CBCP: We cannot morally join calls for Aquino ouster

MANILA, Philippines – While the details on the Mamasapano bloodbath remain unclear, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said that it cannot join calls for the resignation of President Benigno Aquino III over the deadly clash.

In a statement on Wednesday, February 4, CBCP president and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas said that while "some members of the Philippine Catholic hierarchy" have echoed calls for Aquino's resignation, the CBCP has "not arrived at a collective position."

"Before we have all the facts, however, the CBCP cannot morally join in the calls for his resignation, leaving this decision to his humble and prayerful discernment of his capacity to lead and the support he has not only from officials of government but from members of Philippine society," Villegas said.

On January 25, Special Action Force (SAF) troopers, who were in an operation against two high-value targets – alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as "Marwan," and Abdul Basit Usman – clashed  with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao.

The encounter killed 44 SAF members and at least 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as several civilians.

Aquino had admitted that he knew of the SAF's plans to conduct a covert anti-terrorist operation in Maguindanao, but evaded questions on whether he gave the go signal for the operation, which was kept quiet from the military.

SAF commander Police Director Getulio Napeñas Jr, who has been faulted for not coordinating the operation with the concerned officials, including the military, had been relieved pending the investigation of the incident.

Support for truth body

Villegas added that the CBCP "fully supports" the creation of a truth commission to investigate the incident, which has threatened to derail the  peace process between the government and the MILF.

Two senators earlier withdrew authorship of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that will create an expanded autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. (READ: What now after the Maguindanao clash?)

In the statement, Villegas noted that the public has been given "conflicting accounts" of what happened. (READ: Maguindanao bloodbath: 3 unanswered questions)

But he stressed that the blame over the deaths must not fall on those "who already paid the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives."

"They were never in a position to command but, true to the culture of the police and of the military, stood ready to receive orders," Villegas said.

While the CBCP president called for justice for the fallen SAF members, he said that the the creation of a credible and transparent fact-finding body should be composed of members free from political bias, a view shared by others, including Vice President Jejomar Binay. 

Lawmakers earlier filed a bill creating a fact-finding body to look into the Maguindanao clash.

Unlike Binay, Villegas did not oppose the idea of Aquino appointing members of the proposed fact-finding body but said that they "must be endorsed by and acceptable to the public, recognized for their probity, acknowledged for their truthfulness and characterized by their boldness."

"It is as important that the hearings of the body be open to all, and that its findings be available to all. Nothing is served by secrecy," he added.

Advocates for the passage of the Bangsamoro law, Villegas said, are not "credible nominees" for the truth commission "because they have made it exceedingly clear that they would not like the sad incident to derail the process of the enactment of the BBL."

He also ruled out the effectiveness of an inquiry by a police body, saying that subordinate officers "seldom point accusingly at superiors."

Likewise, an investigation by Congress will be "compromised by the political allegiances of most of its members," Villegas said.

'Make better balanced choices'

The CBCP president also advised Aquino to "make better balanced choices and conduct himself as his high office demands."

The Philippine president has been criticized for skipping the welcome honors for the remains of the 42 police commandos at Villamor Air Base on January 29, opting to follow his original schedule that morning – leading the inauguration of a car manufacturing plant.

Malacañang defended the decision, and said that the President was scheduled to be at the necrological services the following day, where he spent over 12 hours asking the SAF-44 families how he could help them. (READ: Aquino and the #SAF44 families)

"We pray that in all humility he would willingly accept just criticism rather than have his spokespersons concoct excuses at every turn," Villegas said. – Rappler.com