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Editorial

To their slaughter?

/ 12:16 AM November 05, 2014

As analogies go, it was a rather head-scratching one. Reacting to the news that six soldiers on a mission in Basilan to secure an ongoing road project had been ambushed by the Abu Sayyaf, the Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., was quoted as saying: “It’s like a Harry Potter movie na it’s a never-ending story. The soldiers are ambushed so they lose the upper hand, so I want an honest-to-goodness assessment so that history will not keep repeating itself.”

Comparing the tragedy of six young soldiers slain—by an enemy the AFP had declared many times as a “spent force”—to the blockbuster book and film series about a boy wizard and the fanciful world of magic he inhabits is certainly a bizarre take on the incident. On the surface, it highlights the chronic bad public-relations work of the military, and its inability to manage its responsibility to speak to the public in a sober, transparent, dignified and professional way about its affairs. Catapang’s unfortunate “Harry Potter” analogy is but the latest verbal howler from the AFP, following the numerous statements by Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, its Public Affairs Office chief, which seemed to take up the cudgels for American soldier Joseph Scott Pemberton, who is charged with the murder of transgender Filipino Jennifer Laude.

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But even if the careless analogy appeared to trivialize the gravity of the incident, Catapang did bring up, however clumsily, the important point about the “never-ending” quality of the conflict. It’s a question that demands answers: Despite the billions of pesos in largely unaudited intelligence funds lavished on the military annually, and despite the tactical and material assistance provided by the US military to fight the menace that is the Abu Sayyaf, why is it able to continue to sow terror and strife in Mindanao?

The bandit group was most recently in the news for having released German hostages Stefan Victor and Henrike Dielen on the back of an alleged P250 million ($5.5 million) in ransom, despite the government’s constant denial that money had changed hands. It is said to continue to hold other foreign hostages—a Japanese, two Europeans and two Malaysians—as well as a number of local residents. And now it has killed six Army soldiers in an incident that the AFP has described as an ambush or an accidental encounter—even it is not yet sure at this time.

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Only six months out of the Philippine Military Academy where he was 13th in his class, 22-year-old 2nd Lt. Jun Corpuz was reportedly leading his group of seven soldiers in providing security to the construction of the Basilan Circumferential Road project when they were fired upon by about 20 men of the Abu Sayyaf. Was it an ambush? Rear Adm. Reynaldo Yoma, commander of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao, has a slightly different story: “They were conducting routine patrol when they chanced upon the armed men. Naunahan sila (The armed men got them first),” Yoma said.

There is another wrinkle to the story. The AFP has admitted that it received intelligence reports two weeks ago that the Abu Sayyaf would launch attacks in the area, hence the beefed-up patrols to secure the perimeters of the road project—a flagship civic development being funded by Saudi Arabia. But if there was prior information of increased bandit activity in the area, why were the soldiers reportedly caught off-guard in an ambush, if that was what it was? Or if it wasn’t, and the soldiers did only chance upon the armed group and were but slower to the draw once the fire fight erupted, the implication is worse: The intelligence failed, or at least did not reach down to the soldiers who had not been warned to be alert to enemies in the immediate vicinity. The fact that reinforcements came too late is also telling.

Catapang has made another one of those rote public promises to conduct an inquiry. “I’m not saying anything as of now, whether who was at fault or there were tactical lapses. What is important is the incident is being investigated,” he said.

What is important, Sir, is not the investigation itself, but what it results in. The public cannot second-guess the split-second decisions of soldiers on the battlefield, but it must demand accountability and transparency from the generals and their civilian overseers who make the decision to send these young men to combat—and, without proper preparation or cover, very possibly to their slaughter. The country cannot afford any more of such losses.

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TAGS: 2nd Lt. Jun Corpuz, Abu Sayyaf, Adm. Reynaldo Yoma, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Basilan Circumferential Road project, Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., Henrike Dielen, Jennifer Laude, Joseph Scott Pemberton, Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, Naval Forces Western Mindanao, Philippine Military Academy, Public Affairs Office chief, Saudi Arabia, Stefan Victor
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