Aquino’s blind spot in the wake of massacre
The tragedy in Mamasapano, Maguindanao — the secret police operation which killed Malaysian terrorist Marwan but also left 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troopers, 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front regulars, and three civilians dead — continues to spook Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s administration. It simply does not know what to do with the incident and its consequences.
President Aquino’s worst approval or satisfaction ratings were caused, not by his administration’s disastrous initial response to Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” but by his disastrous response to Mamasapano and especially to the deaths of the SAF 44. His decision to skip the arrival honors for the slain troopers in Villamor Air Base may have been prompted by a personal distaste for hogging the inevitable limelight, but it was a terrible political miscalculation. Many perceived him as callous, condescending, unable to accept mistakes.
Are the Lessons Learned?
His ratings have since recovered but has he or his administration learned the right lessons?
There is no good explanation for why there was no mention of the SAF 44, however brief, in his last State of the Nation Address (SONA). The official line from his many spokespersons is that he had already recognized them, many times, in other speeches. That is true, as far as it goes. But how much of his SONA was repetition, familiar facts or current claims already asserted? He also listed the killing of Marwan as an administration accomplishment; he could have simply added a phrase, say, about the gallant 44 troopers, and that would have been that. Instead he opened himself to criticism, not only from some of the SAF 44 families but from opposition leader Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Now comes the controversy over the reported snub of at least two SAF officers, the late Petty Officer 2nd Class Romeo Cempron, who died in Mamasapano, and Superintendent Raymund Train, the man who led (and survived) the assault on Marwan’s lair, during the Philippine National Police anniversary.
The exclusive by reporter Julliane Love de Jesus of Inquirer.net began thus: “The names of two SAF officers included in the official memorandum identifying the police personnel to be awarded by President Benigno Aquino III during the 114th police service anniversary on Friday morning were nowhere to be found in the anniversary program. A government official told Inquirer.net on Thursday that the names had been ordered removed.”
Administration and police officials have since denied there was any such order from the Palace, and that the awards had merely failed to make the deadline. But this much we know: On July 8, or a month before Philippine National Police Day, a member of the awards selection committee already announced that Cempron’s heroism will be recognized with a Medal of Valor. Chief Superintendent Augusto Marquez told the Inquirer that the motion to grant Cempron the PNP’s highest distinction was unanimously approved by the service’s Special Promotion, Awards and Deliberation Board. He said the testimony of Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor from the blocking force, was decisive.
Late in July (around July 23 or so), the chair of the SubCommittee on Selection of Awardees for the 114th Police Service Anniversary Celebration, Chief Superintendent Ferdinand Pablo Yuzon, released a memorandum on the “Result of the Selection of Awardees.” That memorandum included the names of Cempron and Train in the section on Individual Awards: the Medal of Valor for Cempron, the Medalya ng Kabayanihan for Train.
On July 31, Cempron’s widow, Christine, was advised by SAF officials that her husband would receive the PNP’s highest honor, and from the president himself, on PNP Day. “Last Friday (July 31), SAF told me to prepare a Filipiniana attire because I would attend a formal event — the president will give my husband an award. I had to cancel my clinic appointments,” the pediatrician said. She added: “In fairness to SAF, they did not commit until they were sure that the awarding would push through.”
What happened? Would SAF officials arrange for Christine’s trip to Manila, and buy her the Filipiniana dress she needed, if they had not received confirmation? Even more crucial: At any time since July 8, the Palace or the PNP leadership could have already signaled that the SAF awardees didn’t in fact make it to the cutoff. Why didn’t they? Two police sources who requested anonymity allege that the last-minute order to remove the names came from Malacanang. What does it tell the Palace that these anonymous claims carry more weight than its belated explanation? This is an editorial published by Philippine Daily Inquirer on Aug. 10.