COMMENTARY: More than anything, it’s now government’s call

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/25 October) — The state will hunt them down.

That’s what the President promised the bereaved kin of the slain soldiers last Friday. Stopping late at night at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, Mr. Aquino said he would hunt down the killers and those harboring them. “I make no promises that this will be done tomorrow or the day after, in 24 hours or 48 hours. That’s not my style. But I guarantee that the state will hunt them down, and it will get them,” he warned.

Mr. Aquino’s stern remarks were understandable, to say the least, uttered just three days after the ambush-killing of 19 Army soldiers in Al-Barka, Basilan by fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Barely 24 hours before the President’s convoy arrived at the Libingan, suspected members of the MILF, which has been in on-and-off talks with the government over the last ten years or so, again ambushed patrolling government troops in Barangay Gulayon, Alicia, Zamboanga Sibugay. Eight soldiers died in the surprise attack.

Perhaps it behooves others to examine what really happened in Al-Barka, which is eerily the site of yet another brutality in 2007, when an alleged composite band of Islamic militants massacred 14 Marines, beheading 11 of them. The soldiers claimed they were acting on a tip in search of then kidnapped Italian priest, Giancarlo Bossi.

Then, as now, were our armed forces not completely blameless? The President hinted at this when he reportedly emerged “dismayed” from a command conference at Camp Aguinaldo last Friday, hours before motoring to the Libingan ng mga Bayani. By weekend, he’d fired the Army’s spokesperson, Antonio Parlade, Jr., for publicly belittling the ceasefire with the rebels. Another official was sacked for “operational lapses.”

As it was in the 2007 bloodbath, so it is now when the MILF is blaming government troops of straying into its camp without proper coordination. The Army denies this. “The encounter took place outside of the MILF’s area of temporary stay,” insists Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, one of the military’s more credible, “dovish” officials and now head of the Western Mindanao Command.

Yet, beyond the confusion of accusations and innuendoes, and beneath the tome of ceasefire agreements and territorial accords, what matters most is that government responds quickly and, more importantly, correctly.

In 2007, I was serving as communications counselor to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. My chief function then was working closely with the GRP Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (GRP-CCCH), then chaired by BGen. Edgardo Gurrea. When the massacre and beheading happened on July 10, emotions ran high and fear gripped many. But in less than a week, Gurrea’s hardnosed team completed a Confidential Report that detailed areas of investigation and specific recommendations.

Not long after, Gurrea and his MILF counterpart, Von Al Haq, formalized a joint resolution in Cotabato City calling on both sides to “observe maximum restraint,” particularly in view of the “charges and counter-charges between GRP and MILF spokespersons on ceasefire violations.” The resolution also called for the establishment of a Joint Fact Finding Committee “in order to determine the proximate cause of the incident, possible violations to the ceasefire agreements, pinpoint persons responsible for acts of atrocities, and recommend measures to prevent their occurrence.”

Within 24 hours, the Joint Resolution and our accompanying press bulletin were quoted in news websites. ABS-CBN captioned its story, “MILF to forces: Exercise maximum restraint.” BusinessWorld followed with “’Maximum restraint’ to be observed by military, Moro rebels (Fact-finding mission to investigate deadly Basilan clash that killed 14 Marines).”

Perhaps something may be said of Mr. Aquino, who had taken the proverbial bull by the horns in coming out publicly to denounce the incident. Such style is uniquely his, testing protocol norms that alternately endear him to some and disaffect him from others. Still, “presidential” or not, he had stood his ground to protect the peace process, even as he vowed to seek justice for the slain soldiers.

This brings us to the question on what the other public offices are doing. For even before the President was reported to have said anything about the Al-Barka incident, the chairman of the Senate committee on peace and reconciliation, Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, urged the GRP-CCCH and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, another ceasefire mechanism, to “act quickly to defuse tension.” I am no longer privy to the operations of the GRP-CCCH, but I would hope that, as it was four years ago, it tackles the crisis with a resolve beyond reproach.

Lastly, I believe that, although the President has declared an “all-out justice” for the fallen soldiers, he must follow this through with results. Less than a month after the 2007 beheadings, the Joint Fact-Finding Committee named four members of the Abu Sayyaf to have been part of the crime. However, to my knowledge, only one of the suspects was apprehended. And he eventually escaped from the Basilan Provincial Jail in 2009.

Mr. Aquino must do more than that. (Mr. Gomez serves as communications adviser for the public and private sectors. He lives in Davao City.)

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