Lessons from Mamasapano
Cotabato City—Two years have passed since the infamous incident in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, where 67 persons were killed in a botched operation conducted by the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police. While the PNP deemed Oplan Exodus “successful” as the target of the operation was neutralized, the death toll—44 SAF troopers, 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and five civilians—caused nationwide outrage and became a critical juncture for the transformation of political forces in Mindanao. It led to the nonpassage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law and, as many analysts point out, the beginning of displeasure with the Aquino administration as to its sincerity in pursuing an enduring peace agreement with the Bangsamoro.
An inquiry conducted by the Senate shed some light on what happened on that fateful day. The absence of coordination between the SAF and the military was highlighted as the former allegedly did not inform the latter of its mission, leading to the military’s failure to send reinforcements to help extricate the beleaguered troopers from the area.
An interesting perspective was raised by Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao: What happened in Tukanalipao could have been a case of pintakasi—a common practice among certain ethnic groups in Mindanao where the community’s collective effort is achieved and the numerous actors on the ground, despite their differences, work together toward the accomplishment of one goal. In this case, it was to thwart (or eliminate) the intruders in the community.
The municipality of Mamasapano is part of a volatile region as tagged by the military’s 6th Infantry Division. It is situated in the infamous SPMS (Salbu-Pagatin-Mamasapano-Shariff Aguak) Box where actors and factors converge to create a unique dynamics that demands strict adherence to coordination. Like many other volatile areas in Mindanao, it is a place where clan feuds are rampant, shadow economies (both licit and illicit) run wild, the presence of illegal drugs cannot be denied, warlordism is typical, and owning a gun is expected as one reaches the age of puberty—“a deadly cocktail,” as one Mindanao scholar has pointed out.
The presence of the military in volatile areas is aimed at providing assistance to the local government and police force in implementing the law. In these places, the military’s Oplan Bayanihan is maximized as collaboration with local executives, religious leaders, community influencers, and other actors on the ground is essential to establish a peace-aware community and to quell misunderstanding and conflict, be it among private persons (as in a clan feud) or the splintered Moro insurgent groups. Such an approach enables the military to pave the way for the entry of much-needed development projects in its attempt to “win the peace.”
As we sympathize with the 67 bereaved families and await the results of the investigation of the Office of the Ombudsman, let us also acknowledge the indirect casualties of this imprudent mission—our Bangsamoro brethren, as the prejudice against them was boosted by the incident. It is our hope that with the creation of the new (and more inclusive) Bangsamoro Transition Commission, a wide-ranging Bangsamoro Basic Law can be drafted, and the most elusive peace in Mindanao be achieved.
The incident in Mamasapano should be a lesson for us all. We need to acknowledge that local actors, despite differences in inclinations and beliefs, are all important in any effort to conduct effective missions, whether counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, or even counterpoverty.
Without coordinating with those who understand the realities on the ground, the framers of Oplan Exodus sent the SAF troopers to a strange terrain where 44 of them met their end. We continue to remember them. We continue to call for justice and hope that their sacrifice will not be in vain.
Jesse Angelo L. Altez ([email protected] msugensan.edu.ph) is an academic and development worker based in Mindanao.
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