Mamasapano: Misencounter or massacre?

The report on the Senate Report on the Mamasapano Incident has predictably zeroed in on the finding that President Aquino “bears responsibility” for what happened on Jan. 25. Given our general obsession with presidential lapses, this focus is understandable. But, for those who are concerned with the future of the peace process in Mindanao, the Senate’s characterization of the incident is of far greater importance. The Senate Report calls it a “massacre”—a mass murder, not an encounter or a misencounter.

The very first item in the executive summary reads thus: “The concerned members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other armed groups murdered and robbed the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF) Commandos.”

The unfortunate use of the “M” word in this context has far-reaching consequences. If Mamasapano was a mass murder, then the government has the duty to hunt down the killers and bring them to justice. Whether or not they acted in self-defense (the Senate rejects this contention), the Mamasapano killers must be made answerable for this heinous crime. As the government’s chosen peace partner, the MILF must surrender its members who participated in this carnage. To refuse to do so would be to protect the killers in its ranks, and there is no point in negotiating with killers who aspire to assume the reins of government in Mindanao.

The Senate Report emphatically tells the government peace panel to pursue peace with justice. There is an unmistakable subtext to this reminder, and it comes in the form of a rhetorical question: “Should the government continue to deal with the MILF which refuses to submit the findings of its internal investigations into the incident or disclose the identities of those involved in the massacre?”

It will be recalled that in the first few days following the incident, the government used the nonjudgmental word “misencounter,” which I took as a gesture of good faith. In the middle of a crucial stage in the peace negotiations, the last thing that the government and the MILF peace panels needed to manage a crisis of this nature was to rush to judgment. Clearly, whether they were legally binding or not, some tacit understandings about preserving the peace in contested areas had been violated. But everyone was careful not to inflame passions on both sides. I thought this was an admirable beginning, signaling as it did the kind of maturity needed to preserve any peace accord.

Public perception, however, changed dramatically when reports began to surface that many of the SAF troopers had been killed at close range and their bodies looted and desecrated. At once, the picture of a one-sided bloodbath—the local term used for this phenomenon is “pintakasi,” the blind coming together of disparate elements to perform the slaughter of intruders—began to take hold of the public mind. The horror and anger that followed in the wake of this revelation blended with the grief of the SAF widows to form a potent emotional mix that has since refused to be appeased.

I can personally attest to the astonishing power of this collective reckoning. In the second column I wrote on Mamasapano (“Lighting our way to justice,” Inquirer, 2/1/15), I myself employed the term “massacre” to refer to the incident, totally unmindful of the conceptual track in which the word was embedded. A friend called my attention to this, wondering if I had changed my perception of the events. I had not, of course. But now I think there is a need to state the contrary view of these events more sharply.

I believe the government has found itself caught between two policy imperatives: on one hand, the quest for the peaceful resolution of longstanding social conflicts, and, on the other, the global campaign against terrorists. These two programs belong to two entirely different systems of thought, producing courses of action where, often, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.

For over a decade since 2001, security personnel from the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines have joined hands with the Armed Forces of the Philippines on the antiterrorist program mainly to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf. Later, the police, through its SAF, became an active part of this program. What should have been a joint effort between the AFP and the PNP soon became a rivalry between two branches of the nation’s security forces that seemed to trust their American advisers more than they did each other.

The SAF mission in Mamasapano was marked by a total disregard for the peace mechanisms that were in place all over Muslim Mindanao as a result of the peace talks with the MILF. Oplan Exodus tagged the MILF communities that lay on the path of the assault and blocking teams as “enemies” or “hostiles,” ignoring the fact that the government had agreed to respect their armed presence in these communities while the peace negotiations were ongoing. But the mission to get Marwan and Usman trumped all these agreements.

In retrospect, I believe it was suicidal for the SAF to have entered Mamasapano without coordinating with the AFP and informing the joint committee for the cessation of hostilities beforehand. I also think the MILF forces lost all reason when they brutally overreacted to the presence of the SAF in their area. It was an unfortunate encounter between two forces that for two years had resolutely avoided clashing with one another. Still, I would be very hesitant to call it a massacre. Even as we cannot avoid assigning blame, we need to look beyond this debacle, and find less emotive terms to be able to forge the enduring peace that our nation deserves.

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