Government News Analysis

Ghosts of the past

Former Philippine president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino
Former Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino

Former Philippine president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino (photo) has come under fire once again for his role in the botched 2015 police action in Mamasapano in Maguindanao province on the southern island of Mindanao which left 44 officers dead.

The largest one-day combat death toll in the Philippines for years, it’s been described as the biggest loss of an elite force in history. Now, Ombudsman, Conchita Morales, has ordered that criminal charges should be filed against Aquino for the part he played in what’s commonly referred to as the ‘Mamasapano Clash’.

The charges which Morales is pursuing against Aquino are, Usurpation of Authority, under Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code and contraventions of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (Section 3a).

The big question though, is just how dedicated is Morales in getting to the truth of all this? First of all it’s no secret that she and Aquino had a close working relationship throughout Aquino’s presidency. That started when Morales, as an Associate Justice, was asked by Aquino to swear him into office on his accession to the presidency. He’d refused to let the sitting chief justice, Renato Corona – appointed by his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – administer the oath of office.

Then, during his State of the Nation Address on 25 July 2011, he announced Morales’s appointment as Ombudsman. And throughout Aquino’s term she remained supportive of him – for example, it was her damning questionable testimony that helped to impeach Corona.

Furthermore, in connection with the Mamasapano incident, she has already dismissed the more serious charge of ‘reckless imprudence’ brought against Aquino by relatives of the dead police officers for causing their homicide.

Again, in a separate case, in March, she cleared Aquino of administrative and criminal charges relating to the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) – a budget allocation set up by Aquino to finance projects without congressional approval. According to a number of senators Aquino used the DAP to buy their votes to impeach Corona. The Supreme Court later ruled that the DAP was unconstitutional and should be halted.

Moreover, the two latest charges relating to the SAF officers’ deaths will be heard by the Sandiganbayan appellate court in Quezon City where 10 of the 19 justices were appointed by Aquino. If they choose to dismiss the case, that will be the end of it.

With all that history it’s not surprising if the public has doubts about the quality of justice that will be meted out.

To recap what’s behind all this. On 25 January 2015, 73 members of the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force (SAF) – a mobile counter-terrorism unit – entered Mamasapano to capture or kill a high-profile Malaysian terrorist bomb-maker – Zulkifi Abdhir; nom de guerre, Marwan.

After killing Marwan, as the SAF force was attempting to withdraw they came under sustained attack from rebel units belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – at the time in peace-process talks with the government – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and militants of the Indonesian terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Forty four members of the SAF deployment were killed in the firefight. The remaining 29 were later rescued by Philippine Army troops after the government successfully negotiated a cease fire with the MILF.

It’s also alleged that United States ground troops and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation were also involved in the mission. Witnesses at the scene reported seeing the bodies of four “Caucasian-looking” soldiers, though the US Embassy in Manila denied any US troop involvement. Under the Philippine Constitution foreign troops are prohibited from carrying out a combat role on Philippine soil.

That lingering suspicion in that region, however, was part of the reason why, last September, President Rodrigo Duterte ended the US troop presence in Mindanao – something for which he was roundly criticised by his political opponents at home and his detractors abroad.

Meanwhile, the public outrage which the deaths of the 44 SAF officers unleashed marked the nadir of the Aquino government’s credibility. It triggered mass public demonstrations across the country with calls for Aquino’s resignation.

On top of that, a government ally in the House of Representatives resigned in protest at what he called Aquino’s “cover up of his responsibility” in the affair, while former president, Fidel V. Ramos, accused the government of “complacency” and a “laid-back attitude” and slammed the “poor strategic direction from the commander-in-chief”.

The ill-fated operation also abruptly brought to an end congressional deliberations on the Bangsamoro Basic Law – the legal framework for establishing an autonomous region for the Moro (Muslim) people in Mindanao.

All that was two and a half years ago and up until today, there’s been no satisfactory explanation offered by the former administration for its conduct at Mamasapano. There has, however, been plenty of blame to go around. The first government casualty was SAF director, Getulio Napeñas who was relieved of his position shortly after the incident.

Then there were the findings of a government inquiry into the police action. These were made public on 13 March 2013 and they were damning. The report disclosed that then PNP Director General, Alan Purisima – a close friend of Aquino – had acted “without authority” in connection with the SAF operation.  At the time he was under investigation for alleged corruption and had been suspended from duty.

More damning was the report’s assessment of Aquino’s part in all this. It found that the former president had bypassed the chain of command and exhibited a lack of judgement in allowing a suspended police chef to direct the action.

There were several attempts at damage control. Aquino vehemently denied any culpability, claiming – to this day – that he had no direct role in the planning or execution of Oplan Exodus, as the operation had been codenamed. Similarly, contrary to the inquiry’s findings, then Interior Secretary, Mar Roxas, claimed Aquino “has no liability” for what went down in Mamasapano.

Undoubtedly, there appear to have been attempts at ‘scapegoating’ by Aquino who at first denied being briefed by Purisima. Later, from text messages made available to a senate hearing into the incident, quite a different picture emerged.

This message, for example, texted to Aquino by Purisima at 5:45 am after the operation was underway: Sir, good morning. For info, SAF elements implemented Oplan against high value targets. As of now, results indicate that Marwan was killed and one SAF trooper wounded. The body of Marwan was left behind but pictures were taken. The troopers are not in withdrawal phase and progress report to follow”.

This case is not going to go away even if the Sandiganbayan court does what many suspect and rule along partisan lines – find in favour of the man who appointed the majority of the justices. Indeed, if the cases against Aquino are dismissed and the perception among the general public is that he’s been able to call in his markers, then the ramifications could be far reaching.

And the biggest of those will be the future of Aquino’s Liberal Party. In any event – whether he’s found guilty or if the case against him is dismissed – it’s likely to end up as yet another nail in the coffin of the Liberal Party whose members have spent the past year committing slow political suicide with their coordinated attacks on President Duterte and his administration.

That campaign has seen Duterte’s trust rating with the people rocket into the high 70% range and that of the Liberal Party’s chairman and the country’s vice president, Leni Robredo, plunge to just 30%.

The resurrection of Aquino’s role in the Mamasapano Clash will further tarnish the party’s image and because of the mass unpopularity which the Liberals have cultivated with the populace, whatever Aquino’s defence team puts up will be viewed cynically by the public. And for that they have no one but themselves to blame. They have consistently failed to read the mood in the country.

Certainly, there are many questions left unanswered over the events of 25 January 2015 – in February, Duterte declared 25 January as a National Day of Remembrance for the 44 SAF officers – and the families of those who died would like to have them answered so they can finally put this matter to rest.

Justice, sadly, is often elusive in the Philippines – particularly when powerful members of the political establishment are involved. And so, the Sandiganbayan court aside, what’s likely to happen here is that justice will take a backseat to politics with the likes of arch anti-Duterte spokesman, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV along with the wolf pack of Liberal lawmakers decrying any notion that Aquino is in any way culpable for the deaths of the SAF men.

Trillanes, however, owes a debt of gratitude to Aquino who gave him an amnesty for his 2003 and 2007 failed coups against Arroyo.

This though is clearly a matter for the court and whatever its ruling is, all that can be hoped for is that the sitting justices arrive at it with impartiality. After all, isn’t that the first principle of justice?

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