Its leadership suddenly halted the probe into the Jan. 25 Mamasapano tragedy. Their explanation: Too much emotions in the air.
Mamasapano saw 44 Special Action Forces (SAF), 18 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels, seven civilians and an undetermined number of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) slain. The clashes stemmed from the hunt to get Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, and Usman Basit. Marwan is on the world’s most wanted list of terrorists,
Too much emotion may be right. Hawks have been calling for all-out war. Outside of Congress, the BIFF was bristling; engaged in firefights with the MILFF, their former mother group. Thousands of civilians had fled to safer ground. Families of the slain SAF men were angry by what they perceived as Mr. Aquino’s lack of empathy.
But there were too many inconvenient truths surfacing, too. By then, ACT party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio had managed to raise one very important point: that President Benigno Aquino III had known of the unravelling debacle in the early hours of the morning.
The House leadership seem to equate defusing tensions with burying the truth.
Because a week later, they were huddling with Mr. Aquino in Malacanang — getting his word, and only his word, about who exactly was responsible for the tragedy. He told them that Alan Purisima, the suspended national police chief, had lied to him about events on the ground and the presence (or lack thereof) of reinforcements for the hapless SAF troops.
After that meeting, the House leadership said they would resume hearings. They have no intention to unearth the truth about Mamasapano. Rather, they are out to push, at the President’s instructions, passage of a law that would create a Bangsamoro autonomous body.
BEST FRIENDS IN CHARGE
Mr. Aquino, after several painful days of military and police officials raking each other to pieces, now blames Purisima — a police chief on preventive suspension for serious corruption charges — for the horror of Mamasampano.
Mr. Aquino, of course, ignored Purisima’s suspension and placed him in charge of what, by all accounts, was a very high-value and high-risk operations.
Mr. Aquino is commander in chief of the Armed Forces. He is also chief executive of the civilian bureaucracy. He has publicly proclaimed the peace process with the MILF as one of his top legacies.
In the legislative hearings, Mr. Aquino’s military officials stressed that the lack of coordination not only cost the lives of people; it also jeopardised the peace process he holds so dear.
Until tthe Senate hearing where Senators Nancy Binay and Grace Poe paralysed government witnesses with the simple questions — who told the President and when” — Mr. Aquino seemed removed, distant, from the Mamasapano mess.
The Chief Executive had several public appearances already where he spoke about Mamasapano.
- In his first televised speech, Mr. Aquino claimed that Purisima was on top of things until his suspension. Thereafter, he was called in only to advice on the “intricacies” and “nuances” of the operation.
- In his second televised address, Mr. Aquino went hammers and tongs after Special Action Force chief Director Getulio Napeñas, claiming he alone was responsible for the mess. The President said he had ordered close coordination with the military, an order which Napenas disobeyed.
- In the same speech, Mr. Aquino sorrowfully, almost angrily, accepted Purisima’s resignation (after Napenas had squealed that disgraced police chief had ordered him not to tell PNP Officer in Charge Leonardo Espina of the operation; and that Purisima had assumed responsibility for informing AFP Chief of Staff General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr). He was sad because Purisima was an old friend who protected him during his tenure as opposition senator.
- Kin of the fallen SAF troops, after a visit from the President, also told reporters that he kept on blaming Napenas.
Now, Mr. Aquino blames Purisima for misinforming him. That misinformation came via text messages between the President and his good friend.
But Purisima was only supposed to have given advice. So why was Purisima reporting on the day of the operation?
And yes, the President spoke only with him — before and during the Mamasapano clash — until things were so bad that he had to consult the military commanders and civilian executives who’d been left out in the cold.
Mr. Aquino never spoke with Espina, although earlier he had warned that anyone not obeying the latter would be punished.
Even granting that Purisima had hatched the hunt for Marwan and Basit Usman, there was no reason to leave out the PNP OIC. Government witnesses read through several regulations that say substantial movement of personnel and logistics need to be approved by higher officials.
Instead, insisting on a laughable “time on target” doctrine that seems nothing but an FYI — when action has commenced — Purisima and Napenas (on orders of the former) went their merry way.
What Mr. Aquino did was let a suspended police chief operate a shadow chain of command, with intelligence officers and the SAF director, bypassing their superiors and reporting directly to Purisima. Indeed, it was Purisima who arranged meetings with the President.
The civilian official supposed in charge of the police forces, Interior and Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas, was clearly out of the loop.
- He was not told about #Mamasapano plans (fair enough, if Mr. Aquino was supervising directly);
- He informed the President in the morning of initial report of unraveling ops;
- President thanked him; no other comment) (President already knew from Alan Purisima that something had gone wrong; President did not acknowledge this with Roxas;
- No word on the plane from Prez about what his orders — to coordinate — were (apparently, no word to AFP, too);
- Then President asks Roxas to find out what went wrong, and he is asked to ease anger in the SAF and the PNP;
- Then everyone is expected to salvage the situation.
For someone given so much powers, Purisima tried to wriggle his way out of trouble by claiming he was only “advising” not ordering “Napenas”.
He would later claim that because he was suspended, he was not responsible for coordinating with AFP Chief of Staff Catapang.
All he was expected to do, Purisima said, was to inform Catapang. Which he did — after the fact.
WORTH DYING FOR?
And throughout the Senate hearings, poor police and military officers tore themselves to shred.
Senators appealed for a halt to the drama.
Nobody seemed to realise that these were men (and women) expected to shed their lives for the sake of the republic, these were men (and women) who’d seen their peers mowed down and would have to live with that for the rest of their lives.
As one SAF personnel angrily stressed, in a dialogue with Roxas, for once they were confronted by the question: Is this country really worth dying for?
Who exactly was to blame?
The existence of rebels are a given. That’s why peace talks are underway. There are legitimate questions about overkill. Certainly, at least a few SAF men were “executed” and one video shows just how.
Military officials themselves have explained that once shooting breaks out, there’s no telling what can happen and that, certainly, ordering a ceasefire is easier said than done. The question of secrecy vis a vis the ceasefire protocols is a big debate.
Accountability is the question that hangs heavy over the nation. There are, after all, reasons why it is called preventive suspension.
It is one thing to be ready to die for country (and expect your spouse, son, daughter, friend to die for country). It is one thing to be told lies by the men who order you to die for it.
No wonder a frustrated Catapang did the unthinkable: ask for a higher, independent body to probe the entire mess. No one has followed up what exactly he means by that.
For many soldiers, however, there is only one thing higher than the officials at whose pleasure they serve — the people.
(Next instalment: MILF in major credibility test)