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Method To Madness

This is war

Private First Class Roberto Ricafranca was one of three Ricafranca brothers in the Philippine Army. He was 32, and was a sharpshooter for the Philippine Army’s 4th Special Forces Battalion. His wife Rhea had planned on attending his graduation from scuba diving class. His cousin Alex is part of the 12th Special Forces Company.

Ricafranca was first in his sniping class in 2007. He was called to Basilan just after the one-day fast required of scuba-diving candidates from the Special Forces. The military says he was responsible for at least 10 MILF casualties during last Tuesday’s firefight in Al-Barka, Basilan that ended with 19 dead on the part of the Philippine Army.

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Roberto’s brother Michael, a sergeant from the Military Intelligence Division, blames the government for its lack of preparation. His cousin Alex says he survived only because Roberto gave them cover as he ordered them to run for safety. Roberto was the only sniper on the team.

Two weeks ago, there were four Ricafrancas in the Philippine Army. Now there are three. When they found Roberto, he had been hacked almost to pieces. His internal organs had been removed. His tattoo was his only identification.

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Now there is a call for war.

“They better break it (peace talks) up,” says Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. He recommends the sacking of presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles. “That Deles should be fired if she insists on a peace process that she cannot handle… she’s insisting on the peace process when the soldiers of the republic are being killed.”

“It is time to untie the hands of our soldiers to fight the MILF on equal terms and not be handicapped by the so-called peace talks characterized by treachery and deceit,” added Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

“If you ask my opinion,” said former Army Spokesperson Col. Antonio Parlade Jr., now relieved of his duties, “it’s clear that we should pursue the MILF rebels and temporarily suspend the cessation of hostilities, specifically in Basilan.”

Radio announcers are howling retribution for the soldiers lost in the Al-Barka encounter. Television anchors have mocked President Aquino’s refusal to scrap the peace talks. In a country where it takes nothing less than the massacre of journalists and the flooding of the metro to rise in outrage, much has been done to arouse public sentiment into a scream for bloody murder.

This is what we are certain of, and the facts are few. A young officer is allowed to lead a mission on dangerous ground, in territory near the rebel stronghold. His commander is barely informed. His troops are untrained for the terrain. The rationale for the “test mission” is vague, with four different versions coming from various sources. We are told a warrant is to be served, but there is no police officer involved to serve it. We are told a bandit group was holding a victim, but we are uncertain who. Reinforcements did not come. We are told, repeatedly, that an ambush occurred, but it is denied by the other side. The locale is populated by the enemy, and it is public knowledge.

Nineteen men were killed in the encounter that was allegedly a legitimate operation. We do not know yet why.

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“I’m happy knowing our soldiers’ voice and sentiments were heard,” said Parlade, interviewed shortly after he was sacked as spokesperson. He said he still believed the peace talks should be suspended. “We are ready to take the bullet whatever the cost.”

Yet the demand for war does not mean only the bullet Parlade so bravely would like to take. “We” will mean Sgt. Michael Ricafranca, who lost one brother to “operational lapses,” and whose first interview was a raging tirade against the superiors who led his brother on a suicide mission. Parlade speaks as if these men have no preference for life or death, that they do not have mothers, wives, children and fiancées who wait for December weddings that will not come. The cost of war will not only be carried by the men of the Armed Forces, whose courage in rotting boots has been proven with every encounter.  It will mean far more people displaced than the 11,500 civilians who fled Mindanao recently, or the 7,800 now cowering in Basilan evacuation centers. The four civilians killed recently in an encounter will not remain at single digits, and certainly none of them sent messages to the gentlemen of the Senate offering to trade their lives for vengeance. War means an end to life as the residents know it. There will be no schools or markets or the beginnings of prosperity. It is a red light to the MILF’s attempt to keep its people under control. It means several hundred more coffins wrapped in a yellow sun, and more that are not.

Joseph Estrada was right in 2008, when he claimed war is sometimes necessary for peace. It was vital in Rwanda in 1994, over the hundred-day period when 800,000 Tutsis were massacred in a genocide that the world pretended not to see. It was necessary in Burma, and in Poland during the genocide; it was necessary in the ’40s as the Japanese began spearing babies with bayonets. In none of these situations was peace a possibility, only the show of force against force. Ideology was less a factor than it was an excuse.

It is true that the men who sent back Ricafranca’s body were brutal in their killing. Justice is the answer, not war on an entire populace and the end to peace—especially since there are reasons to blame men who should know better.

Yet Mindanao has a cause, and a binding unity, one that is often justified by the idiocies of Manila politics. Theirs is a demand for a proper share of national resources, for autonomy when autonomy can be granted, for roads that do not slide down mountains and schools that do not depend on Italian missionaries named Father Pops.

This is the reason peace talks persist, in spite of a pork-eating Joseph Estrada and the barbarity of the Abu Sayyaf. There is no other option but peace, no matter how many men are killed on both sides. The talks stalled in Fidel Ramos’ time, they stalled during Estrada’s term, only his response was an all-out war. The talks stalled when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office, they will stall now, even with a President whose surprising commitment to peace is assailed by the conceit of men. We do not have soldiers with enough blood to drown the minority that takes up arms after the inevitable slaughter; neither is courage a reason for the arrogance and impracticality of leaders, living as they do on some vague premise that they can crush Al-Barka tomorrow and call for peace the next week.

Private First Class Roberto Ricafranca did not have to die. And in spite of his insistence, neither does the erstwhile spokesperson of the Philippine Army.

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TAGS: Method to Madness, Military, opinion, Patricia Evangelista, Philippine army, Private First Class Roberto Ricafranca, War
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