The fate of many
The controversial resumption of the Senate inquiry into the Mamasapano incident will likely focus on President Aquino and his decision-making process. Is he legally liable for the brutal and, so one argument goes, preventable, deaths of 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force in the cornfields of Mamasapano, Maguindanao, a year ago?
We can expect both arcane discourses on the role and responsibilities of a commander in chief, and gritty discussions of the situation on the ground, when elite police units deployed in a risky operation to catch or kill a notorious Malaysian terrorist bomb-maker. Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile, the man responsible for restarting the inquiry even after the committee on public order and dangerous drugs had already submitted its committee report, is famously adept in both forms of debate.
We can expect the hearing to dwell on the exact nature of Mr. Aquino’s ultimate responsibility for the SAF raid, a conclusion the committee had already reached; we can also expect a good part of the theatrics of the hearing to involve emotional appeals to the memory of the SAF 44, to the manner in which they died, and to the distress their bereaved survivors continue to feel today.
But beyond the post-presidential fate of Mr. Aquino, or indeed even of the post-tragedy fate of the SAF 44’s surviving kin and friends, lies the larger question: What of the fate of the Mindanao peace process itself?
Let’s begin with the fact that at least three civilians also died. We would like to hear both the senators asking the questions and the members of the executive branch in attendance express real concern for the communities adversely affected by the incident. Millions of pesos have been spent or set aside for the benefit of the SAF 44 families; aside from constructing a new bridge to replace the now famous wooden footbridge in Mamasapano, how has the government acted to improve the lives of the local residents? The notion that the communities hosted the men who killed the SAF troopers is dangerously shortsighted; the Army has learned to work with those same communities before, and it was precisely the decision to not coordinate with both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Army that led to the clash in the first place.
Let’s talk about the 17 MILF regulars who likewise died in the clash. Regardless of what we may individually think about the MILF forces who fought with the SAF, and whether they should be distinguished from the combatants from both the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the private armed groups operating in the area, we must recognize that their dead are Filipinos, too. A year after the encounter, this simple, indeed baseline, thought still rankles—but why pursue peace with the MILF and its integration into the mainstream if we do not see their members as Filipinos, too? More of us watching the hearing should be on the lookout for divisive or exclusive language, and to call it out, such as tallying the number of Filipinos who died on Jan. 25, 2015, at only 44.
Above all, let’s talk about the 120,000 or so Filipinos—Christians and Muslims—who perished in Mindanao conflict zones since the Moro separatist wars began in the 1970s. If the Bangsamoro Basic Law becomes reality, the separatist threat is dramatically reduced. The arithmetic is straightforward, and confirmed by experience.
The peace treaty in 1996 brought the majority of the Moro National Liberation Front into the mainstream. A few hundred members remain loyal to Nur Misuari, but who can dispute, for instance, that the integration of MNLF regulars into the Armed Forces of the Philippines has been a success?
The Bangsamoro Basic Law holds the same promise. The possibility that the majority of MILF members will give up their arms and take up peaceful lives is real, and is part of the reason that the BBL enjoys the support of many in Mindanao. To forget the math, to disregard the lesson of history, is precisely to dishonor the memory of the SAF 44. Their sacrifice makes most sense when it is understood for what it really is: an attempt to secure the fate of the many.
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