Lighting our way to justice

“Justice!” was the collective call of the families and comrades of the 44 Philippine National Police-Special Action Force commandos who were slain in that lopsided encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last Jan. 25. This is not the kind of cry that is commonly heard from the ranks of policemen and soldiers whose job, unlike that of other professionals, entails putting their lives daily on the line. What could this word possibly mean then when it is uttered in the context of an encounter with rebel forces and private armed groups operating outside the ambit of the law?

In its ordinary sense, I suppose it means “Go after those who did this until they are captured and punished, or killed.” In the face of a grievous event like this, however, such a call can have other meanings. It could be a demand to know if the operation was thoroughly and competently planned and reviewed before it was carried out, whether there were lapses in the execution, or whether the officials in charge had recklessly put their men in harm’s way. Was it a “mission impossible,” as one of the slain troopers supposedly told his wife?

It is a demand to know exactly what happened.

President Aquino appears to understand the various nuances of this call for justice. “I pledge to bring justice to all those who were killed,” he told the gathered kin of the slain police officers during the necrological service. He has formed a board of inquiry to determine if there were operational lapses in the planning and conduct of the predawn raid whose objective was to capture two terrorists, Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Basit Usman. Given that the PNP-SAF has claimed killing Marwan, the President ordered government security forces to persist in the pursuit of Usman. In the meantime, he has also relieved the SAF commander who directed the botched operation, Director Getulio Napeñas, ostensibly for failing to coordinate with the military for support.

These responses by the nation’s highest political leader should have appeased the sadness and outrage with which the Filipino people in general have greeted this tragedy. Yet, that is not the sense we are getting. Amid the anger and the grief and the search for answers, a vague uneasiness has seized the public. I think it springs from the awareness that all this has happened while the peace negotiations in Mindanao are about to yield fruit in the form of a new Bangsamoro Basic Law. This irony assails us no end. Suddenly, the powerful idea of a just and enduring peace in Mindanao is unable to find a home in our hearts.

And so, from the simple quest for justice for the fallen policemen, we find ourselves asking questions for which there have been no clear answers. The 44 lawmen who were cornered in an open cornfield in the village of Tukanalipao after carrying out their mission in a nearby community were killed by heavily armed men in an area controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. That they were members of the MILF or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters or plain private armies is not as important as knowing that the area in which the massacre took place was supposed to be MILF territory. If the government and the MILF are truly partners in the peace effort, how can an incident of this scale possibly happen?

Calling it a “misencounter” seems judicious and polite, but it flies in the face of the bare facts. In military parlance, the term is understood as an accidental confrontation between two friendly forces. The realization that they should not be firing at one another typically happens quickly after the two forces are able to ascertain each other’s identity. In this incident, the firing stopped only after six hours. The rebels knew they were firing upon government forces. If they were MILF troops, why did they keep firing? What did the MILF leadership do to stop the encounter? And, what was international terrorist Marwan doing in MILF territory? These are questions that the MILF needs to answer in a credible way if it is to find sympathy in the hearts of a grieving nation.

But, perhaps, the most difficult questions have to be addressed by the President himself.

He has admitted knowing of the Jan. 25 operation against Marwan and Usman before it was carried out, and, clearly, he had approved it. He says—quite vaguely, in my view—that he is disappointed that Director Napeñas did not fully comply with his order about ensuring coordination. Did his reminders to Napeñas include coordinating with the MILF leadership, as required by the operational guidelines of the General Cessation of Hostilities document signed by the government and the MILF?

As head of the government that has invested much effort over many years to arrive at a comprehensive peace agreement with the MILF, and is now in the crucial stage of institutionalizing this agreement into a law, shouldn’t he be more circumspect in authorizing hot-pursuit operations in MILF communities even against high-value targets?

Perhaps the hardest question of all: If today wanted terrorists like Marwan and Usman, who have caused so many deaths with the bombs they make, can live undisturbed in MILF territory, what assurance do we have that they will not continue to do so more freely under an autonomous Bangsamoro state?

We need sobriety to be able to discuss these issues rationally. But, we also need to be told the truth to be able to find our way to justice. In this time of overwhelming gloom and anger over what happened, to ask for unwavering public support for the Bangsamoro Basic Law without offering answers is to court a strong negative reaction to its passage.

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