MANILA, Philippines – In Malacañang barely two weeks after the Mamasapano fiasco on January 25, 2015, President Benigno Aquino III talks to select Cabinet members about the hard facts facing him. It doesn’t look like the crisis is going away soon. It doesn’t seem like public anger is abating.
A Cabinet secretary suggests to let go of suspended Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima. The President balks at the idea. They veer away from the topic but go back to it shortly, with senior Cabinet members mustering enough courage this time to tell the President that Purisima should probably go. The meeting, held on February 5, 2015, drags. At the end of it, Aquino makes up his mind and tells them that, yes, he will accept Purisima’s resignation.
Rappler gets wind of the information and breaks the story. Speaking through his lawyer, a shocked Purisima flatly denies the report. “As far as I know, General Purisima has not tendered any resignation,” the lawyer tells Rappler.
We would learn later from insiders that Purisima was right; he had not tendered his resignation at that point. The general at the center of the Mamasapano storm was in fact only asked to formally quit the following day, February 6, 2015, on the day the President faced the nation in a live broadcast to announce his “painful” decision to “accept” Purisima’s resignation.
What power does
Occurring at the tail-end of his presidency, Mamasapano unmasked Aquino’s worst weaknesses as a leader and what power can do to a man: the distance from reality, the stubborn sense that he knows best, the false notion that things will blow away, the bad news that he chooses to set aside, and the friends that he prefers to keep.
This particular friend was serving out a 6-month suspension order from the Ombudsman when Aquino allowed him to decide on deploying the Special Action Force (SAF) to run after a top terrorist in the flatlands of Mamasapano in Central Mindanao. The raid of a known rebel lair exposed the elite cops to heavy enemy fire, killing more than 40 of them in broad daylight while clueless, ill-informed military units scrambled for a futile rescue attempt.
Purisima was PNP chief during this period, but due to his suspension he had no business in its affairs. He was, however, raring to return to work and it was common knowledge that he, with the tacit approval of the President, had plotted to use the Mamasapano operation as his ticket to a great comeback. (READ: Aquino, General Purisima and the past that binds them)
Aquino put so much faith in the suspended general that he kept out of the loop key officials who should have been part of the decision on Mamapasano: then acting PNP chief Leonardo Espina, then Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, then Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang, and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
The day after the massacre, the 4, along with other PNP officials and military officers, flew to North Cotabato to make sense of the situation. During a security briefing at Camp Awang, SAF commander Getulio Napeñas Jr told them that Purisima ordered the operation. Recalled one of those in the meeting: “As soon as Mar [Roxas] heard that, he told the other officers present, everybody not directly involved, get out of the room.”
Roxas waited for a call from Aquino. Nothing. After he thought he had all the initial facts on what happened, and before returning to Manila, Roxas called up the President in the afternoon to report and mention Purisima’s role. “There was radio silence from PNoy,” the source told Rappler. No meeting was held that evening in Malacañang.
It was clear Aquino made the wrong call. He bypassed the chain of command, according to the PNP’s own investigation on Mamasapano. He made mistakes and was “ultimately responsible” for the massacre, senators said at the end of their probe. He was cold, detached, almost heartless, as far as the victims’ families were concerned.
Aquino didn’t see it that way; would not see it that way.
In problematic situations, this is the side of the President not apparent in the public eye. Pushed to a corner, he digs in. Presented with bad news, he gets defensive. Told that things don’t seem to be working, he insists otherwise. Irked by a public statement of an underling, he gives the cold shoulder. Asked to change his mind, he plays stubborn. (READ: Aquino’s presidential management style)
It takes time for him to absorb contrary views, to entertain ideas that don’t sit well with him, according to officials who have worked with him.
In the case of Mamasapano, no one dared to ask him what details he knew before or during the attack, or when he knew about them. (READ: What did Aquino know?)
It was almost as if what transpired was between him and God.
When Aquino faced the nation 3 days after the botched operation, Aquino attempted to make light of Purisma’s role as one who merely explained to him some “jargon” related to the operation.
It took him two months, as the crisis persisted, to eventually concede that Purisima was indeed his “link” to the operating units deployed for Mamasapano. And then much later, he would blame the general for providing him an incomplete picture of the situation prior to the attack. (READ: Aquino’s contradictions on Mamasapano)
Contradictions in the President’s statements? Critics called them outright lies.
It started in Luneta
There’s something about crisis that doesn’t go well with the President’s persona. How can this be when he lived with crisis all his life as the son of a martyred senator and a president who battled one coup after another? One former aide explained: He lived through crisis but did not have to manage it.
Aquino’s first brush with fire as president came shortly after he assumed office, in August 2010, at the Luneta Grandstand, where a disgruntled cop took hostage tourists from Hong Kong who were aboard a bus that was about to bring them on a tour that day.
“I was new in my job,” he acknowledged later, saying some of his orders on how to deal with the incident reached the wrong people who made the wrong tactical decisions that fateful day. The bungled operation to free the tourists led to the killing of 8 of them, aside from the policeman himself.
It seemed the President failed to see the gravity of the situation early on. He trusted another friend, then Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, to be in full control of the situation – a miscalculation.
The Luneta crisis was the first time in his presidency that a friend and ally failed him. But it would not be the last.
During the second crisis to hit his presidency, Aquino sought refuge in an old ally: the United States.
It was the US that eventually brokered a deal between the Philippines and China that ended the two countries’ 2012 standoff at Scarborough Shoal, a war of nerves triggered by Aquino’s dispatch of a Philippine Navy warship to arrest Chinese fishing vessels poaching in traditional fishing grounds on the shoal.
With the Americans’ help, Manila and Beijing agreed to depart the shoal. The Philippines withdrew, but China did not. And the rest is history: we brought China to an international court and mounted a high-profile legal battle with Asia’s giant.
2013: All hell breaks loose
The following year, 2013, not only put Aquino through the fire but also scarred to a great extent his relationship with his public.
Dismissing the first trickle of information about Muslim rebels’ plot to seize Zamboanga City, Aquino woke up on the morning of September 9, 2013, to news that more than 300 members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) had captured villages in the city to declare “independence.”
The President initially allowed his two trusted Cabinet secretaries – Roxas and Gazmin – to handle the situation. On the 5th day of the crisis, Aquino decided to take matters into his own hands and set up camp in Zamboanga City, overseeing military deployment, studying maps, and giving his two cents on tactical issues.
Aquino had barely warmed his seat when he saw a city about to have a meltdown. “What drama is this, Mr President?” asked one official in their first meeting with him. “Who really is in control?” asked another.
The President made an effort to emphasize details that in crisis situations do not really matter, especially to an angry community. He did his own math and saw comfort in it: that only 5 out of the 98 villages in the city were under siege at the time. The Zamboangeños saw beyond the numbers and pushed for swift military action. A full-blown assault was discussed on Aquino’s first night in the city. But the President hedged, asking the locals: “Do you understand what you’re talking about? Can you attend the funeral of 300?”
In a Rappler interview in early June 2016, Aquino recalled telling the locals at the time: “‘Now, we’ve bombed them, so the bodies would be torn to pieces. We can’t place the remains properly in the caskets. We would have to present these dismembered remains to the relatives. Join me in visiting the wake.’ And after that I told them: ‘You know the situation here. When the family of the dead feel they were done injustice, there’d be rido. So after this, we’ll have ongoing clan war. Is that what you want?’ They stopped.”
Gun battles on Zamboanga’s streets stretched from days to weeks and the battlefield extended to more streets, more villages.
The siege ended after 19 bloody days. Killed were at least 183 rebels, 18 soldiers, 5 cops and 12 civilians. But the greater casualty was the dislocation of more 100,000 Zamboangeños from their homes and the shaken foundation of a city that smelled gunfire every day for what seemed like eternity.
And it’s not as if the administration didn’t see this coming. Six months before the Zamboanga attack, armed followers of the Sultan of Sulu seized Lahad Datu in neighboring Sabah, Malaysia. Closely associated with the MNLF, the Sultan’s followers wanted a show of force to reignite the Philippines’ long-dormant claim on Sabah.
Aquino saw only conspiracy behind the act, and wanted to pin down associates of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo whom he accused of plotting the attack to sabotage his peace efforts with another Muslim group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Cooler heads prevailed, and Aquino was persuaded not to name and shame them.
“The President cannot be completely blamed for some of the bad calls, because he made them based on incomplete staff work or wrong information,” said a Malacañang bureaucrat. “As years passed, he was less grounded, he misread some crucial events, because information reaching him was getting more filtered.”
The administration was still trying to recover from the Zamboanga crisis when another one erupted: the exposé on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which critics and budget experts saw as an illegal realignment of government funds. Sensing conspiracy again, Aquino shot down all criticism of DAP, rejected the resignation of his budget secretary and political mentor, Butch Abad, and even dared lawmakers to impeach him.
Again, Aquino insisted his administration did no wrong.
In the end, the highest court of the land dealt the final blow, declaring DAP partly unconstitutional.
As 2013 was about to end, a bigger storm awaited Aquino.
On November 8 that year, Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) ravaged Eastern and Central Visayas and in its aftermath exposed an administration that put a premium on thinking than acting during a crisis, sought refuge in a bureaucracy when it least mattered, and hid emotions when they were needed. (READ: Are you still alive? The rhetoric of Benigno Aquino III)
Aquino articulated his side of the story in a Rappler interview, saying it was not in his place to be emotional in a situation that called for hard decisions. (READ: The emotional journey of Benigno Aquino III)
To victims of Yolanda, however, a president should be able to do both: make the tough calls and show heart.
The many crises throughout his 6-year term sometimes proved that he was capable of neither. – Rappler.com