This is not the first time, nor will it probably be the last, that a massacre of government security forces in the hands of an insurgent group will happen. This most recent case involves members of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP), killed in the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao. The unfortunate incident was attributed to a “misencounter” between government forces in hot pursuit of a known international terrorist, Zulkifi bin Hir, also locally known as Mamarwan, and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who were working together with elements of an MILF break-away group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The PNP put the figure to 43 deaths, but MILF estimates run as high as 64 deaths.
Not too long ago, similar events happened in the sleepy town of Al-Barka in the island province of Basilan. In separate incidents in 2007 and 2011, members of the Philippine Marines and the Philippine Army’s Special Forces were also massacred by supposed members of the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a known terrorist group based in Mindanao.
This recent collision is indeed a “misencounter,” an encounter that should not have happened given the existing ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF forces. Such “misencounter” transcends the actual fighting and characterizes the kind of engagements between our various social institutions in our fumbling attempts to craft a more permanent and lasting peace in Mindanao.
There are glaring similarities in many of the massacres involving members of our country’s security forces. For one, both the 2007 and 2011 Al-Barka incidents, and this current Mamasapano massacre, all happened amidst an ongoing peace negotiation between MILF and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP). While the peace agreement should be the way to go, the lack of coordination between the negotiating parties foretells a bigger coordination problem once the Bangsamoro Basic Law is finally put into effect in parts of Mindanao. The very need for members of the PNP to “coordinate” prior to entering a known MILF stronghold also puts into question the extent of the government’s authority, especially in far flung areas of Mindanao. Interestingly enough, the same “failure to coordinate” was mentioned in the investigation of the 2007 and 2011 Al-Barka massacres.
And what about the members of the elite government forces who fell victim? Shouldn’t their operational decisions to pursue a high-value target be covered by reliable intelligence information from the field? But the field is pervaded by a long-standing culture of mutual distrust that may have encouraged these forces to either rely on contaminated intelligence reports, or to ignore valid ones, dismissing the sources for these as tainted.
While we may not have a quick and ready solution to this long-standing peace and security problem in Southern Philippines, we also have a responsibility to examine the social processes that we create and re-create everyday and that lead to the construction of a divisive social structure. For example, an irresponsible mass media and a multitude of titillated social-media users who keep on re-posting gory images of dead policemen. Our astute political negotiators who at times choose to ignore the tell-tale warning signs of schisms and divisions as electoral cycles and political ambitions are deemed more important. Or even school curricula that do not push hard enough to allow for a deeper and more meaningful kind of interaction between peoples of various cultural orientations. We need to look into the historical processes that perpetuate such social institutions steeped in inequity, mistrust, and violence.
Deaths, regardless of the number, will always be very hard, especially on the family and loved ones who are left to make sense of the situation. Although to a lesser extent, the residents of areas where these deaths have taken place, as well as ordinary Filipinos in general, are also in a way repeatedly violated. They have very little choice but to be exposed continuously to the routinized violence that they can barely make sense of. While Filipinos are a resilient lot, and will be able to overcome these challenges, the first step to break the chain of discord is to understand the social forces that contribute to its perpetuation.
Image taken by Patricia Evangelista/Rappler.