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.