DAVAO CITY (MindaNews /08 January) – The grant of bail in early January to Ampatuan Massacre suspect Sajid Ampatuan for P200,000 per murder count or a total of P11.6 million for the 58 victims of the November 23, 2009 massacre landed Mindanao in the headlines again but the Mamasapano Tragedy of January 25, 2015 was the biggest news not only for Mindanao in January but for the entire country in 2015.
The Mamasapano Tragedy is to the Aquino administration as the Ampatuan Massacre was to its predecessor Arroyo administration, both happening a year before the Presidential elections.
It also became the gamechanger in the 18-year old peace process between the government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) among the casualties of the tragedy, aside from the 66 persons killed that day.
First President from Mindanao?
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, on the other hand, became the most famous Mindanawon in 2015, particularly in the last quarter, as the public waited for his final decision on whether or not he would run for President.
In what netizens dubbed as “Duterteserye,” the lead actor captured the imagination of the nation with his “I-will-not-run-for-President-I-will-run-for-President-if” pronouncements that kept the audience watching his every move in the run-up to October 16, the last day for filing of certificate of candidacy (COC), and beyond.
When he filed his COC for reelection as mayor on October 15, Duterte’s supporters waited for a change of heart the next day. Supporters trooped to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) office in Manila but no Duterte came. Still, they waited for December 10, the deadline for substitution of candidates.
Duterte withdrew his COC for mayor on November 27 and had a lawyer file his COC as the Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino’s (PDP-Laban) substitute candidate for President.
The 70-year old Duterte is the lone Mindanawon among five Presidential candidates and the only one espousing a change of political system from Presidential to Federal.
He is also the first Mindanawon Presidential candidate with a chance at making it to Malacanang, according to surveys.
Sixty-six persons – 44 from the elite Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP), 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and five civilians — were killed in the SAF’s dawn operation to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin hir aka Marwan – in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 25.
The 49-year old Marwan, an engineer trained in the United States and believed to be head of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malyasia, carried a $5m reward from the United States’ National Counterterrorism Center for anyone who could provide information leading to his arrest.
Marwan was killed in the hut where he spent the night but 66 others would be killed in that tragedy that could have been avoided if the SAF had, in the spirit of the national policy of “primacy of the peace process,” observed the peace process mechanism of coordinating with the Philippine Army and the MILF, the revolutionary group that signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government on March 27, 2014.
February 2015 opened with both houses of Congress suspending deliberations on the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that, as agreed upon by the government and MILF, would pave the way for the creation of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro, that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
At least seven institutions conducted a probe – the PNP’s Board of Inquiry, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Department of Justice, the Commission on Human Rights, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team and the MILF.
BBL in limbo
The year 2015 began with Congress optimistic it would pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) by February or March. Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chair of the House of Representatives’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, was even more optimistic. In 2014, he expected the law would be passed by December 17 that year.
Congress adjourned on December 16, 2015 with the BBL still in limbo. The House of Representatives terminated its period of interpellation and will proceed to the period of amendments when sessions resume on January 19. The Senate has yet to complete its period of interpellation.
With only eight session days between January 19 and February 5, when Congress takes a break again for the election campaign, passing an acceptable BBL remains uncertain (see other story)
“All-out offensive” vs BIFF
Exactly a month after the Mamasapano Tragedy, residents from Mamasapano and several other towns in Maguindanao fled to evacuation centers as Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang announced an “all-out offensive” against the
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a group founded by Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato in March 2010, after breaking away from the MILF.
The offensive began two days later with artillery and air strike support, triggering a mass evacuation of residents to avoid getting caught in a crossfire.
Three weeks later, the IDP Protection Assessment Report of the Protection Cluster Philippines dated March 18, said a total of 123,537 persons from 15 municipalities were displaced and that the mass evacuation was “the biggest displacement since the 2008 MOA-AD debacle.”
MOA-AD refers to the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) which was initialed by the government and MILF peace panels in late July 2008 and was supposed to have been formally signed in Kuala Lumpur on August 5. The signing was called off when the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order barring the government negotiators from signing the MOA-AD.
Catapang on March 31 announced in Tukanalipao, Mamasapano that it was now safe for the evacuees to return home. It took at least two months before the evacuees did.
Little known story
A little known story about the military offensive against the BIFF is that the MILF, which signed with government the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in 2014, repositioned some 4,000 armed members from the areas where the military was operating, as coordinated by their respective Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH).
Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez, then chair of the government peace panel’s CCCH told participants of the Mindanao Media Forum in Cotabato City last July that “more than 4,000 MILF fighters were repositioned in Camp Afghan and other cantonment areas for more than 70 days — from February 27 to May 3, until the death of Basit Usman” on May 3.
Usman, allegedly a member of the Abu Sayyaf and believed to have been trained by Marwan, reportedly escaped when the SAF was approaching Marwan’s hut on January 25.
“They lived there in harsh condition without any shelter from the heat of the sun, rainfall before the start of May and were sustained only with 24,000 food packs or relief goods from the Department of Social Welfare and Development… they left their homes, their livelihood and their wives… these sacrifices they were willing to bear just to get Basit Usman and BIFF key personalities,” Galvez said.
Lumads in the news
The Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) figured prominently in the news in 2015 following harassments by paramilitary Lumads allegedly backed up by the military, and military operations that reportedly forced hundreds of residents to flee their villages in Surigao, Compostela Valley and Bukidnon, among other areas.
It was a violent year for the Lumads (see other story).
Several alternative learning centers of the Lumads were ordered closed, the teachers and students threatened or killed as in the case of Emerito Samarca, executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev) and Lumad leaders Dionel Campos, chair chair of the Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (Mapasu); and Mapasu member Datu Juvello Sinzo.
Samarca, Campos and Sinzo were killed in Sitio Han-ayan, Brgy. Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, by members of the paramilitary group Magahat-Bagani who roused villagers from their sleep and warned them they would be massacred if they do not flee.
Some 3,000 residents in Han-ayan and neighboring villages and towns evacuated to the provincial ports complex in Tandag City,
The Senate probe on Lumad killings on October 1 and 2 ended with Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III and Aquilino Pimentel III echoing the call of Lumads, church and local government leaders to arrest, disarm and disband the Magahat-Bagani that has been repeatedly accused of sowing terror in several towns in Surigao del Sur and whose disbandment has also been repeatedly sought.
Minutes after the Senate hearing ended, the Bishop of Tandag, Nereo Odchimar, said he was still waiting for answers to his question about the “apparent unholy alliance between the military and the paramilitary.”
But Bishop Odchimar told the Senate Committees on Justice and Human Rights, and Cultural Communities that he is “baffled” why, despite the military’s denials of an alliance, Marcial Belandres, one of the leaders of the paramilitary group and principal suspect in the October 2014 killing of Manobo teacher Henry Alameda and Aldren Dumaguit, was among three persons presented as Datus in a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on September 15.
Shortly before Christmas, the Magahat-Bagani through text messages and a video clip, warned local officials and media intending to attend the celebration of the 47th anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines on December 26 that they would be ambushed.
Justice is “dulom pa sa alkitran”
The release from detention of Sajid Ampatuan, youngest son of Andal Ampatuan, Sr., in early March (he posted bail on January 30 but release was held in abeyance pending a motion for reconsideration filed by the prosecution panel), as well as the death of his father from liver cancer in July also made the headlines.
Justice for the 58 victims of the Nov. 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre, 32 of them from the media, remained elusive under the Aquino administration. Six years after Ampatuan Massacre, justice is “dulom pa sa alkitran” (darker than tar), Reynafe Momay-Castillo, daughter of one of the media victims, said.
At the first anniversary of the massacre on November 23, 2010, Aquino’s first year in office, he said in a statement read for him by Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process: “The resolution of these cases has become the litmus test of our justice system. It is one of the top priorities of the Justice Department. We will not rest until justice has been served.”
Several Mindanawon personalities passed away in 2015 due to illness, among them master weaver and National Living Treasure Lang Dulay of Lake Sebu.
The killing of Pamana, the Philippine Eagle released into the wild in Davao Oriental on June 12 and shot dead in August (see other story) also made the headlines in 2015. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)