Questions remain about the unfortunate police operation that led to the Mamasapano tragedy two years ago. But three investigations—a comprehensive one by a Board of Inquiry constituted by the Philippine National Police, a controversial inquest conducted by the Senate, and an even more controversial one by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front—have together given us a good picture of the circumstances and conditions that led to the death of 44 Special Action Force troopers, 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front regulars and three civilians. The Office of the Ombudsman has also (belatedly) charged two top police officials with graft and usurpation of authority.
What then do we make of President Duterte’s decision to convene “a commission of seven” to investigate the Mamasapano incident?
It seems promising. “They will be independent in all aspects,” the President said. “They are free to summon and as President, the executive department, I will order you to honor the process. We will bestow to the commission the powers exactly given to the Agrava Commission, iyong panahon sa pagkamatay ng Aquino (During the time of Ninoy Aquino’s death). Let us see.”
But Mr. Duterte, because he is who he is, didn’t stop there. He said a mouthful, and more, about what he said was the truth about the Mamasapano incident.
He said it was a CIA operation—that is, that the Mamasapano raid was an operation of the US spy agency. “Let it be brought out in the open. It was an American adventure with the cooperation of some and apparently with your blessing,” addressing his predecessor, former president Benigno Aquino III.
He suggested that Aquino’s behavior during the command conference in Zamboanga City when the then president heard the bad news from Mamasapano was, well, weird. “By the way, nung nandoon tayo sa (when we were at the) command conference, you went back and forth sa kwarto na maliit (in the little room),” he said, again addressing Aquino directly. He added: “Every time they went out I could see in your faces the—I cannot describe—ayaw kong insultuhin kayo (I don’t want to insult you), but I could sense that something really, really bad happened.”
He said that the SAF44 families needed “a respite”: “Otherwise, they will bring to their grave the hurt and agony that they had to endure losing a husband, a father, a brother. The investigation, you could have completed it.” He offered this explanation for “completing” the investigation without recognizing the extraordinary succor and assistance the surviving families of the SAF44 have already received and are continuing to receive from the government; this is special treatment that rankles the survivors of other police officers and especially soldiers who also perished in the line of duty.
These and similar statements suggest that this new independent commission may not be as independent as the President implies. Would he accept a finding that showed—as the leadership of both the PNP and the Armed Forces insisted two years ago and insist today—that American involvement was limited to intelligence-sharing before the operation and emergency airlifts after? Would he accept a finding that showed—as the SAF commanding officer at the time at first admitted—that operational control was limited to his level? Would he accept a finding that showed—as the PNP BOI report proved—that air strikes were not called because of the fog of confusion?
None of this is to say that the operation plan was flawless or that Aquino was blameless. As we have repeatedly emphasized, his decision to keep Alan Purisima, then the PNP chief serving a suspension, was a grave mistake.
But the question is: Will a commission appointed by the same President who has continued to accuse certain personalities of alleged involvement in the war on drugs without offering proof beyond a so-called narco-list, a President with very strong opinions about the subject of the study, truly be independent?
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