Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is facing a political crisis that threatens to ruin his presidency because of his role in a disastrous operation by Philippine police commandos to arrest a notorious al-Qaeda linked terrorist. “This is Aquino’s biggest political crisis,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute of Political and Electoral Reform, told Reuters. “Anything can happen.”
The operation to arrest Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, took place on the morning of January 25 at a remote village. Marwan was killed, but as the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) commandos withdrew from the village they were attacked by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) gunmen. In the firefight, 44 SAF officers were killed, and 16 wounded. Other nearby SAF and army units, who could hear the gunfire, inexplicably failed to intervene. Contradictory statements by officials indicate poor coordination between police and the army.
Many of the dead policemen were shot in the head at close range, apparently after they had run out of ammunition. Public outrage over the disaster has grown in the weeks since as President Aquino and senior police commanders have offered shifting explanations of who was in command of the operation.
Analysts have speculated that Aquino failed to effectively support the SAF commandos because he was reluctant to wreck the peace treaty negotiated with the MILF in 2012. The treaty is intended to end the conflict between the Moro Muslims of Mindanao and the government by creating an autonomous Muslim region called Bangsamoro. Members of Congress have called for suspension of the treaty and analysts doubt that it can be ratified. Casiple told the Voice of America that Aquino is in real trouble. “There is no way the Bangsamoro legislation will pass. Even his own presidency is on shaky ground.”
Public sympathy for the slain officers and anger at Aquino’s response has become a mass movement. Former presidents, members of Congress, religious leaders, and family of the slain policemen, have demanded that Aquino hold the MILF responsible and suspend negotiations for the Bangsamoro treaty.
In a televised address on January 28, Aquino said that though he was aware of plans to capture Marwan, he implied he had no specific knowledge of the raid. In a second address on February 6, Aquino shifted blame onto the SAF commander Getulio Napenas, but offered no explanation for why neither the chief of the national police nor the interior minister were aware of the operation, but that close friend Gen. Alan Purisima, suspended as chief of the national police amid a corruption investigation, had not only known of the raid but had been its planner.
Adding to a growing suspicion of a cover-up have been Purisima’s evasive responses to questions during Congressional hearings into the operation. “May I be given time to seek clearance with the President to answer your question?”, answered Purisima when asked by a Senator if he had been the one to inform Aquino of the disaster.
Later Congressional investigation revealed that Purisima and Napenas had briefed Aquino on the planned operation on January 9, and that Aquino was informed by Purisima early on the 25th that the operation had gone wrong.
Compounding Aquino’s difficulties has been a mishandling of public perceptions that has baffled observers. Instead of attending the return of the slain officer’s remains to Manila on January 29, Aquino attended the opening of a Mitsubishi factory. The contrast between images of the President at these festivities and the grieving widows and orphans of the slain officers could not have been worse for Aquino.
The low point for Aquino was his embarrassing televised address at SAF headquarters. When Aquino asked assembled SAF officers to express their thoughts, none did. When Aquino repeated his request the camera panned across the assembled SAF officers faces, which were looking at the floor. None of the officers spoke. After an uncomfortable silence, Aquino abruptly left.
Aquino may have irreparably damaged his public reputation. Perhaps more significantly he may also have killed any chance of ending the conflict between the government and the Muslim Moros of Mindanao. Lost amid the outrage over the MILF’s murder of the policemen is that the Bangsamoro treaty may now be impossible for Congress to ratify. Doubts about the MILF’s willingness to enforce the terms of the peace treaty are widely held and the public is demanding justice for the slain policemen.
The question for the Philippines is, what is the alternative to the treaty? Renewed conflict, more lives lost? The answer to those questions will be more important than what’s left of Aquino’s presidency.