The Mamasapano Report’s most difficult truth | Inquirer Opinion
Sisyphus’ Lament

The Mamasapano Report’s most difficult truth

We Filipinos have long clamored for truth and transparency in government. When we finally receive so admirable an account as the Philippine National Police board of inquiry’s Mamasapano Report, we must show that we know what to do with the truth.

I was skeptical when I saw Interior Secretary Mar Roxas tweet to the Inquirer last Friday that the report would soon be uploaded to the Internet. Nevertheless, that evening, I was heartened to see it ready for download from every media outlet and the government’s Official Gazette. In seconds, I had the same file—signed on every page by its authors—that Roxas and the President were reading. This is a stunning new gold standard for our Constitution’s “right of the people to information on matters of public concern,” which deserves great respect, and which one hopes has set the new bar.

The crisply written 112 pages are easy to read in one sitting. The report appears credible and authoritative given its volume of detail and willingness to discuss every actor from the President to the United States.

It posits the difficult conclusion that the Mamasapano operation was a poorly planned, poorly coordinated one that resulted in needless deaths, and not just among the police. The executive summary’s first sentence is telling: “Sixty-seven (67) Filipinos died in Mamasapano, Maguindanao as a result of an encounter triggered by Operation Plan (Oplan) Exodus.” Sixty-seven because one must add the civilian and Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other rebel casualties to the 44 PNP Special Action Force casualties. This first sentence alone is a subtle but brave challenge to the tone of recent public debate.

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The operation’s many flaws are painfully detailed. With the President’s approval, suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima assumed a seeming command role. Purisima misinformed the President and gave him the impression that the SAF was withdrawing under artillery support when one company was in fact being decimated in a cornfield without reinforcement. SAF commander Getulio Napeñas failed to coordinate with the army yet assured his men of artillery support.

The report’s most damning line reads: “There was a breakdown of command and control at all levels due to ineffective and unreliable communication among and between the operating units.” Purisima and Napeñas sent text messages instead of urgently calling the President and generals. SAF troops used nonmilitary-grade radios that broke down. Units had to determine each other’s locations by firing distinctive gunshots. The SAF was not ready to direct army artillery fire pursuant to army protocols. The plan was made with unrealistic assumptions and unfamiliarity with terrain. Heavy loads slowed troops traveling on foot, disrupting the timetable. The lead unit that killed the terrorist Marwan had to attack before sunrise with only 13 men in position because it underestimated the rivers it had to cross. No men were in position to simultaneously attack the other target Basit Usman’s hut 100 meters away, leading to his escape. The report even cites a GPS breakdown, dud grenades and the failure of the 55th Company (which had only one survivor) to spot a defensible row of coconut trees 100 meters behind it.

The dispassionately written report deserves a place alongside our most respected judicial texts, and PNP Directors Benjamin Magalong and Catalino Rodriguez and Chief Supt. John Sosito deserve respect alongside our greatest jurists. Our nation needs the intellectual courage that permeates the report as sorely as it needs courage on the battlefield. But the next question is: “What do we do with the Mamasapano Report’s difficult truth?

The unmistakable conclusion is that the SAF 44 were killed as much by overconfident, reckless planning as they were by actual bullets. There was no perfidious MILF plot to surround and murder our policemen, and no intentional withholding of artillery because the President is hell-bent on a Nobel Peace Prize. Rather, the SAF troops were sent in the dead of night into an area full of armed residents and prone to pintakasi (the local term for residents, who share blood ties, spontaneously coming together to repel intruders), told to quickly walk in and out despite their unfamiliarity with the difficult terrain, with no prior arrangements for artillery, air support or a ceasefire, which historically took peace negotiators six hours to impose. Perhaps it was in fact a “misencounter,” much as that made-up word grates on the ear, and a prolonged one given the SAF’s communication failures and the MILF’s loose structure.

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Certainly, the MILF must explain how Marwan was living so close to its camp. It must also explain if MILF men were the ones videotaped shooting PO2 Joseph Sagonoy as he lay helpless on the ground, without his bulletproof vest, given that Sagonoy’s gun was one of those turned over by the MILF. It must explain the report’s heart-wrenching forensic section detailing how several others were shot at close range like Sagonoy.

Nevertheless, the report makes it more difficult to brand the entire MILF a traitorous and insincere peace partner.

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It would be easier for so many of us to simply call for all-out war. The challenge is to confront whether the Mamasapano debacle should continue to derail the peace process. If the difficult truth is that it was in fact a “misencounter” exacerbated by reckless police commanders, then perhaps getting the peace process back on track is the best tribute to the SAF 44’s valor. One imagines Jack Nicholson in the background, challenging our political maturity and shouting his iconic line: “You can’t handle the truth!”

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TAGS: Mamasapano, Mar Roxas, nation, news, Peace talks, SAF 44

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