To Save the BBL, the SAF-44 Had to Die

Vidal Erfe Querol was Philippine ambassador to Indonesia from 2007 to 2010. Before that, he led the Philippine National Police (PNP) National Capital Region command.

A batch mate of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in advanced military training in Fort Leavenworth, USA, he was also at one time top cop of the PNP Western Mindanao command. He was a young officer when, under heavy enemy fire he carried one of his wounded men a long way to safety, then wondered where he got the physical strength to do that. A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, he is tough as nails.

But when he saw on TV a clip showing a Moro fighter giving the coup de grace in cold blood to a wounded and helpless police commando in Mamasapano, he wept. The commando was twitching in his death throes when he took a bullet to the face.

Many other battle-hardened veterans of the fight against the Moro separatist rebellions also wept on seeing the videocast, which has gone viral. They say you don’t have to go to the Middle East to experience the kind of brutality being wreaked by the Islamic State. You only have to go to certain parts of Mindanao.

The video is being analyzed by the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation as probable evidence in a future legal action. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) denies that the perpetrator of the atrocity on is one of its fighters. It cites that it lost 18 of its fighters in that encounter.

At any rate, Querol says, when the encounter between the SAF and the MILF-BIFF was at its height on 25 January, the Philippine leadership had to make a choice—between the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and the lives of the SAF commandos. The quick entry of a large military force to retrieve the SAF commandos trapped in Mamasapano would have aborted the passage of the BBL. That, in turn, would have killed the peace process between the government the MILF.

Apparently the leadership took the option of preserving the BBL at the cost of SAF lives.

Soldiers are always ready to die, says Querol. But when they’re face-to-face with death, they shouldn’t feel abandoned by their leaders. I add: they shouldn’t be made to feel that their lives are being traded for political objectives that are still debatable as to their worth in terms of the country’s welfare.

For in its present form and as understood by thoughtful observers, the BBL needs a lot of retouching before it can withstand various challenges to its constitutionality. It needs some repair before all stakeholders can feel it meets their needs.

It may not be possible to pass a BBL that satisfies all the aspirations of all stakeholders. But at the very least, no group of stakeholders should feel completely left out. Or else it will be the source of new conflict, new bloodshed. And at the very least, when it becomes law, there should be no way the Supreme Court can strike it down as unconstitutional.

On the other hand, you can tweak the BBL to make it Constitution-friendly only to see the MILF reject it as “watered-down.” Thus in working on the BBL, legislators will have to do a very delicate tightrope act.

That’s one big problem. Another is the trust deficit that has gaped wider as a consequence of the Mamasapano encounter. The war freaks are having a holiday shouting, “You just can’t trust the MILF.” It doesn’t help that at this writing the MILF hasn’t returned the equipment and effects that its fighters took from the dead commandos.

Meanwhile, Vidal Querol, at one time police commander of Western Mindanao, can only shake his head in woe and disbelief.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Truth Also a Casualty in Mindanao “Mis-encounter”

Here I am in Jakarta, away from the battle site of Mamasapano in Southern Philippines, where 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) were killed in the morning of 25 January.

Yet I’ve a source who told me yesterday that he was persuading a friend to share with us a video clip taken by a person on the side of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The clip, he said, showed some of the slain on the SAF side were unmistakably Caucasian.

I didn’t think much of this until hours ago when I read a banner story of the Manila Times written by its chairman emeritus Dr. Dante Ang. The burden of the piece is that in the Mamasapano raid, codenamed Operation Wolverine, the main protagonists were American agents out to get the Malaysian terrorist Marwan and the BIFF leader Abdulbasit Usman. The PNP-SAF commandos were only security escorts to the agents.

According to Ang’s unnamed informant, the Americans and their PNP-SAF escorts were allowed into Mamasapano on a deal with the MILF involving the peso equivalent of the combined bounties for the heads of Marwan and Usman, $6 million. The US agents made a downpayment of P60 million (about $1.3 million) but before the mission could be completed, the MILF demanded the balance of the bounties.

The agents couldn’t produce the money. There was an altercation, followed by a gunfight, then a rout. All the while, according to the informant, President Aquino and suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima were monitoring the battle at the US Drone Center in Zamboanga. Somebody in the field, presumably a military officer, radioed for permission to enter the fray and reinforce the embattled policemen.

Aquino himself allegedly responded, “Negative, negative. Stand down.” He was afraid if the army came to the rescue in force, the peace process between the government and the MILF would unravel. And so the SAF cops weren’t reinforced and they lost 44 men.

That’s one of the more interesting stories going around on the Mamasapano carnage. On its basis, many Filipinos are calling for Aquino’s resignation.

Purisima has an alibi. When he was allegedly at the US Drone Center he was actually elsewhere fulfilling a speaking engagement. But asked on the presence of American agents, he was reportedly evasive, saying only that those were matters of high security.

The SAF commander on the ground at one time claimed that his men were never reinforced by the military. The army, he said, had balked in view of the ceasefire between the government and the MILF.

Not so, says the official report of the military. Reinforcements were sent in immediately on request, even if the request came late, when the SAF was already getting battered. The military report also directly contradicts the Manila Times story.

Then finally, late last week, President Aquino assumed command responsibility for the Mamasapano carnage. “As President and Commander-in-Chief,” he said, “I bear responsibility for whatever victory, suffering or tragedy we may get in our desire to achieve long-term security and peace.”

Scoff Aquino’s critics: he owns the botched operation now because there’s a “victory” to take credit for. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has announced that DNA analysis of the finger taken from a man the SAF killed in Mamasapano proved that he was indeed the once slippery Marwan. His death trumps the loss of SAF44?

Meanwhile, conflicting stories fly about. Which is the truth?

Well, in a few weeks some 80 million Catholic Filipinos will be observing Holy Week and once more they’ll recall the story of Jesus in conversation with Pilate. When Jesus said that he came to attest to the truth, Pilate sneered: “What is truth?”

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

“Mis-encounter” kills 44 cops but peace process survives

In the wake of the “mis-encounter” in the normally sleepy town of Mamasapano in Central Mindanao in the Philippines, where 44 elite policemen lost their lives, former President Fidel V. Ramos says there shouldn’t be finger-pointing among government officials, and there should be no stopping the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will establish the new autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao.

He may well add: there shouldn’t be washing of hands. President Benigno Aquino III has delivered a speech distancing himself from the manner the debacle took place.

Still highly respected by his countrymen, the former president fears, as do many, that the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will be among the casualties of the Mamasapano massacre.

In the night of last 24 January 392 policemen of the Special Action Force (SAF) entered Mamasapano to serve an arrest warrant to two terrorists: Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, a Malaysian, and Abdulbasit Usman, a Filipino. Held responsible for a series of bombings in Mindanao, both have links to Jemaah Islamiyah. Marwan figured in the Bali bombings of 2002.

Mamasapano is a stronghold of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which broke away from the MILF because, insisting on its secessionist aims, it opposed the peace process. The government has a ceasefire agreement with the MILF but not with the BIFF.

The police claim that once inside Mamasapano, the SAF killed Marwan in the instant shootout with the BIFF, but Usman escaped. As the SAF withdrew from the site, they were surrounded by MILF regulars. In the ensuing “mis-encounter” the SAF blocking team was wiped out.

The 6th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army is based just a few kilometers away, but they couldn’t help much because apparently they were notified of the operation when the SAF was already under attack. So secret was the operation that even the secretary of the interior and the acting chief of national police weren’t informed of it beforehand.

The more I look at the reportage on the “mis-encounter” the more I’m convinced it’s a bungled copycat of Operation Neptune Spear, the US Navy seals’ surgical strike that got Osama bin Laden. Marwan, with a $5 million prize on his head, has become the poor man’s Osama bin Laden.

According to an unnamed police general, the entire operation was directly supervised by suspended national police chief Alan Purisima. He ran operations “incognito” from national police headquarters, reporting only to President Aquino and Executive Secretary Francisco Ochoa, although he was serving a preventive suspension on charges of graft.

Aquino flew to Zamboanga City on the day before the “mis-encounter,” so that, according to the police general, he’d be nearby to receive the captured Marwan and Usman, assuming the operation would be successful. Well, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

The important thing now is that the peace process survives. Last week government and MILF negotiators met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and agreed on the details of the decommissioning of MILF arms and forces once the BBL is in effect.

The government should indeed ensure the passage of the BBL, but the legislative process must not be rushed. The Aquino-dominated Congress must see to it that once passed and implemented, the law will survive the inevitable constitutional challenge. It’s much more sensible to amend a bill to fit the constitution than to amend the constitution to accommodate a defective law.

For if the BBL became law only to be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, peace in Muslim Mindanao would recede even farther out of reach.

The long list of casualties, which now includes the 44 policemen who died in Mamasapano, could grow much longer.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio