Published on March 24, 2015.
I think highly of Sen. Grace Poe, and have suggested in an earlier column that she should not be dissuaded from running for president next year, in the same way that Jaime Cardinal Sin dissuaded Sen. Gloria Arroyo from contesting the presidency in 1998. But the Senate report on the Mamasapano incident Poe shepherded is disappointingly political.
Instead of politics understood as the art of the possible, the politics both implied and asserted in the Poe report is the entitlement of the privileged: the view of the center, in this case truly deserving of the insult “Imperial Manila”; the view of the toniest, most select branch of the political class (where politicians acquire their knowledge of combat through the painstaking process of movie-watching); and, not least, the view of the surviving kin of the 44 police Special Action Force troopers who died in Mamasapano (not those of the civilians who died in the crossfire, nor those of the 120,000 who perished in the “Mindanao conflict” since the 1970s).
This is a report that makes room for the viewpoints of most senators, but sadly allows very little room for the fate of innocents. I respect the discipline and courage and ultimate sacrifice of the Philippine National Police’s elite troopers, but I cannot subscribe to the unexamined assumption of Poe and her fellow senators that they were lambs led to the slaughter.
I do not mean to suggest that we can find nothing useful in the report, only that we have to read it carefully to separate the factual finding from the emotional assertion, the reality from the rhetoric. Let me focus on one particular conclusion.
“What happened in Mamasapano on 25 January 2015 was a massacre, not a misencounter.”
This conclusion is immediately followed by a summary statement: “The gory details, the overkill reactions of the combined groups of BIFF [Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters], MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] and PAGs [private armed groups] as indicated in their massive and heavy firing all point to massacre.”
Actually, no. The details are certainly gory, but—indicative of the lenient character of the report, which allowed almost all viewpoints and interpretations—the details the report includes lead to contradictory conclusions: gunshots to the head, but also crushed skulls because of heavy weapons fire, even the use of mortars. Instead of offering a clinical description of which troopers died from a gunshot to the head, which from heavy weapons, which from mortar fire, the report simply sweeps everything under the label “massacre.” The word is a political statement, not a finding of fact.
Two paragraphs later, we read: “The Seaborne and the 55th SAC effectively walked into a trap. There was nowhere they could go because their escape routes were fully covered by the gunfire of the enemy.” The assumption the report makes at this point is that both the raiding team and the blocking force were ambushed; in another part of the report, we read that the operation was badly planned and executed. If it was badly planned, then the troopers walked into a trap of their own making, or at least their commanders’. But the report is content to blame the MILF in one part, and the SAF in another.
The paragraph that follows is even more problematic; it claims that the “particulars of the grim tragedy were revealed when the public saw the video of the shootings of the PNP-SAF commandos by the MILF. In the video, an alleged MILF member executed hapless PNP-SAF men while they lay on the ground, injured and unable to move.” That video was truly upsetting, and showed us the barbarity of the executioners. But the report does not show what time the video was taken, and during which part of the day-long encounter the execution occurred. How many of the troopers were dead by then—and, more to the point of the courage of the SAF troopers—how many of the 17 MILF casualties had already fallen by then?
The report also declares: “The use of high-powered firearms, the .50-caliber Barrett Sniper Rifles, indicated that what happened was a massacre. The said firearms are so powerful that it crushed the skulls of the fallen troopers. The utilization of mortars by the hostile forces added to the ghastliness of their murderous behavior.” The details are gory, but the conclusion is cinema-derived.
I applaud Commission on Human Rights chair Etta Rosales for responding to the Poe report, thus: “The mere use of high-powered firearms and mortars does not automatically equate to cruelty, inasmuch as it was not clearly established who, between the MILF and BIFF, used what. Moreover, this characterization also overlooks the fact that the SAF were armed, albeit outgunned. In other words, although their situation was dire, the SAF were not necessarily ‘helpless or unresisting’.”
One more thing. The report concluded that the MILF could not have acted in self-defense, “because of the absence of the element of unlawful aggression on the part of the troopers of the 55th SAC, or all of the PNP-SAF troopers for that matter. The troopers were stationary at the cornfield.” In its attempt to paint the 44 troopers as victims, the report forgets what made them heroes: They may have been “stationary,” but they were firing back.