Column: The other face of Mamasapano

Published on April 7, 2015.

IN THE first two months after the Mamasapano incident, the “face” of the encounter was a collective: The SAF 44. The tragic fate of the 44 Special Action Force troopers who perished in the cornfields of Mamasapano became the main narrative; suave opportunists like Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano and born-again politicians like Rafael Alunan rode the public outrage over the “massacre” of the elite policemen, to take direct aim at the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. A TV network even used a hashtag that sought #truthforthefallen44—as though truth were like justice, and took sides.

(The Inquirer online published a special site mere days after the incident, when facts were still unclear and passions were high; we named the site Tagaligtas or The Rescuers, after the SAF. But recognizing that much more must have happened in Maguindanao, the editors behind the site gave it a neutral URL: All sorts of stories on Mamasapano may be found in it.)

For some reason, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which lost 17 regulars in the encounter and its aftermath, proved reluctant to provide the names and details behind that single statistic. Last February, in Camp Darapanan, the main MILF camp, I had a fleeting chance to ask Vice Chair for Political Affairs Ghadzali Jaafar for the list of names, and he brushed off the request. He said the details were the responsibility of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), not his. I took that to mean that naming the dead was not a political task.

Since the MILF’s Special Investigative Commission released its “Report on the Mamasapano Incident” in late March, however, the names, faces and main details of the 17 MILF members, as well as those of the three civilians killed that weekend, are now in the public domain. We now know that of the 17 MILF dead, four were confirmed killed the day after the encounter, in an apparent act of revenge by the lone survivor of the 55th Special Action Company. We can now identify the 25 other MILF regulars who sustained wounds during the encounter with the 55th. We can now intuit that the farmer Badrudin Langalen may have died in the encounter site itself; the subject of an early story in the Inquirer, Langalen was found hog-tied—and the MILF report (this is my own interpretation) does not disallow the possibility that he could have been killed by its own fire.

The MILF report, then, can be distinguished from those of the Philippine National Police’s board of inquiry and of the Senate because it provides us the other face of Mamasapano. Indeed, the cover page of the MILF report shows two pictures of the dead Langalen and the now-iconic wooden footbridge at Tukanalipao, in Mamasapano.

I do not know what would have happened if the MILF had shared the names, the pictures and the details of the dead soon after the incident; I doubt if it would have eased the public revulsion over the SAF 44, but would it have stayed the hand of those senators who can count only up to 44 Filipinos dead in Mamasapano? Would it have softened the blow of the release of the video showing the execution of a wounded, unarmed trooper? Perhaps not, but the faces of the MILF rebels and the civilians who died in Mamasapano, including eight-year-old Sarah Tot, should have been a part of the narrative from the start—if only to prevent the easy transmutation of the Muslim dead (to add to the two Muslim members of the SAF) into the faceless, nameless Other.

As a bureaucratic document, the work of a committee, the MILF report is an essay in defensiveness. But as a social document, the product of a specific community in a particular time, the report is an instructive read. Let me highlight two of the many passages which struck me.

“Sitio Amilil, which is around 825 meters away from the community where these BIAF members live, is a place where forces of BIAF’s 105th Base Command (105BC) usually go whenever they fear or learn of an impending attack on their community. This way, any firefight would not happen in the communities where they live, and civilians would not be directly affected by any armed encounter.” In guerrilla warfare, the object is control (and support) of the population, not territory. The fact that the regulars rushed to the sitio defends the MILF from the accusation that it ambushed the SAF, but it also highlights the essential difference between government forces and rebels.

Easily the most controversial of the many assertions in the report is the observation that the surviving troopers of the 55th used the bodies of their dead as a shield. “The MILF men saw that some of the 55SAC men’s bodies were found underneath one another as if purposely piled. They noticed that the dead bodies sustained multiple gunshot wounds. They realized later from the position of the dead bodies and the number of wounds of some of the 55SAC that some of them had used the bodies of their dead comrades as shield during the intense fighting.” This is meant (I would make a guess) to defuse the accusation that the MILF had mutilated the troopers’ bodies, but of all the many references and allusions to the code of the warrior, this is the most pointed—and demands a specific, forensic-based response from the PNP.

The report takes pains to show that the MILF had left the scene of the encounter by 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 25, and that the houses of SAF targets Marwan and Usman were kilometers away from MILF territory. The first underscores the rebel group’s assertion that its men were not involved in the execution caught on video; the second that the MILF did not coddle the bombmakers. The report offers specific evidence; I do not know whether (for instance) the temporary nature of Marwan’s hut proves what the MILF says it proves, but at least the evidence is there to be contradicted, by science and not by rhetoric.


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