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Remembering Al-Barka

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War books are often about brilliant victories and heroic campaigns. Some are about incompetence and stupidity resulting in the unnecessary loss of lives of both friend and foe. In his book “Fiasco,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks writes about America’s tragic bungling in Iraq. He dedicates his work “For the war dead” and quotes Sun Tzu, noted Chinese military strategist: “Know your enemy, know yourself. One hundred battles, one hundred victories.”

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Just in case the Armed Forces leadership may have forgotten, today marks the eighth month of the massacre of our soldiers at Al-Barka, Basilan. It was on Oct. 18 last year that 19 army troopers were killed by MILF elements led by Commander Dan Asnawi. Some were captured and tortured, their bodies mutilated, and their heads cut off. It was not the work of honorable combatants. It was the work of bloodthirsty criminals who continue to move around freely waiting for the next opportunity to commit similar atrocities.

It is not as though it was the first incident of this nature. In July 2007, 14 Marines were also killed at Al-Barka. They suffered the same fate as the army troopers—torture, mutilation and beheading. There was much hullabaloo and press releases about moving more troops to pursue the criminal elements, even bringing in a contingent of Presidential Security Group (PSG) units. But nothing much happened. I recall that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the  Army commander then, Lt. Gen. Romeo Tolentino, to move his headquarters from Fort Bonifacio to Zamboanga in order to supervise more closely military operations. After awhile, the whole incident was forgotten and General Tolentino moved back to Fort Bonifacio.

All in all, we have lost 33 men and officers at Al-Barka. Today, Al-Barka remains enemy-controlled territory or, at the very least, some kind of safe haven for MILF elements. I have often wondered why the AFP has not seen fit to station any of its units at Al-Barka, not so much for some tactical advantage, but as a symbol of control and command over a piece of territory for which so much of the blood of our soldiers has been spilled. It should be remembered that in 2000, during the administration of President Joseph Estrada, the government decided to assert its authority over MILF camps through a military campaign that resulted in the capture of Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao. It did not end Muslim resistance, but the objective was to prevent the conversion of these camps within the country into separate territories controlled by the enemy.

After the October massacre, there were statements from two of our national leaders that I have kept in mind for the past eight months.

First, President Aquino declared “all-out justice”—I presume, for our soldiers.

Second, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, in a press conference in Zamboanga City, vowed to capture Dan Asnawi.

So far, on both counts, we have failed. We have instituted court martial proceedings against our officers for lapses in the deployment of troops, but we have not gotten hold of the MILF criminals involved. There is little or no indication that we are making serious attempts to apprehend Asnawi and company. I say this because unlike the efforts to locate and kill terrorists wanted by the United States, we have not put up any rewards for Asnawi’s capture; nor have we made use of smart bombs that were utilized in the attack on JI terrorist leader Marwan in Parang, Sulu, last February.

Why this apparent hesitancy or lack of resolve in conducting operations against Asnawi and his men?

There is any number of possible reasons. But perhaps the most plausible is a desire of our leadership not to endanger the ongoing peace talks. Unfortunately, our unwillingness to confront the issue head-on can only be taken as a sign of weakness, a sign of appeasement. The MILF refusal to surrender Asnawi and our silence on their defiance send out the wrong signals and indicate that we are not prepared for the hardships and the sacrifices needed to assert the national sovereignty.

The lesson from the past is that peace talks do not solve our problems. In fact, they embolden the enemy, giving it time to consolidate its forces and increase its weaponry. In 1996, we made peace with Nur Misuari and his MNLF, only to see them go on a rampage a few years later. We can sign another peace treaty with the MILF. It will not guarantee peace.

I have said this in the past—the only guarantee of peace in Mindanao, the only way to defend our territorial integrity is to have a strong and disciplined Armed Forces, certainly one that will not allow the brutal murder of its soldiers to go unpunished; one that can protect the people from terrorists, local or foreign, so as to enable them to live in peace and security.

Recent developments in the West Philippine Sea have highlighted the weakness of our Armed Forces. Many foreign military observers have characterized the organization as “decrepit,” meaning feeble or frail. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in his meetings with US officials in Washington, openly confirmed what everyone else knows: We are in no shape for any kind of confrontation with our neighbors. And we only have ourselves to blame. For years, we have paid lip service to AFP modernization programs, selling off military bases for this purpose. Where did all the money go? Shouldn’t we have some kind of accounting of these funds as we attempt to upgrade our military capabilities?

Let me offer some food for thought. We cannot confront China militarily. Diplomatic efforts, together with the Asean and the international community, represent our best chance for some kind of peaceful resolution. The real threat to our national sovereignty comes from within. Muslim secessionists continue to embrace the vision of an independent homeland. A peace treaty is only one more step along the way toward this ultimate objective.

The only realistic deterrent is a strong Armed Forces supported by our people.

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In 1977, Singapore Cadet Kah K. Lim graduated at the top of his class at the Philippine Military Academy. The following year, in 1978, another Singapore cadet, Ho S. Yee, also finished numero uno in his class at the PMA. Both cadets were awarded the Presidential Saber by President Ferdinand Marcos.

This year, Singaporean Sam Tan Wei Shen became the first foreign midshipman to graduate at the top of his class in the 167-year history of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Rep. Joseph Emilio Abaya, of the first district of Cavite and current chair of the powerful House appropriations committee, graduated from the US Naval Academy Class of 1988. Recently, Abaya provided free immunization for retired AFP officers and their ladies at Camp Aguinaldo. He is the son of former Rep. Plaridel Abaya, PMA Class of 1959.

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