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The MILF Report

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Public Lives

The MILF Report

/ 01:36 AM March 29, 2015

I have just finished reading the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s report on the Mamasapano incident. It is very short compared to the reports of the Philippine National Police board of inquiry and of the Senate. As expected, its account of the events does not diverge significantly from the narrative previously offered by MILF peace panel chief Mohagher Iqbal at the congressional hearings.

In essence, it says that the Jan. 25 clash could have been avoided if the movement of the Special Action Force troops had been coordinated with the joint ceasefire committees on the ground in accordance with agreed protocols. It claims that the MILF leadership had no knowledge of the presence of Marwan and Basit Usman in their territory, and acknowledges with regret the failure of their own intelligence operations.

The report adds little to what the public already knows, but reading it is still important. It shows how untenable the theory of a massacre is, and how the roles of the aggressor and the aggrieved could have easily changed had the number of casualties been reversed.

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The first few pages of the report show the faces and the names of the MILF members who died during the firefight. Seeing these photos for the first time, one is at once struck by the realization that they, too, were very young and had families of their own. They were Filipinos who spoke Filipino, who would have studied in the same public schools as our children, and might have voted during our elections. Many of them might have been ordinary peasants who tilled the land with their hands, and only part-time warriors.

Seventeen of them died in this unfortunate encounter. The number could have been 44, or even more. In which case, they would have had far greater reason than the government to call it a massacre. They were, after all, in their own community. Awakened by gunfire before daybreak, the resident MILF men could not tell who the armed intruders were who had crept into their village in the night, or what their intent was. Their first instinct was to mass in one place, away from their homes where their families were. For about an hour after they detected their shadows, they eyed them closely in the gathering light. Then, the first shots were fired, and, according to the report, two MILF men immediately fell.

If all the 300 or so SAF commandos deployed for Oplan Exodus had joined the 55th SAC to form a blocking force, they could have easily overwhelmed the 105th MILF Command based in Tukanalipao. The outcome would have been an unquestionable massacre of villagers. The SAF would have been hard-pressed to explain the unprovoked aggression as a misencounter. Had that been the case, I wonder: Would we have felt the same moral indignation as we have shown for the fallen SAF 44?

There is nothing in the world that cannot be made to look good or bad by redescription. We need to keep that simple truth in mind if we are to avoid the tyranny of words. In many accounts of the incident, the word “massacre” has gained currency because there is evidence that many of the SAF troopers were shot at close range—“finished off” as they lay wounded. The MILF report denies this, claiming that the weapons used by both sides were so powerful as to inflict the kind of wounds associated with bullets fired at close range. I think the writers of the report know that the public may not buy this explanation.

And so, they take up the case of SAF commando Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor of the 55th SAC. We have hailed Lalan as a hero, especially after hearing his account of his great escape. He said he managed to crawl into the river and hide in the water as his companions fought for their lives in the nearby cornfield. The following day, he took off his uniform and retraced his way back to the main road. He stumbled upon a group of MILF men taking a midday nap in an abandoned hut. According to him, he took the gun of one and shot all of them dead. The MILF report confirms the killing of four men inside a makeshift hut used for prayer, adding that Lalan had also killed another person he encountered in the vast rice fields away from the scene of the battle. How is one supposed to view these acts?

The MILF concludes that these killings were clearly not committed in the context of an actual gunfight. Four of the men were asleep at the time; the other was an unarmed civilian. “Massacre” may be too strong a word to use to describe these deeds, but surely there is nothing heroic in shooting anyone under these circumstances.

Indeed, we only have the vaguest idea of what people who feel deeply threatened are capable of doing as they try to find their way through the fog of war. For this reason, we can forgive Lalan’s actions as those of a half-crazed soldier who, after witnessing so much carnage in one day, began to think that every Moro he met was out to slaughter him. But, by the same token, can we not think of the Mamasapano incident as the unfortunate reaction of a community that, having seen too much war in a lifetime, had begun to think of every movement of government forces as an operation to annihilate the Moro people?

Carl von Clausewitz, to whom we owe the concept, wrote: “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” One needs keen judgment to see through the fog. Alas, in Mamasapano, there were tragic miscalculations by both sides. I think we should not

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further exacerbate this tragedy by ascribing motives to actions that were undertaken on an impulse under a fog of insecurity.

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TAGS: Mamasapano, MILF report, Moro Islamic Liberation Front
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