Breach of protocol
The ink has barely dried on the executive order creating a new office that will “heal the wounds caused by armed conflict and foster genuine peace, reconciliation, and unity” in the country, when a deadly clash erupted in Pikit, Cotabato that has created fresh tensions in a delicate part of Mindanao.
In the early hours of Dec. 29, 2021 — two days after President Duterte signed Executive Order No. 158 replacing the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process with the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity — a joint police and military contingent swooped down on Gokotan village in Pikit, Cotabato, killing six and wounding three policemen and a civilian.
Per the official account of regional police commander Brig. Gen. Alexander Tagum, the police and military were deep into the territory of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to serve an arrest warrant on Maula Manampan, the suspected leader of a car theft syndicate who was on the police’s list of most wanted persons. But they were allegedly fired upon by unidentified gunmen using high-powered firearms, leading to the hourlong firefight and the casualties.
Manampan was able to escape from his hideout under cover of darkness, Tagum said, but when they were clearing the area, the joint police-Army team discovered more than 440 assorted motorcycles in a makeshift warehouse, as well as bomb-making components and high-powered firearms including anti-tank rocket B-40 launchers.
“The presence of high-powered [unlicensed] firearms makes the area a suspected lair of a lawless group,” declared Lt. Col. Maria Joyce Birrey, spokesperson of the Police Regional Office in Soccsksargen.
A human rights group, however, raised a different scenario: Based on the accounts of some of the village residents, what transpired was not a legitimate operation but a “rubout.” Drieza Lininding, chair of the Moro Consensus Group that monitors the human rights situation of Muslims in the area, called for an investigation into the bloody incident by an independent rights body. “We condemn this barbaric act, and we demand justice,” he said, adding that the motorcycles were not stolen as claimed by the military but pawned items with proper documentation.
The fatalities included Badrudin Masulot Dalid, 65, owner of SMZ Marketing that buys and sells motorcycles; Badrudin’s daughter, Arbaya Dalid Panisares, 42, the store cashier; Sharif Kabunto, 18, son of MILF commander Satar Kabunto; and MILF members Saligan Hamsa, Asraf Dalid Masulot, and Harris “Piraw” Macagba.
The police report described those killed in the raid as motorcycle “thieves,” but residents disputed that characterization, as well as the allegation that the MILF community harbored members of the separatist armed group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Aside from the differing accounts of what transpired, the raid was a breach of the ceasefire protocols painstakingly agreed upon in 2014 by the government and the MILF, which currently heads a transitional government in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
“The operation is legitimate, but it failed to adhere to the ceasefire protocols of the peace process,” MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq said.
Under the protocols, government forces must first inform and coordinate with the MILF before any military operation is conducted so that their troops can be pulled away from the target areas, thus avoiding a repeat of the infamous January 2015 Mamasapano massacre in Maguindanao that left 44 government troops dead.
Anwar Alamada, chair of the MILF committee in the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (Ahjag), a cooperative mechanism between the MILF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines that monitors violations of the truce under the peace deal, lamented the disregard for the ceasefire protocols, and expressed his intention to file a protest with the Ahjag.
MILF forces so far have not retaliated in kind. The bodies of the dead have been retrieved and members of the ad hoc group have “pacified the tension” in the restive village, according to the MILF. But that fragile peace may not hold for long if the killings of residents and the violation of ceasefire protocols are not addressed, and more such breaches are allowed to continue in MILF-designated areas.
Uncoordinated operations on either side will hamper efforts of the fledgling autonomous region to keep the peace, bring in investments, and fulfill its promise to provide the Bangsamoro a better life. Peace remains fragile in the area, and utmost goodwill and trust are needed from both the government and the MILF to ensure that the hard-fought gains of the accord now governing these communities, only lately recovering from decades of strife, do not go to waste.
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