After Mamasapano: Seeking truth, building narrative

Alma Maria O. Salvador, Carmel V. Abao

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That 'we should go to war to achieve peace' is not a narrative about peace but a narrative about war. The Mamasapano clash should not lead us to choose the 'us versus them' narrative.

A number of mechanisms have been offered as the means for truth seeking after Mamasapano:  a Board of Inquiry created by the Department of the Interior and Local Government, a fact-finding panel established by the Department of Justice, an internal “Special Investigative Commission” formed by the MILF, a “Truth Commission” initiated by legislators and an “Independent Body” proposed by the Commission on Human Rights.  

Will these mechanisms lead us closer to or further from the truth?   

That these offered mechanisms may or may not provide the truth is an important, valid question. Truth seeking, after all, is never a simple matter of delegating to a small, select group the task of gathering and analyzing facts. Often, “the truth” lies not in the facts or pieces of evidence presented but in the narratives or assumptions and motives that inform people’s questioning, presentation and appreciation of facts. This is why it is always difficult to achieve consensus regarding “the truth” in the context of competing narratives.    

This piece is an attempt to expose and make sense of the narratives that have emerged after the clash in Mamasapano.  It is necessary to examine narratives because these reflect and shape reality. Emerging narratives clearly reveal the very deep, historical schisms in Philippine society that have fuelled the decades-long conflict in Mindanao. At the same time, these narratives could either exacerbate or alleviate conflict.     

Our task after Mamasapano is not just to seek the truth but also to examine and choose our narratives well.  

Counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency 

Counter terrorism (CT), counter insurgency (CI) and the anti criminality policies of the state and their delineations underpin the SAF operations in Mamasapano on January 25. Theoretically, the lines between these are easy to draw, but in reality, their differentiations are soft and are blurred by the interplay of clan culture and politics in Mindanao.

In the absence of other political and economic institutions on the ground, the importance of clans in service delivery and security provision and their role in the framing of the Muslim struggle in Philippine history cannot be understated.  

As a “purely” law enforcement operation, the SAF’s pursuit of “jihadists” in Mamasapano may have been a justified government entry to an MILF-held area while a ceasefire agreement with the rebel group was being observed. The police’s role in counter-terrorism stems from the criminalization of terrorist acts of violence. A PNP mandate, it is the outcome of the emergent police and military division of roles in security provision where the PNP-SAF assumes a frontline anti-criminality/anti-terrorism role.    

While the narrative that Oplan Wolverine was within the mandate of the PNP-SAF holds water, the conduct of this particular “special ops” is a debatable matter that provokes a number of questions.  

Why did it have to happen now? Marwan’s alleged presence in Maguindanao had been known and previously reported, even in media.  

Why was the AFP not drawn into the picture? The ceasefire, after all, has only been between the PH and the MILF and not between the PH and the BIFF (and the ASG which has professed links with Jemaah Islamiyah).  

Why was the regular local police – given their knowledge of the target area’s physical and social terrain – excluded from the special operations? 

Official explanations point to the required secrecy of intelligence reports and plans in missions involving most wanted terrorists who are high value targets. Secrecy is demanded given the fuzzy relational distinctions between law enforcers, rebels and civilians in a socially knitted and identity based community. Given that identities and affiliations of so-called “terrorists/jihadists” in the target area are related if not twinned with Muslim identity, Oplan Wolverine thus should not have been deemed a “purely” law enforcement operation. 

Global War Against Terror is also the broader narrative to consider. After  9-11, the term terrorism has taken on new, contested meanings and, unfortunately, a social stigma on Muslims everywhere. Terrorism has tended to refer not just to “acts” of terror but to a particular group of people (Muslims) and a particular religion (Islam).   

Double-edged impact

The challenge to the Philippine government is to keep in mind that the counter terrorism-counter insurgency nexus in a Muslim area has a double-edged impact.

On the one hand, special ops are likely to be viewed as infiltration of a community and can result in communal sympathy for the “terrorists.” On the other hand, Muslim retaliation is likely to inflame anti-Moro sentiments and reinforce the social stigma on Muslims as “terrorists.” By the experience of previously unsuccessful special ops, the PH government should have known that a failed anti-terrorist covert operation could stall the ongoing peace process. 

Why was the ad hoc joint action group (AHJAG) of PHL and MILF, intended to work out matters related to the counter terrorism-counter insurgency nexus, not activated? 

Official sources say that the ad hoc joint action group, a mechanism organized by the PH and MILF in 2002 to “interdict and isolate” terrorists in hiding in MILF communities was not activated  because the particular nature and profile of the high value targets justified an “exemption” from AHJAG’s coverage. This is in part the reason for excluding the military from the operation.   

Neither the MILF was informed. AHJAG’s design of intelligence sharing between the PH and MILF is obviously an uncomfortable union between two strange bedfellows – but an agreed upon union nevertheless. It is thus unfortunate to know that in covert operations such as Mamasapano where trust is key, the PNP and the AFP are unable to transcend their biases against the MILF.   

Chain of command and accountability

The PNP-SAF operations evidently aimed for a swift,  “surgical operation” given the “actionable intelligence” that it had gathered.

Without the AHJAG mechanism in place, however, the PNP-SAF operations should have had solid intelligence, a solid plan and a solid chain of command. Apparently, a major shortcoming lay in the miscalculation and underestimation of risks that such a covert operation entails. With presumably only suspended police chief Director General Alan Purisima and President Aquino working with actionable intelligence, Oplan Wolverine was a plan doomed to fail.  

To military and non-military minds alike, a law enforcement operation that leaves 44 policemen, 19 MILF fighters, and 7 civilians dead is incomprehensible.  

As chief executive and commander-in-chief, PNoy’s accountability is at the forefront.

In covert operations involving high value targets, chain of command principles should be clear and solid at the onset while keeping in mind the operational limitations of the PNP-SAF in planning.   

The “political” risks, particularly the costs of the special ops on the peace process, should also have been calculated more thoroughly. In this regard, the issue of whether it was correct to treat Oplan Wolverine as a “purely” law enforcement operation should again be raised.  

Autonomy or total war?

At this point, the most alarming, emerging narrative is that the Muslims in Mindanao cannot be trusted to rule themselves, not after Mamasapano.   

The total war proposal and the call to suspend the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) have found space not just in the halls of government but also in traditional and social media.  These calls are finding their way not just into public policy but also into the common people’s thinking. 

But is the BBL meant to prevent a Mamasapano incident from recurring? Is it intended to prevent the spread of terrorism? Can it truly institute lasting peace in Mindanao? 

The BBL should be viewed not as a panacea to the pressing problems of Muslim Mindanao – “terrorism” included – but as an opportunity structure. As such, the BBL is being crafted primarily to give space to the Muslims, historically marginalized in the political system and deprived of the right to self-rule and self-determination. Whether or not the Muslims will use this space wisely is not for us to say. 

The BBL, thus, is a governance narrative.

It is a narrative on the Bangsamoro autonomy that is meant to free the Filipino Muslims from the hold of the political center in Manila. It is not meant to directly nor immediately solve the long-standing societal problems that have ailed Muslim Mindanao. Rather, it is meant to institute changes regarding centralizing and colonizing tendencies of national government. It is also meant to accord the Muslims and the others excluded – such as the indigenous peoples of Mindanao – the social and political recognition that they have long fought for.

While the long-term benefits of extended autonomy remain to be seen, said autonomy could pave the way for transformative politics in Muslim Mindanao. Right now, aside from being governed by central authorities, Muslims in these parts are ruled only by clans and/or militaristic organizations such as the MILF and paramilitary private armies.

The BBL thus presents an opportunity for Muslims to go beyond these and create  institutions that would challenge familial and clan-based practices and thereby create conditions that are more conducive to sustainable peace.    

That “we should go to war to achieve peace” is not a narrative about peace but a narrative about war. The Mamasapano clash should not lead us to choose the “us versus them” narrative. –


The authors are both faculty members of the Political Science Department of the Ateneo de Manila University. 








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