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Interrogating Mamasapano

Two foundational premises must inform the inquiry into the Mamasapano Misencounter. First, no unjustified death by violence of any Filipino should be condoned. In one day, a Moro community, suffering what it experienced as an unprovoked attack, lost 17 members. Did not these casualties also leave grieving parents, widows, orphans?

The Philippines is a multiethnic, multireligious community. Many statements in mainstream and social media, some quite vicious, obviously reject the principle that the national government is responsible for the welfare of all Filipinos, regardless of their religious or racial identity. But this is the fundamental premise upon which rest the peace negotiations aimed at bringing back the Bangsamoro community into the national polity.

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Second, no failure of leadership or discipline or training should diminish the value of the ultimate sacrifice that the Special Action Force 44 paid in the service of their country. Sadly, failures did occur on both the Christian and Muslim sides that resulted in the bloody clash at Mamasapano. Senior officials on both sides bear the burden of probing how and why and by whom these came about—to ensure that justice is done and to prevent similar disasters in the future.

To his credit, SAF Director Getulio Napeñas immediately accepted responsibility for his role in the misencounter. He chose not to use the mechanisms established under the provisional peace agreement to avert accidental armed confrontations, because he did not trust the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. According to a military source, this framework for coordination has actually worked; no “misencounter” has taken place between the Army and the MILF since 2010.

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Neither did Napeñas coordinate Operation Wolverine with the armed forces, which the SAF later tried to summon to its aid. Army units available to help did not have and could not get the information they needed to provide timely support to the beleaguered troops. Initial reports indicated that the SAF could not communicate directly with military reinforcements, because they were on different radio frequencies, and did not have the equipment to direct artillery or air assets against enemy positions.

These were serious lapses. But Napeñas maintained that he made a judgment call, command decisions that he believed followed from his

mission order or within his authority to make.

The Philippine National Police will need to conduct its own internal review of the incident, which will include a judgment on whether Napeñas, since suspended, deserves censure. Whatever verdict it eventually reaches, Napeñas is already suffering the punishment and the pain of knowing that he had led 44 men to their deaths.

The MILF must conduct its own inquiry into the conduct of the troops it controls. The public expects MILF commanders on the ground to be as forthright as Napeñas in admitting to their superiors accountability for any action that contributed to prolonging the firefight. This information MILF leaders themselves should want to know. An earlier disengagement would probably have reduced SAF fatalities, but it might also have averted some deaths among their own troops.

However difficult for those who lost loved ones, they may yet accept death in the heat of combat as part of the occupational risks that security forces accept. But the MILF must quickly disprove reports that its troops robbed and mutilated the SAF casualties or charge and sanction those who were responsible for the crime.

An internal investigation would be mandatory for any institution confronting a crisis on the scale of Mamasapano. Since such postmortem

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assessments would focus mainly on institutional systems and interests, we would also need an impartial, third-party commission credible to the MILF, the government and the general public.

But the eight distinct bodies reportedly now being contemplated to conduct separate inquiries seem an excessive and potentially dysfunctional investment of the scarce human and material resources of agencies already burdened with their own responsibilities. Should these inquiries reach divergent conclusions, who will determine which one is right?

With the presidential election drawing closer, the danger that partisan political interests will drive these inquiries will become more pronounced. To prevent a protracted and inconclusive process that will not serve our national interests, the review must keep a close focus on the planning and execution of Operation Wolverine.

The misencounter at Mamasapano has already exacted a heavy toll. Placing on the balance the loss of 44 men against the elimination of

Marwan, SAF survivors believe that the expenditures of these lives was a hard but acceptable bargain—because allowing Marwan to train more terrorists to explode bombs would eventually have cost more casualties.

A similar calculation of potential costs should guide our thinking on the peace process. How many more lives will be sacrificed, like those of the SAF 44, should the Mamasapano Misencounter provoke the dismantling of the peace agreement and the resumption of war?

The prospects for peace in Mindanao should not become another casualty in Mamasapano.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: column, Edilberto C. de Jesus, mamasapano clash, reflections
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