Eight shades of truth

Eight separate investigations have been launched to determine the truth behind the Mamasapano incident. They are likely to produce eight shades of truth, rather than one. This should not pose any problem—except to those who think of the truth as if it were something “out there,” waiting to be “ferreted out.” As I said in a previous column, I favor the pragmatist concept of truth as something that is made or constructed for a specific purpose.

There is only one Mamasapano incident, but many ways of looking at it. Some investigations, in their aspiration to produce the definitive account of what happened, may attempt to be as comprehensive as they can by focusing on a broad range of topics. But, rather than create a more complete picture, this attempt to aggregate different observational standpoints into a single vision may only bring out more blind spots.

So much expectation, for instance, has attended the much-awaited report on Mamasapano by the Philippine National Police’s board of inquiry (BOI). This heightens the temptation to cover all the questions that have been raised by various sectors of the public. The BOI would be well advised to avoid this pitfall by not thinking of itself as a truth commission. Its task, to my mind, is far narrower in scope: to review what happened from the perspective of the PNP’s mandate, norms, procedures and tactical protocols. It may draw lessons and recommend sanctions specific to the work of the police as an organization. But it is not its business to pronounce itself on political, legal, or policy questions that are outside its area of competence.

Legal questions properly belong to the Department of Justice, which is conducting a separate investigation. It is the DOJ’s function to determine the facts from a legal perspective, to ask what laws have been violated and by whom, and to file the appropriate charges. On the other hand, the investigation by the Commission on Human Rights looks specifically at possible violations of human rights standards and protocols that may have been committed by both state and nonstate actors. Apart from recommending the filing of charges, its main interest would be to formulate measures aimed at preventing the future occurrence of such abuses.

On top of these, the two chambers of Congress, as we know, initiated their own separate inquiries into this incident. The Senate completed its hearings, but the House, probably sensing its inability to rationalize its deliberations after one hearing, decided to suspend its investigation. These are supposed to be hearings in aid of legislation—meaning, their conduct is meant to guide the crafting or revision of laws and existing policies, not to determine guilt or assign culpability. But, given that the Senate and the House are autonomous political bodies, with a pronounced inclination to liberally interpret their “oversight” function, it is not easy in practice to delimit the scope of their inquiries. Not surprisingly, these sessions often take on the character of police investigations or of courtroom trials.

Interestingly, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front launched its own investigation of the Mamasapano encounter in the light of the fact that a large number of its troops had participated in that firefight. The MILF is struggling to maintain its credibility as a partner in a protracted peace process that is about to bear fruit. Its main interest, I imagine, would be to determine how the “misencounter” happened, which of its local commands were drawn into it, why, and what violations, if any, were committed by the various combatants in that unfortunate encounter. The results of the investigation may lead the MILF to sanction some of its warriors if only to show that it is in control of its troops. But, I don’t think it will agree to hand them over to the Philippine government for prosecution.

Separate reports, we are told, are also being prepared by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the International Monitoring Team (IMT) on the Peace Process. The AFP investigation will surely highlight the circumstances surrounding its inability to respond in a timely manner to the desperate pleas for reinforcement from the beleaguered Special Action Force troops. It will likely focus on the protocols governing the conduct of various types of military operations, as a way of showing the impossibility of acceding to the SAF request without the benefit of prior coordination.

Finally, the IMT report will probably zero in on the existing ceasefire agreement, how it was broken, and why it took time to restore it once it was breached at Mamasapano. It may focus on the complexities of managing the fragile conditions of peace in conflict situations, and draw lessons on what it would take to prevent more bloodshed from endangering the ongoing peace process. This kind of truth is no less important, but it may not merit much attention from those who are far from the field of battle.

To these eight shades of truth, one may now add President Aquino’s own—still a shade of gray to many, even after three speeches, because of its ambivalences and glosses. His third speech on the matter (which came as a lengthy reply to a question from the audience at a gathering of Christian evangelical church leaders in Malacañang), adds the least clarity to what has remained very much a clouded issue. The President seemed torn between taking ultimate responsibility for what government does or fails to do, and protecting himself from criminal liability. In any event, it was awkward to hear the Commander in Chief heap all the blame on a single police officer for lapses committed in a mission that he, the President himself, had reviewed and authorized.

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