“There is a time of reckoning” for everyone, said President Rodrigo Duterte’s chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo.
“Sooner or later,” he intoned, “the law will catch up on (sic) those who use power or wealth to shield themselves from the majesty of the law.”
Panelo followed that up with the usual Latin phrases and legalese this country’s lawyers so dearly love, emphasizing the law’s supposed capacity to eventually prosecute every wrongdoer.
Apparently Panelo hasn’t heard of impunity, which has become a veritable culture, or a way of life, in this country. (The culture of impunity allows those who commit the most horrible crimes to escape punishment through their political connections, influence, and wealth.) Is it perhaps because Panelo was a lawyer of some of those accused of involvement in the November 23, 2009 massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers in the Maguindanao town of Ampatuan?
The trial of the accused masterminds of the massacre and their hirelings is still ongoing more than seven years after it began in 2010. That uniquely Philippine outrage has become an enduring part of the continuing history of unpunished killings not only of journalists but also of environmentalists, political activists, reformist local officials, students, indigenous people, labor and farmer leaders, etc. — and, starting in 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte came to power, of thousands of alleged drug users and pushers.
But Panelo was neither referring to, nor warning his patron about the supposedly long arm and memory of the law. What he was so happy about was the Office of the Ombudsman’s decision to prosecute former President Benigno Aquino III for alleged usurpation of authority and for violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act in connection with the bungled January 2015 police operation called “Oplan Exodus” in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province. “Exodus” did kill its target personality — but 58 people including 44 Special Action Force (SAF) police operatives were also killed in the process.
The policemen were deployed to capture alleged Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan. But the operation foundered on a lethal mix of errors and incompetence, among them the lack of coordination with both the Philippine military and the fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who were in the area. Concluding that they were the targets of the SAF, MILF fighters and members of other armed groups engaged the commandos, while the Philippine military was unable to provide support for the SAF team because it was not aware of the operation.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales has ordered the filing of criminal charges against Aquino III along with retired Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Alan Purisima and former SAF Director Getulio Napenas. Aquino is presumably up for indictment because of his designation of his buddy Purisima, who was then under suspension for a graft case, to supervise the operation that Napenas implemented.
But assuming the trio are indicted and tried, not only Aquino’s, Purisima’s or Napenas’ culpability in how the operation turned into a disaster for them, and the 58 people killed and their kin should be at issue. “Usurpation of authority,” for one, doesn’t quite sum up the extent of the damage the Aquino administration inflicted on the country through Oplan Exodus.
The Mamasapano disaster cost the country dearly not only in lives lost, which included civilians and at least one child, as well as MILF fighters. It also occurred at a critical time. The Aquino administration and the MILF had signed an agreement in 2014 to end hostilities between government forces and the MILF, to cement which the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was in the middle of being reviewed and discussed in Congress. Not only did grandstanding politicians prevent the BBL from being rationally discussed; they also introduced amendments so crippling they made a mockery of the Muslim autonomy the peace agreement promised.
The question is why Aquino approved, and, in a most unwonted concern in the outcome of a police operation, closely monitored Exodus despite what were at risk: the many years of difficult negotiations; the prospect of a sustainable peace in the conflict areas of Mindanao; and the subsequent possibility of their meaningful development.
The politicians’ response to what the government peace panel referred to as simply a “mis-encounter” was bad enough. What was worse was how it was interpreted by the public and the media. Forty-four percent of the population, said a Pulse Asia survey in March 2014, was opposed to the BBL. The Mamasapano incident had led them to reinforce already current thinking that the MILF was responsible for the carnage, was treacherous, and could not be trusted. The media echoed this perception, labeling what happened in Mamasapano a “massacre,” and providing not only gory descriptions in print of what had transpired, but also videos of MILF “barbarism.”
Not only the BBL was a casualty of Mamasapano. There was also the widespread optimism and developing trust between the Christian majority and the Muslim community prior to the incident. In its place there was a resurgence of the majority bias against both the MILF and Muslims in a country of already festering divisions.
Aquino III put Purisima in charge apparently because he trusted him most to limit knowledge of the operation to only a handful of high-ranking police officers and to the exclusion of the military and even then Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas, who had administrative supervision over the PNP. Was it because Aquino believed Marwan was enough of a threat to this country for him to take such risks? If so, who persuaded him of the need and urgency of taking Marwan into custody through the use of a large, heavily-armed and highly visible police force despite its possible impact on the government-MILF peace process?
Was it the US, which ironically has long been helping broker the peace negotiations because of its strategic and economic interests in Mindanao, which include prospects for military bases misleadingly labeled “facilities” for its overstaying troops, and multinational exploitation of the vast natural resources in the prospective MILF enclave?
In January this year, President Duterte publicly claimed that Oplan Exodus was a US CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) operation. While some Filipinos are understandably skeptical of Mr. Duterte’s declarations, of which quite a number are admittedly outrageous, the fact is that Marwan was a fugitive wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and that Caucasians likely to be US nationals were seen in the vicinity of Mamasapano on the day of the incident, with at least one said to have been among the casualties.
These do not prove either CIA direction or even involvement in the attempt to capture Marwan, who was killed during the operation. But these circumstances raise enough questions and implications on Philippine sovereignty and foreign intervention to merit looking into. But that seems unlikely at the moment, the present regime having abandoned Mr. Duterte’s earlier focus on US intervention in the Philippines.
While this is unfortunate, there is at least one possible, though small consolation for the citizens of these isles of dread. Despite the culture of impunity, changes in the political fortunes of those who rule this country sometimes do lead to the “day of reckoning” Panelo was so certain would eventually haunt those who abuse and misuse their power by, say, sanctioning extrajudicial killings and coddling assassins.
Presidents and their cronies beware: Aquino III’s term had to end — and Mr. Duterte won’t be president forever.