Column: What is Aquino accountable for?

Published on February 3, 2015.

The powerful statement issued by the Ateneo de Davao University has rightly been seen as an impassioned, compelling plea to “return to the work of peace.” That work has never been easy; the lessons learned from the secretive negotiations over the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, which doomed that peace initiative, have added to the difficulty. (Those who claim that the negotiations that led to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro and its four Annexes were not sufficiently consultative have an unreasonable definition of sufficiency, or consultation, or both.)

I must say, however, that I am uncertain whether I can agree with an important premise of the statement’s. The following question it raises is a loaded one: “Does the suspected presence of a terrorist wanted by the United States warrant that we break our agreements with the MILF?” This was unfortunately phrased, because in fact the Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli bin Hir better known as Marwan was also a threat to the Philippines, and was therefore wanted by the Philippine government too, with at least two arrest warrants against him. Yes, the $5-million bounty on his head (I cannot find the source of the information that this had been raised to $6 million) was part of the US State Department’s controversial Rewards for Justice program. But as the officer in charge of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police attests, stopping Marwan was worth the sacrifice of 44 SAF troopers, because the number of lives saved from future terrorist attacks would have been greater. He was talking about Filipino lives.

The problematic premise is the concept of unnecessary violence. “Why did we again take the path of guns and violence and covert secret action to solve any problem, when we had already chosen, we had already agreed, that we would take the path of negotiation, consultation and trust to solve problems?” The answer, it seems to me, is that Marwan and the Jemaah Islamiyah are not parties to the peace process.

My (narrow) point is this: If a security threat is located with “actionable intelligence” even within Moro Islamic Liberation Front territory (and the MILF says Marwan was never with them), it is a judgment call of the commander in chief whether to act on that intelligence or not. If Marwan had been arrested or killed, and the SAF troopers had been successfully extricated, where would we be? The MILF would protest the action—but it will not be mourning the deaths of 14 of its men, or bearing a great part of the responsibility for the deaths of 44 troopers.

As more information emerges, it is becoming clearer that Oplan Wolverine was not designed to succeed. It is this failure that President Aquino and his subordinates who planned and approved the operation should be held accountable for, not the judgment call itself. That call is part of the right of a sovereign state—the only institution authorized to access the means of violence—to protect itself.

This leads us to the next question: Why did the Aquino administration decide not to advise the MILF beforehand? The 1997 preliminary agreement with the MILF requires “prior coordination” before launching “police and military actions.” Again, as more information emerges, it is becoming clearer that two previous attempts to arrest or kill Marwan had failed, possibly because the advantage the Philippine Army says it has, its tested linkages with the MILF, may have turned into a disadvantage.

The issue, fundamentally, is trust. On the matter of Marwan, it seems reasonable to argue that the Aquino administration did not trust the leaders of the MILF. It may have something to do with the area where Marwan was sighted: In territory controlled by the MILF’s 105th Base Command AND the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. (For some members of the military, there is no real difference between the two.) For this decision not to coordinate with the MILF (and, until it was too late, with the Philippine Army), and therefore raising the risks of the entire operation, President Aquino and his subordinates who planned and approved the operation should also be held accountable.

I share the view of many that Mr. Aquino should have been at Villamor Airbase when 42 of the 44 slain troopers were returned to Manila. Nobody volunteered to call him “Ama ng Bayan,” or the Father of the Nation, but it is a title, a responsibility, he has himself embraced. If for that alone, he should have been at the tarmac, to receive the bodies of the sons he had sent into battle.

But his failure to show up at the base (already foreshadowed in his much-too-defensive speech aired on national television the night before, and confirmed in his less-than-empathetic eulogy at Camp Bagong Diwa on Friday) is not something we can legally hold him to account; rather, it is his failure to ensure that the necessary exercise of violence that he had approved or encouraged or welcomed came with the equally necessary support.

Accountability will honor the sacrifice of the 44 SAF troopers—as well as that of the 14 MILF regulars and the four civilians who died in Mamasapano.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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