MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATED) It's a bloody incident that claimed the lives of over 70 Filipinos, put a stop to a long-awaited peace deal with Muslim rebels, and was among the lowest points of the current administration.
It was also the basis of Senator Grace Poe's question for presidential rival Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Manuel Roxas II during the second round of the Commission on Elections (Comelec)’s second presidential debate in Cebu City on Sunday, March 20.
Poe, who was tasked to ask Roxas a question, said: "Kayo po ang inatasan noon bilang DILG na mamahala noon sa Yolanda at pagkatapos naman nun ay doon sa Zamboanga siege at hindi lamang iyon, bago noon ay kayo po ay DOTC na kung saan nag desisyon na palitan na ang maintenance provider, alisin na ang Sumitomo, o kung ano pa man yan. Sa lahat ng mga nangyari eh may mga kakulangan, tanong ko lang po Secretary, hindi kaya yan ang dahilan kung bakit hindi kayo pinagkatiwalaan ng Pangulo na malamang ang operasyon ng Mamasapano at mas pinili pa niya pagkatiwalaan ang isang suspendidong officer katulad ni General Purisima?"
(You were tasked to oversee Yolanda operations and the Zamboanga siege as DILG chief and before that, you were DOTC chief during which you decided to change the maintenance provider, remove Sumimoto. Because of all these things that happened, I just want to ask the Secretary, could that not be the reason why President Aquino did not trust you to be looped in for the Mamasapano operation and instead, chose to trust a suspended officer like General Purisima?)
The senator was referring to the bloody "Oplan Exodus," a January 2015 Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF)-led operation that targeted terrorists wanted by both the Philippines and the United States. The operation triggered clashes between police and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), claiming the lives of 44 SAF troopers, at least 5 civilians, and 18 MILF fighters.
Blame for the operation has been laid on either Aquino, then SAF chief Getulio Napeñas and former PNP chief Alan Purisima, a close friend of Aquino’s, and even the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Roxas, as in previous instances, was forced to defend Aquino, who is also chairman of the ruling party.
The LP presidential bet repeated earlier statements: that it was Purisima who failed to follow Aquino's orders to apparently loop in Roxas, then the chief of the interior department. Purisima told Napeñas to inform Roxas and then PNP officer-in-charge Leonardo Espina only after the operation had succeeded.
"Kayo mismo ang chairman ng hearing, hindi niyo mababali ang nangyari doon, actual sinabi ni Purisima, sinabi ni Napenas sa hearing po ninyo, sinabi nila na inutusan siya na saka muna sabihan yung dalawa, hindi ba totoo 'yun?" Roxas shot back.
(You were the chairman of the hearing, you can't change what happened there, what Purisima said. Napeñas said during the hearing, he said that Purisima ordered him to only tell [myself and Espina] belatedly, isn't that true?)
The senator headed the Senate committee that probed the circumstances of the controversial operation.
Poe's apparent aim was to assert that despite being Aquino's anointed candidate, Roxas did not enjoy the complete trust of the President.
But Roxas insisted it was Purisima – and not Aquino – who chose to keep the former interior chief in the dark. "'Yan ay kabahagi ng report niyo, itinago po sa akin itong Mamasapano issue na ito or gawain ng operation na ito (That's in your report, Mamasapano was kept a secret from me)," said Roxas.
In the aftermath of the deadly clash, Aquino’s approval ratings dipped to their lowest.
Prior to formally endorsing Roxas' bid for the presidency, Aquino was in talks with Poe, Roxas, and Poe's eventual running-mate Senator Francis Escudero. The ruling party had hoped Poe would run as Roxas' running-mate.
Escudero, meanwhile, insists Aquino was having a "hard time" picking an anointed bet for 2016. Poe eventually announced her candidacy roughly a month after Aquino's endorsement of Roxas in July 2015.
Poe cited other disasters – the 2013 Bohol earthquake, Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), and the Zamboanga siege – as instances wherein Aquino himself had to intervene and put himself in the middle of a perilous situation.
"Ang isang pangulo ay kailangan ligtas at ginagawa ang kanyang trabaho sa isang lugar kung saan siya ay hindi mamimiligro. Hindi kailangan ng pangulo na siya mismo ang mag-uutos sa mga sundalo at mga pulis kung ano'ng gagawin. Kaya para sa'kin, ang mismong pahiwatig na ang pangulo pa ang kinailangang pumunta ron ay kakulangan ng tiwala sa mga namumuno sa panahon na yon," said the senator.
(A president must be safe, doing his work where he won't be put in danger. The president doesn't need to be there at the frontlines and tell soldiers and police what to do. So for me, the mere fact that the president had to go there means he didn't quite trust the leaders during that time.)
Roxas answered by pointing out that using Poe's logic, it means the country's security officials – Defense Chief Voltaire Gazmin and heads of the armed forces – did not enjoy the President's trust either.
"Hindi naman kasi puwede na isang patakaran para sa akin, sa pagtingin po ninyo, at iba naman po ang patakaran sa kabuuan ng Armed Forces of the Philippines (It's unfair if you apply a different standard to me and a different standard to the Armed Forces of the Philippines)," said Roxas.
Both Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Jejomar Binay tried to join the discussion, but moderator Luchi Cruz-Valdes did not allow this, citing debate rules.
The Mamasapano debacle was only one of the instances wherein Roxas, the anointed candidate of the administration party, had to defend the government’s performance or position.
Earlier, during the first round of the debate, Poe also quizzed Roxas on the government’s "bottom-up budgeting" program, which she called restrictive because projects were limited to a "menu" and dubious because it was "only introduced as the elections drew near."
Roxas denied Poe's claims, insisting the program had been in place since 2011. The program was introduced in 2011 under the term of the late Jesse Robredo but was only implemented in 2013, which also happens to be an election year. – Rappler.com
More from the debate: