SAF 44: Heroes or Just Victims of Circumstances?

If there is one event in the annals of Philippine news and current affairs, the Mamasapano police massacre is definitely one of the most convoluted stories ever.  It seems that people from all walks of life have different versions of tales to tell and are convinced that theirs is the truth.  The lack of credible, detailed, and truthful details paved way for different assumptions that some angles provided were tantamount to sowing intrigues and confusion.  It is indeed difficult to become objective when dealing with this news especially on determining if the 44 fallen Special Action Forces policemen are to be considered heroes or are plain victims of circumstance. 

What the Media has Reported


from news.inquirer.net


The confusion started when everyone in the media could not ascertain how many fatalities there was initially, and what they had were just a tally of how many casualties as they update their stories from time to time beginning January 25, 2015.  The most common story was that the Mamasapano clash was a battle between Special Action Force of PNP or the Philippine National Police and the BIFF or Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and MILF or Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  The original mission of “Oplan Wolverine” (as it is called) was to serve a warrant of arrest to high ranking terrorists whom MILF and BIFF allegedly hid from local and international authorities.  However, the mission turned into a battle between the SAF and the secessionist soldiers (MILF and BIFF) that led to death of 44 Special Action Force policemen, 18 forces from the MILF, and the alleged ultimate death of Zulkifi Abdhir also known as Marwan who is one of the subjects of the warrant of arrest.

According to reports, three platoons belonging to SAF dared to enter the guerrilla domain of the Mindanao militants with the hope of capturing Basil Usman and Marwan, two of the most notorious Jemaah Islamiyah personalities.  The SAF were ambushed by MILF soldiers and they ran out of ammunition and prompting some survivors to withdraw.  But the BIFF and MILF rebels (and even private armed groups according to some) in nearby villages engaged them in encounter and overpowered those who withdraw and mercilessly killing the 44 SAF forces even if some of them were already corpses.  Government reported that the mission has at least killed Marwan, one of the bomb experts.  As soon as the news erupted and published, all sorts of speculations ensued.

Speculations and Questions


arrival honors for the fallen 44, image from Rappler

On top of the list is of course trying to find out who ordered the operation.  This is the most critical aspect in this event as there are on-going peace process activities between the Philippine government and the Muslim separatists.  While others treat this as a mere wrinkle in the process as what Rina Jimenez David of the Inquirer suggested, quite a number of Filipinos reacted on the contrary; many believed that the government should retaliate to honor the dignity of the 44 fallen policemen. 

Who ordered the mission? 

Administration officials were quick to deny that they knew of the mission and labelled the incident as a “mis-encounter” between the government and the separatist soldiers.  The policemen were not supposed to be there considering that they are in an area considered as MILF/BIFF domain by virtue of the Bangsa Moro Proposed Law.  Since January 25, 2015 many assumptions pointed otherwise and suggested that the mere fact that President Aquino was in Zamboanga during the mission was one of the indicators that the Chief Executive was aware of the mission and many alleged that he ordered the mission.  As the Commander in Chief of The Armed Forces of The Philippines, it is indeed baffling among millions of Filipinos that Pres. Aquino was not aware of the mission. 

Was there proper coordination? 

Another lingering question was that why did the incident happened?  Did the PNP head forget to coordinate with different authorities to serve the warrant of arrest?  Why was there no reinforcement? In other words, the whole mission lacked planning and coordination and yes, the whole SAF contingent were indeed trained for suicide mission if you must call it but there are other matters involved in order to have a successful operation.  Former President Ramos had already said his piece and enumerated factors that went wrong and he said nothing about the combat skills of the SAF but more on running the mission like a headless chicken. 

The lack of reinforcement suggested that there was indeed no coordination.  According to some survivors, there were calls for reinforcement but the battalions of armies nearby were just waiting for the command to help SAF men.  Again, President Aquino was blamed for the lack of reinforcement because it his command that is needed. 

Who was right? 

A spokesman from MILF accused SAF men of initiating the fighting and claimed that their men were acting in self – defense.  The spokesman further added that despite this major incident, the group is still willing to continue with the on-going peace process.  However, an intelligence report cited by the military stated that BIFF head Ameril Umbra Kato mandated the killing and saying to leave no one alive and get all their ammunitions, firearms, and personal belongings.  As a result, wounded SAF soldiers were shot to death by BIFF rebel soldiers. Indeed, no one can claim who was in the right position because both parties claimed they are right.  For the SAF men, they were just following orders and the MILF were just protecting their territorial rights. 

Is Marwan dead or alive? 

who is marwan
Perhaps the most important question of all in determining if the SAF men were heroes or victims of circumstance is the question of Marwan’s death.  Philippine government claimed that the mission did not bring to his arrest, however, it claimed victorious by reporting that Marwan was indeed dead. Initially, MILF camp did not confirm nor deny the allegation and insisted that they did not and are not harboring this international terrorist.  However, the MILF changed their tune and said that they had an intelligence report stating that SAF troops surrounded Marwan in his nipa abode and initiated open fire to SAF men and the policemen responded and were able to shoot Marwan dead.  The body was immediately buried and Usman reportedly had escaped. 

Was greed involved in the operation?  

Marwan has been in hiding in the Philippines since 2003 and was very active with BIFF activities.  The question is why only now did the government launch an operation for his arrest? Why did it not initiate arrest operations decades ago and the problem about his terrorist and bomb making activities would have been solved earlier? Marwan’s death left a legacy of 300 bomb makers in Mindanao as reported by Philippine Star. Many people have insinuated that it is the reward of $5M that actually motivated the mission. 

The Reaction of President Aquino


aquino not present saf44 arrival honors
It is mind boggling for many people why it took him three days to respond and made statement about the SAF massacre.  People compared his actions with that of Pres. Obama who responded immediately hours after the Fergusson incident and the French Premier immediately defended free speech after the Charlie Hebdo killings.  By Wednesday, January 28, 2015, the President appeared on national television and said his piece.  Among the most important details of his speech were:

·         Declaring January 30 as National Day of Mourning.
·         He reiterated that lack of coordination was the reason for this unfortunate incident and blamed the chief of SAF. 
·         He added more salt to the wounds by asking for support on the Bangsa Moro Law.
·         He appreciated the call of MILF for impartial inquiry on the SAF massacre.
Clearly from these, you can deduce that the President has no plans of discussing the massacre into full details.  His words merely suggested that he had no idea indeed about the operation.  However, The Manila Standard reported that President Aquino assigned PNP Chief Alan Purisima without informing Mar Roxas who is the DILG head.  According to their reports, President Aquino was expecting a successful operation and that Purisima was directly reporting to the President through his Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa. 

Different Views from Different People


hackers hacked government websites to protest
Probably, the most important reactions that should be considered are those from people in Mindanao as they are the ones who will be directly affected with the future impact and consequences from this event.  The most objective statement came from Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte who said that MILF should not be held responsible for the massacre of 44 SAF people.  He reminded everyone that there is an existing peace agreement between MILF and the government and the SAF men entered into a territory where the government has recognized as MILF area of responsibility.  There was indeed a violation in the agreement when SAF men entered MILF turf without proper coordination. 

However, not many Filipinos are in agreement with Mayor Duterte’s pronouncement. There are those who wanted revenge for the benefit of the 44 massacred SAF policemen.  Many also have feared continuous clashes as a result of this incident.  The hearing on the Bangsa Moro Basic Law is already halted and Senator Alan Cayetano has already rescinded his support to it.  The House of Congress through Speaker Feliciano Belmonte has also suspended its own hearings and declared that the incident will not hamper supportive measures for the Bangsa Moro Basic Law.  Senator Ejercito on the other hand has withdrawn his sponsorship on the bill.  Senator Grace Poe called for a Senate hearing to determine the culprit and liabilities of arising from Mamasapano massacre. 

Calling For The Passage of the BBL


bangsamoro state


While Cayetano, Ejercito, and Marcos issued strong statements about the incident, many important people believe that this senseless killing should not hamper the peace process.  Senators Miriam Santiago and Frank Drillon are convinced that discussion should continue on the proposed law. Chief Negotiator for the government Miriam Coronel Ferrer opined that the BBL is a long term solution to end the Mindanao conflict and should not be affected with this single incident. 

Heroes or Victims?


saf 44


Necrological services were already delivered to the 44 SAF policemen and it was an emotional affair not only for the whole Armed Forces of The Philippines but for the entire nation.  Netizens were angry to the point of being not objective with their remarks and damn the President to the fullest.  Memes and images were shared criticizing the government for its inability to shed light about the massacre. 

The emotional impact of the event led quite a number of people to declare all 44 as fallen heroes.  However, based on the highlights of the events, it is somewhat questionable to declare them as heroes for the following reasons:

  • They had breached an agreement with the MILF and their supporters so they are not heroes but rather an attacker.
  • They did not actually defend our country. They are on a mission to serve warrant of arrest not to go to war and defend the country from threat to its security and domain.  The peace process is already working and there is no need for armed conflict between MILF and the government at the moment.
  • It is still doubtful if Marwan is dead.  This alone is one best reason why they should not be called as heroes as they failed their mission. 

Final Words


We have to see the whole situation very objectively.  This is not the time to make careless remark.  The road to long lasting peace is not without bumps and grind.  It is a continuous process and one wrinkle should not derail the whole negotiation process towards lasting peace in Mindanao.  Let us trust the government and the MILF to work together and shed light on the truth of the matter.  Allow both parties to work together and bring together the person or people responsible from both sides to answer to the death of the 44 SAF policemen.  Someone or some people out there are responsible and should be answerable to this crime.  
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