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‘Unfortunate and saddening’

“A second lease on life” is reportedly how Presidential Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma describes his experience aboard the private plane that was beset by high winds and failed to take off from the Tacloban airport soon after the papal plane left for Manila on Jan. 17.

The private plane, leased for the occasion by the government, carried, aside from Coloma, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and other officials of Malacañang, said Undersecretary Jess Anthony Yu of the Communications Operations Office. Social media posts had previously questioned why, among other things, Malacañang officials had to be present in Tacloban, and used an “expensive” private plane.

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The reason Ochoa, Coloma and other officials were in Tacloban, said Yu, guesting in place of Coloma (who was called to a meeting by P-Noy) at the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel yesterday, was that they needed to ensure that the Philippine Airlines planes carrying Pope Francis, Vatican officials and the Vatican-accredited media, would be able to land in Tacloban despite the typhoon warnings that had been issued by Pagasa.

“They left early in the morning,” said Yu, “and coordinated with the CAAP [Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines] once they landed to give the go-signal for the Pope’s plane to leave Manila.” But authorities decided to cut short the time allotted for the Pope’s stay in Tacloban and Palo because of the approaching strong winds. But while the papal planes were able to take off without incident, the plane carrying Ochoa, Coloma and party was buffeted by high winds, causing it to swerve from the runway and hit the soft and muddy ground. “Some of them apparently suffered bruises,” Yu said of the officials aboard the plane.

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But the plane mishap was only one of the issues raised at the Bulong session, the inaugural one for 2015.

At the postlunch exchange, the primary area of concern was the killing of 64 (at latest count) members of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police.

Reports quoted Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, now serving in the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, as saying the MILF forces were “retreating” upon hearing news of the clash between government forces and those of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which is against the peace process being worked out between the government and the MILF. But the retreating troops “encountered” some of SAF personnel who, he claimed, fired upon them and started a fire fight. Calling the shootings an “unfortunate and saddening development,” Iqbal blamed the incident on “lack of communication” between the police and the MILF. The PNP-SAF were in pursuit of terrorists suspected of using the BIFF to provide them cover.

Aside from the police killed, five MILF troopers and a dozen others were reportedly injured.

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Fortunately, while feelings are running high and doubts have been expressed about the viability (if not wisdom) of the pursuit of peace with the MILF and the rest of the Bangsamoro in Mindanao, more sober voices are being raised urging calm and reason, and faith in the long-drawn-out peace process.

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“[It’s] difficult but we still have to believe in the peace process. My brother, a captain, was killed in Basilan in 1998. I dedicated my support to waging peace in memory of his sacrifice,” Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat Jr. said in a public statement. The lawmaker intimated that among those killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, site of the clashes, was his cousin.

“The natural emotional tendency is to condemn, to doubt, to grieve, and to call for aggression,” he added. “But the courageous thing for us to do is to pray and to believe, still.”

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, meanwhile, said CBCP president and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, “mourns with the families of the gallant policemen, victims of an utterly senseless act of violence in Mindanao.” But, said Villegas, while the CBCP condemns such violence, “we cannot side with those who call for the discontinuance of peace talks.”

“If anything, this sad incident underscores the necessity and the urgency of arriving at a solution that is not rushed but that is inclusive, principled, and just to all,” Villegas added.

Several civil society organizations also called on the public to remain sober in the wake of the tragedy and highlighted the necessity of continuing with the peace process.

“As a nation, we need to be reminded about the importance of peace in Mindanao. We reiterate that between an ‘all-out war’ vs. an ‘all-out peace,’ the former has been proven to be the most expensive,” the Al Qalam Institute said in a statement.

“We call for sobriety for all, including our policymakers, pleading and imploring your kind hearts not to derail or halt the legislative hearing on [the] Bangsamoro Basic Law because this will just clearly hinder us in attaining our goals for lasting peace in Mindanao,” the statement of the Lanao Peace Advocates reads.

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Members of the Mindanao business community likewise reiterated their support for the ongoing process of “normalization.” Said the Mindanao Business Council in a statement: “We maintain our support for the peace process,” urging leaders in the government and the private sector to be “careful and prudent in issuing public statements,” and asking members of the business community to extend assistance to the victims and their families.

“We need to recognize that our government and the MILF have established a ceasefire mechanism to handle proper coordination protocols on the ground,” the Al Qalam Institute reminded the public. “Despite several major conflicts in the past, the mechanism allowed the peace talks to continue and move forward for more than 16 years.”

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TAGS: Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Bulong Pulungan, Jess Anthony Yu, mohagher Iqbal, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Papal visit, Paquito Ochoa, Pope Francis, Sonny Coloma, Teddy Baguilat Jr.
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