Soldiers of the nation perished at Al-Barka | Inquirer Opinion
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Soldiers of the nation perished at Al-Barka

Last week, I called the attention of the AFP leadership to the massacre of 19 Army troopers in Al-Barka, Basilan last October. Some were captured, tortured, their bodies mutilated, and their heads cut off. It was a repeat of a similar incident in July 2007, also at Al-Barka when 14 Marines suffered the same fate as the Army troopers.

More than eight months have passed since the latest slaughter.

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The silence from Camp Aguinaldo is deafening; the lack of action a cause for doubt and demoralization. We are preparing to defend Scarborough Shoal with ships and jet planes. We cannot even assert our authority over Al-Barka and other areas in Mindanao.

I have said my piece a number of times. Now let us hear from other officers, retired and active. Some of them served under President Cory Aquino.

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Gen. Renato de Villa, one of the finest products of the Philippine Military Academy, a former AFP chief of staff and former secretary of national defense, says: “The massacre of our officers and men in so-called MILF territory has all been forgotten and relegated to history as simply a bad and sad experience for our troops in the field. It is easy to forget so as not to rock the peace process boat… the problem is that Al-Barka has become a symbol of MILF strength and determination to defend its ‘territory’ from incursions by AFP troops tracking down wanted persons and enemies of the State.

“The issue here that has strategic and national policy implications is how long should such a state of affairs be allowed to continue in Mindanao. Should the AFP continue to be denied entry to or passage through certain areas in Mindanao in the performance of their primary mission without prior compliance to certain conditions?

“You are correct. We have a very weak Armed Forces…. We badly lack the material assets and the number of troops on the ground to successfully control the security situation in areas threatened by internal conflict. This has forced the AFP to always remain on a defensive posture in threatened areas and leave many remote communities under the influence of insurgent units.”

One of the most respected combat commanders of the AFP during his time is retired Lt. Gen. Salvador M. Mison. He served as commander, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in Sulu, from 1976 to 1978 and later in Basilan, from 1978 to 1980. He headed Regional Unified Command (RUC) 8, covering Samar and Leyte, also hotbeds of insurgency, before being elevated to AFP vice chief of staff. Incidentally, General Mison was my platoon leader in the Cadet Corps at the PMA.

He writes: “You stated in clear terms the lack of resolve of our national and military leadership to control Al-Barka and to punish those responsible for the two  massacre incidents in the same place. The AFP lost a total of 33 officers and men.

“Shall we wait for another massacre for our national and military leaders to wake up and do something to assert our sovereignty in Al-Barka? A strong Armed Forces is needed to gain the respect and to be feared by the rebels in Mindanao. As a former brigade commander in Sulu and Basilan, I know that the rebels only respect a superior force.

“You have the unequivocal support of retired military personnel, especially those who served in Mindanao, Sulu and Basilan, and even the present rank and file in the AFP in your desire for a better-equipped and stronger AFP.”

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Maj. Gen. Rodolfo Canieso, former Philippine Army commanding general, also served in Mindanao. He earned a reputation as a warrior who not only looked fierce, but who fought fiercely and honorably. During his tenure as Army commander, some mutineers occupied the staff duty officer lounge at Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio. He dealt with them swiftly. Pointing the cannon of his reconnaissance armored vehicle (RAV) in their direction, he gave them an ultimatum to surrender or be blasted away. Seventeen surrendered; one was killed.

General Canieso asks: “What immediate tactical counteractions were taken against the perpetrators of the massacre? The killers are protected by the MILF and/or the Abu Sayyaf. The peace process was broken. Why court martial the personnel of the AFP?”

Lt. Gen. Antonio Sotelo served as PAF commanding general during the coup-prone years following the Edsa revolt. He led the flight of PAF helicopters that defected to Camp Crame during the critical days of People Power.

Sotelo writes: “Our country seems poised to defend Scarborough Shoal. Towards this end, there are talks of buying long-range radars, ships and fighter jets to defend our interests there.

“I think our strategic direction is misplaced. Our internal security, particularly in Mindanao, has much to be desired… in many instances, our soldiers have been massacred and our response feeble. If we direct our attention towards the liquidation of our internal conflicts, perhaps we could consolidate ourselves as one nation and then move on towards liquidating our external problems. I agree with your assessment that our best option in the Scarborough dispute is diplomacy with China and we should be wary at all times that we do not become surrogates of the Americans.

“I think that the development planning for the AFP was too rushed… there was little public debate. Spending much of the national treasure should involve Congress and the public. Our resources are always limited; prioritizing is a must.”

From a senior naval officer who asks to remain anonymous: “To me the Al-Barka incidents are microscopic manifestations of deeper and more extensive issues that have challenged our nation and tested our patience as a people. The manner in which we have dealt with our Muslim brothers may need some re-thinking . . . . Our government has been held hostage to the threats of the Muslims. And inch by painful inch, they have literally taken part of our national heritage. I am no warmonger, but I believe there are wars that must be waged to attain peace. Camp Abubakar, I have heard, is now a peaceful community 10 years after our government took hold of it.”

From the academic world. Ricardo A. Lim, classmate of my son at the Philippine Science High School, and now dean of the Asian Institute of Management, writes: “The (Department of National Defense) and the (Philippine Air Force) plan to spend P15 billion on a dozen fighter jets, presumably to replenish our depleted fleet. But what are these fighters for? National defense? A dozen fighter jets will hardly scare away China from Panatag. Best to use diplomacy …. We simply avoid a direct fight with China altogether.  Helicopters are better for ferrying troops into jungles. To help in disasters, like typhoons and floods. Cargo planes might ship food in and lift people out of disaster areas…. The Air Force should certainly refurbish itself, and spend the P15 billion but it should first re-engineer its mission.”

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TAGS: al-barka massacre, Basilan, Government, insurgency, MILF, Military, Violence
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