Remembering Al-Barka

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Following a peace deal between the government and the MILF, questions arise on past offenses committed by both sides

Photo by Karlos Manlupig

MANILA, Philippines – When the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement last Monday, October 15 in Malacañang, something in the accord was missing: how to address past offenses attributed to both sides.

Tomorrow, Thursday, October 18, the Army will remember its dead. Thursday marks the first death anniversary of the 19 soldiers of the Army’s Special Forces who were killed by MILF rebels and other armed groups in Al-Barka, Basilan.

The soldiers’ bodies were mutilated when recovered by the military in a camp run by the MILF.

The incident marked one of the Army’s worst operational blunders in recent history. The attacking force was composed of mostly trainees of the elite Special Forces regiment based in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija.

Various sectors at the time called for an all-out war against the MILF and an end to the ceasefire agreement between both sides, but President Benigno Aquino III stood his ground and ordered his peace panel to continue talks with the group.

Earlier in 2007, also in Al-Barka, 23 Marine troops were killed in skirmishes with the MILF. At least 14 of the soldiers were beheaded.

In both incidents, the military blamed one MILF commander for the brutal deaths: Dan Laksaw Asnawi, who is identified as the leader of the MILF’s 114th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) based in Basilan.

Forgive and forget?

Prof Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, member of the government panel negotiating with the MILF, said the offenses of either the military or MILF combatants were intentionally excluded from the discussion of the preliminary agreement.

It was not a case of forgive and forget, Ferrer pointed out

“That is not in the substantive agreement because these issues are related to the ceasefire (agreement) so these have been processed through the ceasefire mechanisms,” Ferrer said.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has yet to make up its mind on what to do with the criminal cases filed against the MILF, now that the government is entering a more detailed phase of the talks.

Several criminal cases are pending before trial courts in Basilan and Zamboanga City against MILF members, including the multiple murder cases related to the Al-Barka deaths.

In Zamboanga City, government prosecutor Ricardo Cabaron said that “at least 4-5 cases ranging from extortion to kidnapping” have been filed against the rebel group.

Cabaron added that the police have arrested some of the respondents in these cases.

Asnawi is among the several identified MILF leaders, sub-leaders and members who are facing arrest warrants issued by a Basilan court.

“I really don’t know what will be (DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima’s) instructions be,” Cabaron said. “We are still waiting.”

Photo by Malacañang Photo Bureau
Ceasefire mechanism

Ferrer said that both the government and MILF panels have initiated their own “disciplinary actions for violations that may have been committed” by the military and the MILF.

Citing the 2011 Al-Barka incident as an example, Ferrer said that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had court-martialed 4 ranking Army officers over operational blunders that led to the killing of the 19 soldiers.

The 4 are: Col Alexander Macario, former Commander of Special Operations Task Force-Basilan; Col Amikandra Undug, former Regiment Commander of the Special Forces Regiment (Airborne); Lt Col Leonardo Peña, former Commanding Officer of the 4th Special Forces Battalion; Lt Col Orlando Edralin, former Commandant of the Special Forces School, Special Operations Command.

A promising young officer, it was De La Peña who pushed and planned the operation, deploying mostly trainees to the treacherous terrain of Al-Barka. While the trainees had targetted an MILF camp, other armed men in the province — members of the Abu Sayyaf and other so-called “lost commands — helped the MILF pummel the attacking force.

The miltary then claimed that of the 19 dead soldiers, 6 were captured alive and later hacked and shot to death by the MILF, a claim the rebel group has denied.

“On the part of the MILF, they also imposed disciplinary actions on their commander (in Basilan),” Ferrer said in Filipino.

MILF sanctions

Ferrer refused to reveal the specific sanctions taken by the MILF hierarchy against their members in Basilan, but she said that “a report has been filed to the panel through the respective ceasefire committees, who then validated the situation on the ground.”

She likewise stressed that there have been no reports of “untoward incidents” in areas where the MILF maintain their presence in Basilan, an indication that the ceasefire mechanism is working.

Even before the DOJ can issue a formal directive on the pending cases against the MILF, Ferrer said that cases implicating MILF rebels are “undergoing review,” adding that “judicial procedures will be followed.”

“Of course, the MILF has expressed concern for their detained members,” Ferrer said, “We are making sure that due processes are observed.”

Status quo

The defense department said that the military will continue to observe the “status quo” and that there would be no immediate troop movements in Mindanao following the signing of the framework agreement.

Dr Peter Galvez, spokesman of the Department of National Defense, said that the agency may push for issues reflecting the sentiments of the AFP over the history of violent clashes between both sides — but only if the panels will ask for it in the suceeding negotiations.

“For all the (tragic) events that have passed, we look forward [to a situation where] all these will be settled, leading to a peaceful closure of all these things,” Galvez said.

The government and the MILF are expected to hammer out details of the peace plan when they meet again in November. The MILF has committed to “decommission” its armed units in due time, but the group has not disclosed any details. – George Mendoza/

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