicians are framing the story of that encounter. What it should be about is exacting accountability from those who planned and implemented the so-called police operation — and seeing the peace process through despite the Cayetanos, the Estradas and the Marcoses, so it won’t happen again.

Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Twitter: @luisteodoro

Published in Business World
February 12, 2015

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