COMMENTARY: President Aquino’s Second Address on Mamasapano

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/07 Feb) — Today’s reading from Hebrews says: “Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their tasks with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17). The epistle which soars to the heights of discussing the theology of Jesus, the High Priest, comes here to very practical advice, which we may do well today to heed:

“Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account…”

Our democratic framework may suggest the contrary: that our leaders obey us, the people. The President has referred to the people as his bosses. But obeying his bosses may be exceedingly difficult when their voices rise noisily from the gut and are unmediated by reason, when they are divided and contradictory, when they are ruled by dark spirits of anger, hatred and violence. Then the President who respects his bosses has quietly to lead his bosses to truth, to hope, and to action that supports the welfare of all.

Path to Peace Not Easy to Tread

I think that’s what the President was striving to do last night in his second Address to the Nation occasioned by the Mamasapano tragedy. The mission to serve arrest warrants on Marwan and Usman is to be understood in the framework to secure the peace, where terrorism and terrorist have no place. “The path to peace is not easy to tread. Many Filipinos have given their lives in the fight against hose who wish for continued violence and discord.” Clearer than before, he was taking responsibility for what happened. “As President and Commander in Chief, I am fully responsible for any result – any triumph, any suffering, and any tragedy – that may result from lasting peace and security.” In this case, it was clearly a tragedy, even though the whole truth had yet to emerge.

He shared the weight of this responsibility. While the “operation against Marwan was successful,” a “triumph,” the cost of this triumph was heavy, the lives of 44 heroes from the Special Action Forces of the PNP. “I am the father of this country and 44 of my children were killed. They can no longer be brought back. This tragedy happened during my term, and I will carry this to the end of my days.”

It would have been more satisfying if “as father of the nation” he had also taken responsibility for the 19 Mamasapano warriors and 7 civilians killed in the same incident, Filipinos all, who look to him as father. They too were his responsibility. Their deaths, including the death of a child, he must carry to the end of his days.

But in last night’s address, moved by the voices of bosses of Luzon and the Visayas rather than close to Mindanao, he chose to address the grieving families of the men in uniform.

Rendering Accout

He gave an account of what happened. He spoke of three instances where the mission on the ground, different from the mission as planned, could have been aborted but was not, especially since “no coordination had taken place regarding expected assistance.”

He spoke the role General Alan Purisima, his personal relationship with him since the coup d’etat attempt of 1987, his pain at letting him go. The bosses had probably made that clear.

But contrary to shrill voices of other bosses calling for his resignation, as President and as Commander-in-Chief he was not throwing in the towel. “I fulfill, and I will continue to fulfill, my duties as a President.”

He would address the demoralization of the PNP, he would restore the good working relationship between the PNP and the AFP. He would complete the mission with the capture of Usman.

In the speech, he avoided speaking of the already officially disclosed distrust for the MILF that had shrouded the covert action, the fear that they might have tipped off Marwan and Usman. He did not apologize for failing to coordinate the Mamasapano police action with his “partners in peace” in Mindanao, despite the past agreements to do so. For this mistrust, perhaps silence was most appropriate.

Instead, he said that he would continue fulfilling his duties as President, and continue to pursue Usman. The words address directly to the MILF are strong but they are warm, recognizing anew a partnership in peace, which have costs in shared trust and shared action for peace. As they were addressed strongly to the MILF, so too were they being addressed to the nation, to recognize and support this partnership. Today, there is no other.

Words to MILF Partners-in-Peace

“To the members and leadership of the MILF: From the onset, I have considered you brothers on the path to peace. Until now, I am confident that you will help us in seeking justice; that those who have done wrong should be held to account, especially if it is confirmed that there were SAF troopers who were executed despite being wounded and defenseless. Your efforts to limit the movements of the BIFF are good first step.

“Now about Usman, let me point out the following: If he remains within your territory, or is protected by one of your members, we expect you to surrender him to the authorities. If not, we expect you to do everything you can to help capture him. And even if this is not possible, do not interfere with our pursuit of Usman.

“May this serve as a warning and a reminder: We will get Usman, whatever you decide, regardless of who provides a safe haven for them, regardless of where he may be hiding. Let no one doubt: We are partners in pursuing peace and justice. To those who have lost their way, who would still stand in our way, remember this. You are fighting the State, and we will run you over.”

Personally, considering the history of the central government to subdue the Muslim peoples, I would have preferred that the last line be deleted. I would have preferred emphasizing our shared aspirations rather than the rhetoric of conquest. Clearly here, however, he was not referring to the MILF nor to the Muslim population, but only to those standing in the way of peace and justice – and getting Usman.

Otherwise, the President was addressing the MILF as “brothers on the path to peace.” It is a fraternity that needs to be preserved on a path that is still an unfinished journey, obviously with pitfalls along the way. Not supporting the MILF and strengthening them in their commitment to peace and allegiance to the Filipino nation strengthens forces extremism in the BIFF that has pledged allegiance to a monolithic and violent Islamic State in Iran and Syria (ISIS).

To his brothers in peace, he addressed the apparent “overkill” of the SAF, even though the facts had yet to be ferreted out. Should this overkill be proven true, the President expressed his expectation for justice.

To his brothers in peace, he announced his resolve as President and Commander-in-Chief to get Usman. In this resolve, he expected full cooperation from his brothers in peace. After all, in the shared commitment to the Bangsamoro both sides yearn for a democratic community within the Philippines where the values of the Bangsamoro are respected and properity for its peoples can be gained. Among those values are the respect for life and property, the respect for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. In such a community, there is no room for the terrorist, whether he be Malaysian or Filipino, whether he be a worshipper in a local mosque or a member of a local clan. The President was making this clear despite bosses among minority groups of the MILF who may think otherwise.

Fight for a Widespread and Lasting Peace

Finally, the President said: “To all those working with us towards peace: We are fully committed to continuing the fight. … Let us all remain focused on our primary goal: a widespread and lasting peace.”

Here, to the call of the President towards the long term, common good, the appropriate response, even among his bosses, is obedience. In the end, the President takes full responsibility. That is a heavy responsibility. Paul’s words may then be helpful:

“Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their tasks with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17).   Here, our “leaders” are the President, the Congress, the Judiciary. But also the leaders of our partners-in-peace, the MILF. They must all “watch over us” for the long and short terms. In the end, they “will have to give and account” to the nation and to God. May their decisions flow not from frustration, depression and despair, but from the courage, hope, consolation and joy of God’s peace!

(Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ is president of the Ateneo de Davao University. He is also Vice President of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) and chair of its Advocacy Committee, and President of the CEAP in Region 11. MindaNews was granted permission to reprint this piece, first published in Fr. Tabora’s blog,