MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III on Friday, January 30, personally assured families of the 44 elite cops who perished in the clash with Moro rebels in Maguindanao that they will get justice.
Aquino made the commitment at the necrological services for the fallen Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP SAF) troopers at the multi-purpose hall at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City on Friday, January 30.
In his message to the families, the President vowed that Abdulbasit Usman, one of two top terrorists targetted by the botched Maguindanao operation, would be caught. Usman escaped while the other target, Zulkifli Bin Hir, also known as "Marwan," was reportedly killed.
"You know me: if I give my word, I will keep it....I assure you that we will catch Usman," he said in Filipino, adding that this task is on the top of his list.
He said he has ordered concerned authorities to execute a “well-planned” operation to nab Usman.
“The government has been moving, not just at this time, but even before I faced you, to realize this. We will prove that there is rule of law in the Philippines,” he said.
“We cannot allow this to happen again,” Aquino said to the somber crowd.
“As President, even if I want to get angry, I cannot be carried away by emotions. I cannot make hasty decisions. If I let my anger rule me, it might worsen the problem instead of solving it. We will do our best to attain justice for all those who were killed and the loved ones they left behind,” the President said.
Right before Aquino's message, Erica Pabalinas, wife of fallen cop Police Senior Inspector Ryan Pabalinas, appealed to the President to help their families attain justice.
The President again praised the “bravery” of the troops who “gave up their lives for lasting peace.”
'I empathize with you'
To show that he understood that the families were going through, he recalled the death of his father, former senator Benigno Aquino Jr, a democracy icon.
The President began his message with an admission that he was at a loss on what to tell the grieving families to lighten their burden, which is the loss of a loved one.
Aquino, who was criticized for not leading the welcome honors for the fallen soldiers in Villamor Air Base on Thursday, continued that he strongly “empathized” with the families and relayed how he too had lost his father, senator Benigno Aquino Jr, without warning.
“I want to tell you that I fully feel what you are feeling. I understand the families of our police officers who died in an encounter this past Sunday. I too had suddenly lost a loved one," he said.
Aquino, whose family remained in exile in the US when the elder Aquino went home to Manila, recalled that he only learned about his father's assassination from a television news report.
The President added, “You already had plans and dreams, and in one unexpected moment everything changed.”
He read a verse in Filipino from the Bible, John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
A legacy of peace
In the end, Aquino again pushed for peace with the Moro rebels, saying this would be the legacy left behind by those who died.
“The nation owes them a lot. They gave their lives for peace,” he said. “We will not allow their lives to have gone to naught.”
When he finished talking, the room remained silent and somber. The crowd, which included Cabinet officials, lawmakers, and top police and military officials, did not applaud the Chief Executive.
Upon his arrival at 10 am, he paid tributed to the fallen officers by viewing their coffins one by one, and presenting each family with a Medal of Valor.
The hall held only coffins of 41 of the 44 fallen Special Action Forces (SAF) troopers who were killed in a clash with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Boro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The other two had been buried as observed under their religious practices, and another body shipped to his home province.
After the President's speech, the sea of people donned in black and white – loved ones coming from all over the country from as far as Zamboanga – could finally take home their dead.
The President had declared January 30 as a National Day of Mourning to honor the fallen officers.
On Sunday, January 25, some 392 SAF commandos entered Mamasapano town in Maguindanao, a known bailiwick of the MILF. They were targeting two “high value targets,” one of them alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as "Marwan” – who they successfully killed, although at the expense of 44 troops. (READ: Dead or alive? Top terrorist was cops' target)
The MILF blames the failure of the PNP SAF team to coordinate with them, as provided by its agreement with the government on operations in known MILF territories.
The incident occurred less than a year after the group signed a landmark peace deal with the Philippine government, and as lawmakers deliberate on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which seeks to create an autonomous region initially headed by the MILF.