COMMENT: Confusion in Basilan

Acting Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales, citing "results of the fact-finding mission that had been formed" to investigate the July 10 Marine-MILF encounter in Basilan where 10 Marines killed were later found beheaded, said four Abu Sayyaf members had been found "responsible for beheading [four of the] 10 Marines".  (INQUIRER.net, 5:41 p.m., August 02, 2007)

Gonzales said that two eyewitnesses identified to investigators of the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities the four Abu Sayyaf members; but there were no witnesses on the beheading of the six other Marines. The CCCH "would seek a reinvestigation of the arrest warrants for the 130 suspects" that had already been issued for the Police to serve.

Could Not Wait

Yet, the serving of the warrants could not wait for the recommended reinvestigation to be done. "Police are duty bound to arrest the 130 until the courts issue otherwise. We are now asking the police to proceed," Gonzales said without minding his logic.

Was the CCCH investigation just a formality without bearing on the peace process, on the prevention of an all-out-war not only in Basilan but in the entire Muslim Mindanao?

Heeding appeals from peace groups – Muslim and Christian – in Mindanao and from foreign governments involved in the peace and reconstruction of Mindanao, President Arroyo ordered the AFP to suspend the July 23 punitive operations until the investigations had been finished, implying that findings would determine whether to proceed with or call off the operation.

What did the investigating team find other than the beheading of four Marines by four Abu Sayyaf members? These must be made known to show that the order for the police to proceed with the serving of the warrants of arrest is consistent with the spirit, if not intent, of President Arroyo's earlier order.

To be consistent, the serving of the warrants must be suspended until the reinvestigation of the warrants being sought by the CCCH has been finished in which case only those responsible for the beheading should be arrested.  That is justice – the innocent must be spared.

The order to proceed with the serving of the warrants is a presumption that all the 130 – the MILF force that fought the Marines at Ginanta – are responsible for the beheading of the 10 Marines.  The recommendation to reinvestigate is to verify the presumption so the
court can amend the warrants to cover only those with prima facie evidence against them.

Imperative

Suspension of the serving of the warrants until after the reinvestigation is imperative. The four Abu Sayyaf members were named by two witnesses – a civilian and an MILF fighter. The CCCH investigating team said that "only 10 people were involved in the Al-Barka incident [beheading], contrary to the original list of 130 suspects". (INQUIRER.net, 5:23 p.m. August 2)

The four have been named.  Only one of them is among the 130 having warrants. Who are the six others involved among the 130?  This may be very difficult to determine but the positive identification of six and the exoneration of the 123 is imperative.

Identifying all the 10 by name and residence and if possible with pictures drawn by police artists in the absence of photographs will make the arrest easy and avoid hostile actions that can endanger the peace process.

Arresting the 130 now appears to be next-to-impossible task for the police. Chief Supt. Joel Goltiao, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao police chief, said that according to their intelligence the 130 had already dispersed and the police don't know them by their faces.

Punitive Action

Should the ten be positively identified, the police can ask local government executives for help to negotiate for their surrender.  If they will not surrender, the police surveillance will not endanger peace.

However, going after 130 well-armed MILF fighters would hardly be police action, even if the operation is called such.  The police will go in force with the support of the military.  In reality, the police action will be punitive action.

Right now, five Marine battalions beefed up by the Army are in Basilan.  They could have launched the punitive operation against the MILF in Basilan last July 23 had the peace groups, foreign governments and other cooler heads not prevailed. They are battle ready with standing order to attack. A good excuse will unleash them to avenge their defeat and redeem lost face.

Under the Rug

Despite the nationwide outrage, the beheading was only a fallout of the July 10 encounter. While it triggered a crisis, the real reason for the CCCH investigation was to determine if the encounter violated the ceasefire agreement and, if so, who was to be blamed for the
violation.

Gonzales stated: "The investigating team focused on the beheadings. There are other side questions.  Was it an encounter or an ambush? If [the MILf] was not in cahoots with the Abu Sayyaf, why were the bandits there?  Were the bandits there during the beheadings or were they in the encounter too?"

This is evading the question of ceasefire violation, sweeping it under the rug. And, obviously, to Gonzales, the MILF is responsible for the beheading. If they did not do it, they were in cahoots with the Abu Sayyaf.

It is the ceasefire violation that endangers the peace process, not the beheading.  The MILF has accused the military of repeated violations of the ceasefire agreement — that on July 10 being only the latest.  But the military said the July 10 encounter was an ambush by the MILF.

The clamor from Muslim and Christian peace groups is to sanction the violators of the ceasefire agreement, be they military or MILF.  The CCCH said that the investigation of the July 10 encounter has been thorough, suggesting that the facts behind the violation.  Will the facts be told or will they be swept under the rug?

What Will Happen?

There were persistent media reports of government demand for the MILF to surrender those responsible for the beheading – meaning MILF fighters in Basilan.  But the MILF has stated repeatedly that the encounter was "legitimate" because the Marines had ignored the ceasefire agreement and they did not do the beheading. The demand
means trouble.

Gonzales' announcement that the Abu Sayyaf did the beheading cleared the MILF.  Yet, Rear Admiral Emilio Marayag, chief of the Naval Forces in Western Mindanao, said: "We are injecting, more troops to the island [Basilan] province and unloading more war materials and supplies" to hunt down the suspects.  (INQUIRER.net, 5:23 p.m., August 02, 2007)

Five battalions or more to hunt down criminal suspects – 10 only if the court amends the warrants of arrest for the 130 after a reinvestigation – is ridiculous.  In the first place, arresting criminal suspects is the work of the police. A convenient is there to avenge the July 10 debacle.

The confusing reports are intriguing. What do President Arroyo, the AFP and the PNP want to happen in Basilan?

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You can reach him at [email protected])

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