Mutually using Mamasapano

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Partisan politics was all over the Senate “reinvestigation” of the January 25, 2015 Mamasapano incident in which 67 people—44 men of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF), at least 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters, and six non-combatants—were killed.

The original Senate investigation into the incident was concluded last year with the release of a report that among others said that what happened at Mamasapano was “a massacre” and that President Benigno Aquino III broke the PNP chain of command by putting then suspended PNP Director General Alan Purisima in charge of an operation to arrest or kill suspected terrorist Zulkifli Abdhir, alias “Marwan.”

Marwan was allegedly one of those involved in, among other terrorist acts, the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia in which over 200 people (mostly Australian tourists and Indonesians) were killed and 209 others injured. Marwan was supposedly killed by the SAF. His identity was confirmed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation through a DNA test on his severed finger.

The Senate subsequently issued a report after several hearings. But the investigation was re-opened on January 27 this year on the say-so of Senate minority leader Juan Ponce Enrile, who claimed that “new evidence” had come into his possession.

The evidence he has uncovered, Enrile declared in his opening statement last January, would prove that not only did Aquino III “actively and directly” participate in the planning of “Oplan Exodus” (the police operation to capture or kill Marwan), but that he also kept responsible police and military officials out of the loop, a decision which led to the “butchery” of the 44 SAF men.

Having approved Oplan Exodus, and ignored the chains of command of both the PNP and the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines), and therefore being ultimately responsible for Oplan Exodus, Aquino was also fully aware of what was going on. Despite that knowledge, when the SAF police officers were in danger, Aquino did not do anything to prevent their deaths.

The above summary more or less encapsulates Enrile’s “eight issues” directed at Aquino in his opening statement. Noticeable is the fact that other than the public disclosure of the exchange of text messages between Aquino and police and military officials prior to and during the operation (which was already in Senate hands last year), nothing really new by way of evidence emerged during the hearing.

Aquino, meanwhile, has implied that accountability for what happened in Mamasapano rests on the police officials involved, particularly on the then chief of the PNP-SAF, Getulio Napenas. In a speech on the first anniversary of the Mamasapano incident, Aquino urged Congress to look into the Philippine National Police Law to determine which of its provisions prevent the immediate imposition of sanctions on leaders who violate police standards and are remiss in their duties.

(“Ayaw po nating maulit ang mga trahedyang dulot lamang ng pagsuway sa mga patakaran. Hindi makatwirang magpatuloy ang sistema kung saan may karaniwang indibidwal na pumapasan ng mas mabibigat na obligasyon dahil sa kapabayaan ng iilan.”)

The citizenry deserves, and is entitled to, any information that could throw more light into an event whose repercussions include not only the suspension of the implementation of the peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government. The same incident has also divided the nation and exposed the operational and other weaknesses of the police—and even more importantly, raised serious questions about the leadership of the country.

Accurate and reliable information is key to the capacity of the people to arrive at intelligent opinions about issues of public concern and to act on the basis of those opinions, whether by, among others, demanding official accountability and appropriate reforms, or booting out of office those responsible.

But this being an election year, the prospects for the latter must have seemed particularly inviting to the politicians who have a stake in who will end up president of the Republic by June.

Aquino is barred from running again, but has anointed Secretary Manuel Roxas II of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) as his successor.

While not running this year, Enrile, himself on trial for alleged plunder in connection with the diversion of pork barrel funds, nevertheless has his own preference—and it’s certainly not Roxas. Discrediting Aquino would help prevent the election of Roxas, who has so totally identified himself with Aquino’s so-called “Tuwid na Daan” (Straight Path) mantra that he seems to no longer have a persona of his own.

Several other senators would be similarly served. Senator Grace Poe, who chairs the Senate committee on public order that led the high-profile Senate investigation last year, is running for the presidency herself. Senators Alan Peter Cayetano, Francis Escudero, Gregorio Honasan, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Antonio Trillanes IV are running for the country’s second highest post.

While not a senator, Honasan running mate Jejomar Binay, who has used the Mamasapano controversy to gain brownie points among the police and the electorate, would be the principal beneficiary of the Enrile gambit.

But despite the political context, Enrile has a point—even if part of it has already been made, as Poe herself has noted. Aquino is responsible for the chain of events that eventually led to the bungling of the police operation that resulted in the deaths not only of 44 SAF personnel but also—lest the nation forget—of 17 MILF fighters and six civilians.

His fundamental error was assigning his pal, then suspended Director General Alan Purisima, to oversee the operation. It was Purisima’s decision to keep it a secret from both Roxas, who has supervision over the police, as well as from the then acting chief of the PNP. Although it’s no longer a surprise, Aquino’s decision-making was at the very least flawed if not irresponsible, given its implications to the very peace process his administration was in the middle of completing.

But Aquino has a point about the responsibility of the PNP field officers. The absence of coordination between the SAF and AFP was a field decision that cost not only the SAF but also the MILF and the civilians in the area dearly in terms of lives lost. It can also be argued that arresting or killing Marwan—its morality and legality aside—could have been better achieved through a clandestine operation rather than by the police’s entering in force into territory they were unfamiliar with, and without considering the implications of the action on the MILF-Philippine government peace agreement.

The key word in understanding why, a year after it happened, the Mamasapano incident was even dredged up in the Senate at all, is “use.” Everyone involved, from the senator-allies of Aquino III to his political opponents to the police and to Aquino himself, is trying to either benefit from it, or—in the case of Aquino and company—to extricate themselves from blame and to evade responsibility. It doesn’t speak well (and that’s putting it kindly) of the country’s political leadership, whether resident in Malacañang or the Senate. And judging from the way they tried to be coherent in a vain effort to prove themselves competent and patriotic professionals, it doesn’t speak well of the police either.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the Senate website.

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