MANILA, Philippines – The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) dared President Benigno Aquino III on Sunday, February 15, to explain his role in the police operation that led to the recent bloodbath in Maguindanao.
CBCP president Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, however, rejected “extra-constitutional measures” in the face of public outrage over the death of 44 members of an elite police force, 18 Muslim rebels, and at least 3 civilians in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
In his strongest statement on the Mamasapano incident, Villegas said, “The President and his advisers must give a full and satisfactory accounting of their actions in respect to this tragic loss.”
Villegas explained that the targets of the operation of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) – terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan, and Abdul Basit Usman – “were characterized as 'high-value targets.'”
The US government offered a $5-million reward for the capture of Marwan and a $1-million reward for the capture of Usman. Marwan was killed while Usman escaped.
Villegas said: “If the police went after them, it can only be because they were ordered to do so. Policemen do not order themselves, not even members of the Special Action Force. Indeed, that is what corroborated statements now clearly establish: The decision was made on the highest levels to go after these 'high-value targets.' The only thing that was awaited was 'the window of opportunity,' a judgment that is made by people on the ground.”
Villegas said Aquino should explain why the officer in charge of the Philippine National Police, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who oversees the PNP, were “left out of the loop of information, consultation, and command.” (READ: Why Roxas, Espina out of loop? 'Operational safety' – Purisima)
He questioned the role of then suspended PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, who later resigned, in the operation. “It seems that a suspended police officer played more than a merely advisory role. Why should he have been giving orders?”
He added, “And if he was in fact issuing orders and commands, should it not be clear that his authority to do so, precisely because he was laboring under a legitimate order of suspension, emanated from higher levels?” (READ: Aquino, Purisima were at final 'Oplan Exodus' briefing)
Villegas said: “The concealment of truth or the foisting of deliberate falsehood even to shield one's superiors from embarrassment or to spare them indictment is always a moral wrong, especially in the context of legal processes and under oath. When one swears to tell the truth and invokes the help of God, one is morally obligated to speak the truth. We therefore urge all witnesses and all those in possession of information material to the resolution of facts in issue to speak the truth at all times.” (READ: 5 nagging questions on the Mamasapano clash)
File photo by Noli Yamsuan/Archdiocese of Manila/CBCPNews
'Not the time for adventurism'
While he said Aquino should explain his role in the bloodbath, Villegas refused to support “extra-constitutional measures” in the face of the controversy.
“This is not the time for political opportunism. This is not the time for adventurism or grandstanding,” he said.
He added: “While resolute action is necessary on the part of all, precipitous action and recourse to extra-constitutional measures will only visit more harm and misery on our people. The CBCP cannot lend its support to any movement that may bring greater suffering for our people.”
His statement came after Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said disgruntled quarters have begun to plot a coup d'etat against Aquino.
Several leaders of Christian groups, including the Catholic Church, meanwhile called on Aquino to resign. (READ: Cardinal Vidal: Aquino accountable for Mamasapano)
Villegas said: “We would do well to join in the debate spiritedly, to be zealous in ferreting out the facts, and to be unyielding in demanding accountability. But it is also our moral duty to be law-abiding citizens, animated at all times by the Gospel that insists that we love even those who we may find difficult to love!”
Surrender culprits, MILF urged
Villegas challenged Muslim rebels, on the other hand, to surrender the culprits in the death of 44 SAF members.
He also said the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) should return the arms and ammunition it captured from the slain SAF in Mamasapano on January 25.
“The MILF must surrender the culprits – those who cut down the SAF 44 in the prime of their youth – and must not interfere with their prosecution and their trial. The video clip that went viral showing the merciless execution of SAF men who were wounded and helpless cannot and must not be shrugged off,” Villegas said.
On the bishops' call for the MILF to return the cops' firearms, he said, “Justice and peace demand restitution of what one has wrongfully taken.”
He made this call as both the Philippine government and the MILF investigate the incident in Mamasapano, a town in the southern Philippine island group of Mindanao. (READ: Mamasapano: Sleepy town roused by SAF-MILF clash)
The MILF vowed on Tuesday, February 10, “to return the firearms and other retrievable personal items in deference to the peace process.”
The MILF is engaged in a peace process with the Philippine government to end a 4-decade-old Muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao.
'Sincerity on both sides'
The bloodbath in Mamasapano, however, led critics to question the MILF's sincerity in the peace process.
The incident, for one, stalled a landmark in the peace process – the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which aims to create an autonomous Muslim region more powerful than the one in place.
Villegas said: “There has to be sincerity on both sides – on the side of government forces and agents, and on the side of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Hostilities must cease while legal processes must be observed.”
He added the CBCP is ready to assist the Philippine government in pursuing peace in Mindanao.
“We hold it to be morally obligatory for the government and for the restive segments of Philippine society to search for the paths of peace,” Villegas said.
“If anything at all, Mamasapano should instill in all, especially in our legislators, a sense of circumspection in respect to examining the first draft Bangsamoro Basic Law. Let the document be assiduously studied, fully debated, and exhaustively examined,” he added.
A member of the CBCP, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, earlier told MindaNews that junking the BBL will lead to a “total disaster.” To dispel “biases and prejudices” against Muslims, he also advised Christians to “look at the history of Mindanao” before Christianity arrived in the Philippines. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.