President Noynoy Aquino
President Aquino Commemoration of the Heroism of the Gallant SAF 44 held at Camp Crame in Quezon City. (PIA)

Re-investigating the January 25, 2015 Mamasapano incident, as President Rodrigo Duterte says he’s planning to do, would seem to be unnecessary at first. But that first impression soon yields to the need to address a number of questions in the public mind that until today remain unanswered.

The death of 58 people of whom 44 were members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) in what the then Aquino administration described as a “mis-encounter” between SAF personnel and several armed groups including MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) fighters was investigated in 2015 by both Houses of Congress, the Departments of Justice and National Defense, and the PNP itself in the aftermath of that disaster for the Mindanao peace process.

It was also a disaster for the Aquino regime and for President Benigno Aquino III himself. Although none of the investigating bodies was beyond accusations of partiality and self-aggrandizement, the Senate Committee on Public Order was thought to be the least biased. The report focused on the supposed “massacre” of the SAF policemen for which it blamed Aquino III’s flawed decision-making. But it glossed over the incident’s derailment of the peace process.

Prior to the incident, the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law as a necessary step in the attainment of peace in central Mindanao through the establishment of an autonomous Bangsamoro government had seemed certain. Instead the incident provided the usual anti-Muslim ideologues the opportunity to decry alleged MILF insincerity and treachery and to prevent the BBL bill from becoming law.

Forty-four percent of the population, said a Pulse Asia poll in March 2015, was opposed to the passage of the BBL in reaction to what they thought was the MILF’s responsibility for the Mamasapano “massacre.” Certain of the support of much of the non-Muslim majority, Local Governments Committee Chair Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. stopped Senate discussions and hearings on the bill, while his counterparts in the House hobbled it with such crippling amendments that it became pointless to pass it. Several congressmen introduced a pale version of the original bill instead.

The report of the Senate Committee on Public Order chaired by Senator Grace Poe emphasized that Aquino was primarily responsible for Mamasapano due to his entrusting the operation — code named Oplan Exodus, and which was meant to capture alleged terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias “Marwan” — to former PNP Director General Alan Purisima, who by that time was under suspension on graft charges.

Although he did accept responsibility in 2015, Aquino declared recently that it was former SAF chief Getulio Napenas who, by failing to coordinate with other government agencies, was responsible for the bloody outcome of Oplan Exodus. The Senate report has a point, however. Aquino not only made his pal Purisima in charge of the operation, he also approved the plan, and was in communication with Purisima and Napenas while Exodus was going on.

But of even more relevance is Aquino’s accountability under the command responsibility doctrine. A portion of the report thus noted that “the President exercises supreme operational command of the nation’s military forces. The President also controls all the executive departments, bureaus and offices, he wields the awesome powers of government and has its vast resources at his disposal. The President’s decision not to use these resources at that instance must be explained by him. The President is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the mission.”

To which we may add that he was also accountable for that mission’s consequences on the Mindanao peace process, which he and his spokespersons had repeatedly emphasized would have been one of his presidency’s most enduring legacies to the nation. It therefore raises the question of why he decided to risk endangering the process by giving Purisima the go ahead to implement Exodus.

President Rodrigo Duterte claims that Oplan Exodus was a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation. The US Embassy in Manila has, naturally, denied it. (Could it have done otherwise?). But Marwan was in the first place a fugitive wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). There are also photographs of white men in the vicinity of Mamasapano whose presence has been confirmed by witnesses. At least one foreigner said to be an American was rumored to have been killed in the operation. A finger of the slain Marwan was also forwarded to the FBI to confirm his identity through DNA testing — and so the informer who betrayed him could collect the P5 million US bounty on his head.

None of these proves that the CIA was directing the operation or was even involved in it. But there is a long history of US intervention in the Mindanao peace process which began during the presidency of George W. Bush, whose intercession the MILF sought during the term of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Bush’s apparently favorable response to MILF overtures was followed by the latter’s dangling before the US the possibility of its allowing US military bases in the territory over which it would have control in the event of its gaining autonomy.

The former US ambassador was not only present during negotiations between the Philippines and the MILF in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; she was also received like a head of state in MILF- controlled areas in Mindanao. What’s of equal interest is that US multinationals have also had their eyes on the exploitation, once unrestrained by the conflict there, of the vast resources in the putative MILF autonomous region.

What a re-investigation of the Mamasapano incident could therefore accomplish is to find out if US pressure led Aquino to approve Oplan Exodus despite its possible failure’s negative impact on the very peace process he and his US patrons had been avidly promoting — and its resulting in the death of, lest we forget, 58 of his countrymen.

The information would be especially relevant in the context of Duterte’s claim that the US plans to construct weapons storage facilities in selected Philippine military bases to which the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allows US access. If true (the US Embassy has denied the existence of any such plans), it would only strengthen once and for all the view that although “rotated,” US troops are in effect here permanently — and housed in what amount to permanent military bases all over the country.

Whether it was a CIA operation or not, was Oplan Exodus implemented despite its possible cost in lives and even the future of peace in Mindanao to accommodate US interests? Did Aquino give supervision over the operation to his then most trusted crony in the PNP to make sure that knowledge of it would be limited to only a few officials? Can this happen again given the power and influence of US corporate and military interests in the Philippines?

The answers should prove instructive to the making of an authentic policy of preserving Philippine lives and sovereignty by barring foreign military installations and troops from Philippine territory who are currently housed in “our” bases in the guise of being troops here only on a “rotational” basis and for the sake of “training” and “joint military exercises.”

Such a bar is after all in the Philippine Constitution. It’s a prohibition the last two administrations prior to that of Duterte completely ignored. The Mamasapano incident could yet yield something positive should the present administration decide to look into it more deeply and to turn a disaster into an opportunity to learn from it.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Philippine Information Agency.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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