MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – On September 9, 2013, a siege in the city of Zamboanga began, and would cripple parts the city for weeks.
It was a crisis that resulted in the death of hundreds, a toll that according to Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Manuel Roxas II, was caused by "mga Muslim na mananakop (Muslim invaders)."
Speaking during the Commission on Elections (Comelec)'s second presidential debate on Sunday, March 20, Roxas narrated the events of the 2013 Zamboanga siege, responding to Senator Grace Poe's insinuations that President Benigno Aquino III did not fully trust his anointed bet. (READ: Poe to Roxas: Isn't Mamasapano proof Aquino doesn't trust you?)
Roxas rattled off the number of the dead, including police, soldiers and civilians and the number of Muslim rebels arrested as a result.
But it's the "Muslim na mananakop" quip that caused rage online and offline.
The former interior secretary, who was in Zamboanga at the time of the siege, was apparently referring to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNFL)'s Nur Misuari-led faction that attempted to take control of the city, as it questioned the current administration's burgeoning peace deal with another Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Online, users expressed indignation over the derogatory term:
Many too, saw the irony in Roxas being one of the candidates who has staunchly supported the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the product of negotiations between the current administration and the MILF.
In a chance interview with reporters the next day, Roxas said the term wasn't meant as an insult to all Muslims and that he was only referring to the rebels who attempted to take over Zamboanga.
"Hindi ko nilalagyan ng malisya. ‘Yung mga naglalagay ng malisya, or spin, sila siguro ang dapat niyo tanungin. Ang akin ay backlash. Hindi ba MNLF or branch ng MNLF ito? At yung MNLF na pormal naman, sinasabi nila, hindi sila kabahagi nito. So sino itong mga taong ito...? Hindi ko minamasama ang mga Muslim, hindi ko minamasama ang relihiyon ng Islam. Sinasabi ko lang na yun ang fact," he said.
(There's no malice in what I said. Those who put malice, spin, maybe you should ask them. The backlash is one me. But isn't it the MNLF or a branch of MNLF that attacked Zamboanga? The MNLF itself said it had nothing to dow ith the attack. So what do you call these people. I didn't mean to unsult insult all Muslims or the religion of Islam. I was merely stating a fact.)
During the second round of the presidential debate, Poe asked Roxas to explain Aquino's presence in major crises.
The senator argued that this was proof the President did not trust his commanders on the ground – including Roxas.
Roxas' full explanation on the Zamboanga crisis in response to Poe follows:
“Ngayon, nabanggit po ninyo itong sa Zamboanga, tama po kayo, nandun ako, tatlong linggo po ako nandun kasama ni Secretary Gazmin, hindi kami umuwi, siniguro po natin ilang bang hostages doon? 200 mahigit, ilan ang namatay? 1, ilan ang mga namatay na mga sundalo? 10, ilan ang mga namatay na pulis? 8, yan po ang mga casualties sa pagsisiguro na minimal ang civilian casualties doon sa pagsakop ng Zamboanga ng mga Muslim na mananakop. More than 260 ang naka-preso ngayon, more than 200 ang bangkay, i-addition mo ang 2 na yun, halos 500 fully armed na tao ang pumasok sa Zamboanga at tinangkang sakupin ang Zamboanga, nandun tayo. Madali magpasabog ng mortar, madali mag drop ng bomba, pero ang ginawa natin, surgical, para house-to-house at street by street mailikas natin, maisalba natin yung mga mahigit 200 hostage doon. 'Yan ang success ng Zamboanga, 'yan po ang ginawa natin, nandun tayo at masasabi ko sa inyo na sa aking tingin, successful yung operation na 'yun, nasalba natin ang mga hostages, matagumpay natin na-retake at na-establish 'yung law and order sa kabuuan ng Zamboanga.”
(You mentioned Zamboanga. And you're right. I was there. I was there for 3 weeks with Defense Secretary Gazmin. We did not go home and we made sure the hostages… over 200 died? Only one soldier died? Around 10 policemen died? 8, that's how many civilians died because we made sure to minimize civilian casualties during the attempt to take over Zamboanga by Muslim invaders. More than 260 of them are in jail now, more than 200 died… around 500 fully-armed men entered Zamboanga that day, attempting to take over Zamboanga and I was there. It's easy to detonate mortar, to drop bombs but what we did was to do it surgically, house-to-house, street-by-street to evacuate and save the 200 hostages. That's the success of Zamboanga, that's what I worked on. And I can tell you that in my view, the operation was successful because we saved the hostages, we successfully took back the city and restored law and order in the whole of Zamboanga.)
The Comelec-sanctioned debate was held at the University of the Philippines Cebu College, and was hosted by TV5 and The Philippine Star. – Rappler.com