Languages of war
There is palpable grief in the country over the death of the 44 members of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
The clash was a grim reminder that we are still a nation at war. Remote as Mamasapano may be, the entire nation was grievously wounded, the mourning families scattered throughout the country, even as far north as the Cordillera region.
President Aquino declared a National Day of Mourning after the tragedy, and it might have helped if we had some kind of public national event to express our sentiments. But there also seems to be a disconnect, an inability to grasp the national significance of what happened, and to see it as just another localized problem between government (read: Christian) troops and Muslim rebels.
It is, of course, much more complicated, and a quick recap of the events would help, but I thought we might want to take two perspectives in the way the story is told, to show how, in war, we are divided by words as well.
The “government” version comes from a speech by President Aquino shortly after the deadly encounter, as well as a eulogy delivered by Chief Supt. Noli Taliño. I thought it would be instructive to see an alternative narrative, coming from Abul Khayr Alonto, head of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The official version is that on the night of Jan. 24, an SAF group was sent to Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano to serve a warrant of arrest on Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, described as a Malaysian and a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah, which has been blamed for various bombings including that in Bali in 2002 that killed some 200 people.
Another warrant was to be served on Abdul Basit Usman, said to be a commander of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The BIFF has been blamed for nine bombing incidents in Mindanao.
At around 4 a.m. on Jan. 25, there was an encounter that resulted in Marwan’s being killed. Taliño reports that the SAF’s Tactical Command received a radio message, “Mike One, bingo,” apparently meaning that the operation had been successful at least with “Mike One,” referring to Marwan.
But all hell seems to have broken loose after that, with the SAF coming under attack, possibly from MILF as well as from BIFF members. The clash lasted several hours and, in the end, 44 SAF troopers were killed and 18 were wounded. The President also reported three civilians killed.
In a Senate hearing last Monday, MNLF chief Alonto described the event differently. He said 392 “fully geared combatants” entered the area, which he said was an “MNLF base command.” He also said the government troops were accompanied by “bounty hunter informants and civilian military guides.” In the ensuing battle, there were government casualties and, he added, 17 mujaheedin were killed “all in the line of duty.” The mujaheedin are warriors of the faith, or those waging jihad. Alonto said the encounter should not be called a massacre because “both sides fought valiantly.”
The languages of war will make it difficult to establish exactly what happened. There are questions about the delay in reinforcements and of backup from the Philippine Army, which had battalions in the area. We know now that the SAF troopers fought to stay alive. Medical supplies were later found next to the bodies of the slain policemen, meaning their medics could still attend to the wounded. The battle was long and extended, and vicious, the bodies of the SAF troopers supposedly found mutilated.
We’re now hearing testimonies and of investigations being conducted, but the picture remains unclear. Was the entry of the SAF troopers a violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on the Bangsamoro, signed in March last year by the government and the MILF? Already, there are calls for vengeance and retaliation, and a suspension of deliberations over the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the next step in the peace process.
As we read through the accounts, the names sound almost foreign, as though from another country. We know so little of Muslim Mindanao and the many different protagonists in a long-standing war.
It might help to focus on the town of Mamasapano, which is a fifth-class municipality, the lowest in the income classification of our towns, with a population of 22,354, according to the 2010 national census. The town was carved out of Shariff Aguak, the capital of Maguindanao. The land area is not small: 85.3 square kilometers (compare that with the city of Manila, with 38.5 sq km, or the city of Makati, 21.5).
Its mayor is Tahiridon Benzar Ampatuan, most probably of that political clan that was involved in the 2009 massacre of media workers and other civilians, also in the province of Maguindanao.
Maguindanao’s health and education statistics are dismal. A quarter of the population has had no formal education. Life expectancy is 63 years, compared to the national figure of 70.
I can imagine how dirt-poor Mamasapano is, how isolated Tukanalipao must be. It is always in the poorest areas where insurgencies thrive. I use “insurgencies” because the current peace negotiations are only with the MILF among many other secessionist groups, ranging from the older MNLF to the Abu Sayyaf and to breakaway groups like the BIFF.
There are too many “backstage” players as well, including American advisers intent on going after the international terrorist networks and operatives. The US Embassy’s press attaché, Kurt Hoyer, has denied reports of US involvement in the clash but told MindaNews that US service members serving in the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines had responded in order to assist in the evacuation of the dead and the wounded.
Where does all this leave Mamasapano? Mindanao? The Philippines?
When it comes to widows and orphans, to parents having to bury their sons, war’s many languages have no meaning. We need to trade those many languages for one that carries aspirations of a just peace.
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