The biggest casualty is trust
The province of Maguindanao had yet to rise from the shock, pain and darkness brought by the massacre in the town of Ampatuan on Nov. 23, 2009, when yet another massacre of almost the same intensity hit the town of Mamasapano last Jan. 25.
It was not an innocent encounter between the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force and the combined forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. It was a well-planned and well-funded SAF operation against the Malaysian bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir aka Marwan and his Filipino associate Basit Usman. Hefty sums had been put up for information that would point to their whereabouts.
There are varying versions of how “Oplan Exodus” unfolded. Even the number of fatalities varies depending on the narrator. The government stopped at 44 SAF troopers killed in the operation. The MILF, in turn, claimed to have only 18 dead. The number of civilians killed varies between five and seven. There were wounded on both sides: 12 in the SAF and 14 in the MILF. Seven civilians were said to have been injured.
And yet the since suspended SAF commander, Director Getulio Napeñas, said his men had inflicted more fatalities than what the MILF claims. Similarly, the MILF said the fallen SAF troops could not have been less than 65. And grapevine reports say the fatalities not counted with the MILF’s 18 dead were minors.
It would be hard to know the truth from these varying narratives. The oft-repeated nonexistent coordination between the SAF and the Army showed the trust deficit between and among the government’s security forces.
The MILF can claim that the ceasefire protocol and the coordination required under the mechanisms of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group were not observed by the SAF. Yet the MILF would have to explain the presence of two well-known terrorists—Marwan and Usman—in its “controlled area” in Mamasapano. The other hard thing to explain is the fact that as early as 6:30 a.m. of Jan. 25, the MILF knew that the other force in the encounter was composed of government troopers. Yet no ceasefire was ordered and the firefight continued for almost 12 hours.
There are so many ambiguities surrounding Oplan Exodus, the fundamental point being the one in real command of the operation, bypassing the acting PNP chief, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas. Not even suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima is empowered to order such an operation while leaving out Espina and Roxas without the authorization of the Commander in Chief.
Any connection between President Aquino and the Mamasapano operation is now being obliterated. At the congressional hearings, the President’s men were reluctant to answer as to when he was actually informed of the firefight.
Yet, in a meeting with the SAF on Jan. 31, the President said that he knew about the battle in Mamasapano in the morning of Jan. 25 and that he was being briefed of the progress of the encounter as the day unfolded. And no one would say who had briefed him and the actual time that he was informed.
The other mysterious hand in the operation is that of the US forces. There is no doubt that the intelligence feed on the whereabouts of Marwan and Usman came from American informants. It was the US government that had put up the bounty—$6 million for Marwan and $3 million for Usman.
The operation had a surreal echo of a similar police operation against Indonesian bomb expert Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, who was killed on Oct. 12, 2003, in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato. The US government put up the $10-million bounty on Al-Ghozi’s head.
Then there was the townsfolk’s observation of the presence of a hovering “white-like plane” on Jan. 24-25. The drone flights on those days were specifically focused on Mamasapano. The suspicion of US involvement was further strengthened by earlier thermal images of what was taking place in and around Pidsandawan and Tukalinapao. And at least two members of the US Special Forces were seen with Napeñas in the SAF monitoring command post in Shariff Aguak on Jan. 24 and 25.
Yet another mystery was the helicopter that landed in Shariff Aguak with four members of the US Special Forces, supposedly to get “body samples” and evacuate some of the wounded.
Again, there is a conscious and willful obliteration of any connection of the US Special Forces to the operation notwithstanding the presence of the two Americans at the SAF command post in Shariff Aguak before and during Oplan Exodus.
The price of the operation was very high. The fallen 44 troopers came from various parts of the country, and not only from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The MILF also suffered casualties, as did the civilian community. But the biggest casualty in the encounter was trust.
In a peace process, and especially at the stage when the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law is the subject of deliberations in Congress, the loss of trust seems fatal. The suspension of the deliberations spells uncertainty. There is fear that a watered-down BBL would result from the tragedy in Mamasapano. Will the MILF accept it?
And will there be an independent commission to ferret out the facts in the Mamasapano tragedy? With all the passion, emotion and bitterness at play, only truth and justice for all the victims can repair the trust that was shattered. Amid ambiguity and pain, it will be difficult to move forward.
Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI, chairs Development Consultants Inc. (Devcon).
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