Ay, Gregorio Pio

A-Tapang A-Tao…

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/27 Feb) — The Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff’s ill-timed, ill-advised declaration of all-out war against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) at noon on Freedom Day (February 25) was enough to make me weep.

Since this man was ushered into this sensitive post unabashedly and unapologetically on the strength of his previous service to President’s family, I had held my tongue and given him the benefit of the doubt. Since he took office, I had turned a blind eye to his hilarious tangles with the Defense Press Corps and his balat sibuyas reaction to criticism every time he suffers another bout of foot-in-the-mouth disease. Yes, like all the rest of us, in the age of the IPSP (Internal Peace and Security Plan), I had gotten used to having a CSAFP who was media-savvy yet sincere. But while this current one is a disappointment, I have been told that name-calling is an all time low.

I bit my tongue when in an effort to do damage control on the President’s waning popularity, A-Tapang A-Tao owned up on the front page of national dailies that the military “did not coordinate” with the PNP Special Action Force for the execution of the ill-fated Oplan Exodus. The CSAFP post obviously demands loyalty.

And I had to forgive the writer for his irresponsible, attention-grabbing headline. The man did say that the military did not coordinate even though the President gave some vague instruction to that effect in the hazy past. Early morning on January 25, the military did not coordinate indeed. That’s because the 6th Infantry Division did not even know Oplan Exodus was going down in its area of responsibility.

A-Tapang A-Tao and all the President’s Kabarilan, Kaibigan at Kamag-anak may want to split hairs about who should have done the initial coordination, but in my opinion it’s clear that if you want to come and play in my cornfield, you’d better let me know or I wouldn’t be responsible for what happens to you. And don’t you dare say just fire on my position. Go play soldier somewhere else.

Hindi ho ito usapang lasing.

But back to A-Tapang A-Tao. He is great copy for reasons other than how he hopes to be remembered for posterity. He should resign and bring his media handler with him. That, or hire a social psychologist.

Just about when he was declaring war on Freedom Day, we were on our way home from a relief run to Barangay Inug-ug in Pikit, North Cotabato where close to 2,000 evacuees had sought refuge after the Freedom – as how the IDPs called the BIFF – occupied their villages. This was our second visit in the last week.

A few days back, we had come down here too to assess how village officials could be assisted while the disaster response council was still meeting on the scope of work presented by the sheer number of the displaced. It had been up to 25,000 on February 19.

On February 22, we went to Barangay Inug-ug and found that 10 families were staying at the barangay hall, 40 were in the productivity center, and 86 were in the Darusalam mosque near the boundary of Barangay Rajah Muda. About 250 families were either staying with relatives or had pitched camp on the riverbank where they could watch the boats that had carried them to safety.

They came from the villages that saw intense armed conflict in 1997, 2000, 2003, 2008, and again this month. Three, three, five, six… Like a variation of the Fibonacci sequence, it does stretch the time between the years that war visited these villages. In our lifetime we hope to see the incidence of intense armed conflict tapering off to nothingness.

But maybe not when some A-Tapang A-Tao declares on national TV that much dreaded word: War. All-out war, he said.

Last week, talking to the soldiers of the Eastern Mindanao Command, I had touched on the importance of conflict-sensitive language. What it means is that when a soldier – and especially when the Chief of Staff of the AFP – declares war, it brings with it real images that strike fear in the hearts of unarmed civilians who had lived through it.

That’s why it’s easy for Allan Peter Cayetano to call for war. He’s never lived through one.

But no one who has lived through bullets whizzing by and bombs exploding in one’s backyard is ever going to call for war. Safely ensconced in Imperial Manila, Allan Peter Cayetano and A-Tapang A-Tao should know that this is what they wish on people when they declare war in any part of Mindanao. War in these places is never only between soldiers and their enemies. It is always about the civilians who are trapped in the middle.

On the 22nd, I had gone to Carmen to see Colonel Noel Clement, commander of the 602nd Infantry Brigade. What he allowed himself to tell me – because he did not tell me that even as we spoke, he had 500 of his troops operating in coordination with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to clear these villages – assured me that perhaps before this week ended, it would be safe for the IDPs to head home.

War was over.

I had been studying the security situation in Pikit since 2008. I am aware that other than the official channels through the joint Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), there are redundant lines of communication between the AFP soldiers and their MILF counterparts in these areas. They can work together to secure vulnerable villages, as was demonstrated by their joint action to clear Kabasalan last Monday.

I bet Allan Peter Cayetano does not know that. Yes, sir, they do coordinate very well down here. It’s invaders like the PNP SAF who refuse to do it that way. So look what happens when that happens.

A-Tapang A-Tao might have known that this war was over, but he picks an alarmist way to demonstrate what he knew. After his army had cleared the villages of the occupying force and thereby ending the reason for intense firefighting, what did he do? He declared all-out war!

Instead of assuring people that his army works so they would feel secure back in their homes, his language just raised the specter of renewed fighting, setting off the alarm bells, and getting people refusing to leave the safety of where they are. It got people rushing back to safety. It was – as I was telling any soldier who would listen to my ranting last night – counterproductive.

It’s ironic that CSAFP may have intended his declaration to empty the evacuation centers and have the IDPs merrily rolling home by the light of the silvery moon. He might have hoped to earn the undying gratitude of the overworked social workers who are just about at their wits’ end with the emergency humanitarian rations running out.

Oh, so what did A-Tapang A-Tao get with his lightning utak lamok press con? It’s exactly the reverse of what he might have hoped to accomplish. Thanking him right now is the last thing on the minds of the overworked social workers in Pikit, Pagalungan, Datu Montawal, and Sultan Sa Baronguis. He’s created a condition that requires more humanitarian relief assistance to be committed from God knows where.

For us at COPERS, it means more psychosocial teams we’ll need to send out to support village officials who are now heroically hosting their brothers and sisters on extended exile from their homes.

From 25,000 on February 19, the IDP figures is now up to 35,000. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan chairs the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)