As a leading member of the Cabinet, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima can rightly be accused of involvement in a Malacañang-orchestrated effort to shield President Benigno S. C. Aquino III from liability for the poorly-planned, badly-executed Oplan Exodus when she practically described the Senate report on that debacle as “hasty and reckless.” That doesn’t make everything she said about the March 17 report wrong. But neither does it mean that everything she said or will say is right, among other reasons because of the particularities of Philippine governance and politics.
It’s a characteristic she shares with many of the country’s senior bureaucrats. Some (there are exceptions) usually know their jobs, and are nominally capable. But the demands of politics and the complex ties that in a feudal society bind members of the bureaucracy to the political class often make them seem less than competent or even honest.
The draft of the Senate inquiry report into the Mamasapano clash had declared that Mr. Aquino is ultimately responsible for that man-made disaster. Senator Grace Poe, who chaired the Senate inquiry, said during a press conference that “The President must bear responsibility for giving assent to and failing to prevent the unlawful exercise of official functions by [former Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima] in connection with Oplan Exodus.” Ms. Poe also said that impeachment would be the sole means of holding Mr. Aquino responsible while he’s still in office.
That last part doesn’t belong in Ms. de Lima’s category of “hasty and reckless” conclusions, impeachment being the only recourse against a sitting president. But the Senate report’s describing the clash as “a massacre” rather than a “misencounter [sic]” certainly does.
About these and other details in the report, Commission on Human Rights Chairman Loretta Ann Rosales had even more to say. A leading member of Akbayan, which has steadfastly supported Mr. Aquino since 2010, Ms. Rosales, although head of a constitutional body, could similarly be accused of partisanship. But as in the case of Ms. de Lima, not all she’s saying is necessarily wrong.
Ms. Rosales is correct in saying that what happened was not a massacre, no matter what such dazzling Senate minds like Francis Escudero may say. The members of the SAF contingent were far from helpless not only because of their number (nearly 400), but also because they were heavily armed. The inability of the alleged victims to defend themselves is integral to the meaning of “massacre.”
The November 23, 2009, incident in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao, in which 58 people including 32 journalists and media workers armed only with cameras and notepads were murdered by over a hundred men wielding automatic weapons was a massacre. The Mamasapano clash — it was a firefight in which there was an eight-hour-long exchange of gunfire — was not.
The report’s claim that the MILF cannot control its troops, continued Ms. Rosales, does not mean that it is not sincere in seeking peace with the Philippine government. “The inability of the MILF leadership to control a few elements of [its armed force] has nothing to do with its sincerity in entering into peace negotiations. The actions of a few rogue members cannot and should not be interpreted as the actions of the whole.” Hear, hear. But it’s when both Misses Rosales and De Lima try to clear Mr. Aquino that the problem arises: where does reason end and loyalty to the boss begin?
Mr. Escudero steers clear of that shoal. When asked about Ms. Rosales’s observations, Mr. Escudero insisted that the clash was a massacre. “Masaker talaga ’yun dahil close range binaril ’yung 34 out of 44 SAF troopers.” (It was a real massacre because 34 out of 44 SAF troopers [sic] were shot at close range.) That statement redefines the meaning of “massacre” as “the act or instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings” to “the killing of human beings at close range.”
In further demonstration of his brilliance, Mr. Escudero weighed in on an unrelated issue: he claimed that he was “disappointed” at how the CHR often fails to acknowledge human rights violations against policemen and soldiers.
“Pag sibilyan ang nasasaktan, human rights violation agad, pero ’pag pulis o military ang nasasaktan, wala bang human rights o karapatang pantao ang isang unipormadong tao?” (If a civilian is hurt, it’s a human rights violation, but if a policeman is hurt, doesn’t a uniformed individual have human rights?)
This rhetorical question (of course, those in uniform have human rights) echoes the complaint by policemen and soldiers who have been known to whine that while violations of the human rights of ordinary folk are always condemned, violations of their rights are not.
A firefight in which there are casualties on both sides does involve the issue of human rights in terms of possible violations of the rules of war, which among others includes the humane treatment of prisoners. It can be argued that the killing of the 34 SAF men was savage and contrary to the rules of war — and the Senate report has correctly taken note of it.
But as a general principle with respect to unarmed civilians, their treatment by State security forces is an even more crucial human rights issue. Both the police and the military have been cited by various human rights groups including the US Department of State country report for committing human rights violations against non-combatants as well as crime suspects. As State actors responsible for upholding both the country’s laws and international law, they have been correctly condemned for it, with the CHR often taking note of such violations. If Mr. Escudero is saying that violations of the rights of police and military men with a legal monopoly over the use of armed force — which in the first place are extremely rare — are on the same level of accountability as violations of the rights of civilians, he’s profoundly wrong.
Ms. Rosales declared that the Senate report was based on emotions rather than facts. I submit that it is based more on the Senate’s reading of — and shameless pandering to — public sentiment, which, in the poisoned atmosphere that the media and certain politicians with an eye on 2016 have generated, can be summed up as opposed to the conclusion of the peace process and heavily in favor of war.
This is the very same assumption behind the statements of certain politicians including some senators who harbor the illusion that after decades of war, the country can stand another decade or so of more fighting between the MILF and State forces.
Not everything government officials say is wrong. But neither is everything they say right, as the Senate report makes painfully obvious. In tandem with the irresponsibility of much of the media, that reality has led to, and is continuing to create, a situation in which the citizens of this country are more confused rather than enlightened not only about the Mamasapano clash but also about a host of other public issues. It helps explain why too many Filipinos are forsaking political engagement altogether to the detriment of that elusive ideal known as Philippine democracy.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).
The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in Business World
March 26, 2015