Philippine police commandos load body bags containing the remains of their comrades killed in a clash with rebels onto a truck in the town of Mamasapano, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on January 26, 2015. Forty-four police commandoes were killed after Philippine security forces clashed with Muslim rebels in the south, in rare violence that tested a nearly one-year-old peace accord. Image Credit: AFP

Beneath the veneer of peace, the Philippines remains at war within. The Mamasapano incident on January 25, which saw 44 of the Asian country’s best-trained cops killed in an encounter with separatist rebels, is just an ugly reminder of this deadly narrative.

Images of the cops’ badly-mangled bodies, following a pre-dawn battle that erupted in Maguindanao province between members of the Special Action Force (SAF) and fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) and its break-away faction, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff), have triggered emotional calls for massive retaliation.

The SAF team, comprising about 50 young Christian and Muslim policemen, may have been an icon of how the Philippines — a rising Asian economic tiger — can work through its ethnic divides.

Now, calls for retribution or a "total war", have emerged as troubling circumstances surrounding the operation and gory images of the cops’ disfigured bodies spread on social media.

The young policemen, better known as SAF44, formed part of a team put together to arrest the alleged Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli Bin Hir (aka “Marwan”), hiding where Milf and Bilf occasionally engage in deadly fights over turf. Accounts of what happened remain murky.

Neither the Philippines Army chief nor the head of the Interior Ministry had prior knowledge of the operation. Some speculate that President Benigno Aquino III was trying to do a Barack Obama, who had authorised a covert action to kill Osama Bin Laden.


The Mamasapano fiasco had become a major embarrassment for Aquino, who until recently was credited with setting his country’s economy on a growth path and raising record revenues on the back of a single-minded transparency drive.

At the very least, the SAF44 incident could push back the Bangsamoro deal indefinitely. Under the deal, signed in Malaysia in March 2014, the separatists would turn over their firearms to a third party agreed by the warring camps.

Milf has agreed to decommission its armed wing and, in turn, Manila is supposed to establish an autonomous Bangsamoro land through an act of Congress, with power and revenue-sharing guarantees.

But in light of SAF44, some lawmakers have already withdrawn legislative support for the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law; some opposition members are calling for Aquino to resign. His term ends in mid-2016. If the deal is scuppered, it could easily mean more of the same.

In the fog of war, meanwhile, it is easy to lose sight of the context. The whole SAF operation to get Marwan and Co was a tragi-comedy of errors set on a complex stage.

It was, until the morning of January 25, known only to Aquino and a few men.

Aquino is a good man caught in a tight spot. But by allowing a disgraced police chief, (now resigned) Director-General Alan Purisima, to run the operation, it exposed Aquino’s lack of resolve to deal with a top-cop who was then already a subject of an ongoing anti-graft case. Purisima happens to be Aquino's close friend.

Was the CIA involved, as there are 6,000 US soldiers stationed in Mindanao? Was money involved, considering that Marwan, the Far East’s most-wanted terrorist, had a $5 million (Dh18.39 million) bounty on his head?

The whole truth, which many are dying to know, may never come out.

Darkest hour

As sordid details emerge of how the state's enemies had desecrated the cops' dead bodies, calls for justice (an “eye for an eye”) grow. There are fears it may spiral into a tit-for-tat.

If so, it may be just history repeating itself: On September 24, 1974, the Philippines Army’s 15th 1B infantry battalion massacred 1,776 worshippers at Tacbil Mosque in Sultan Kudarat in its zeal to crush the Moro rebellion. It was the Philippines’ biggest single-day massacre.

Six years prior, in 1968, soldiers under the command of dictator Ferdinand Marcos killed 68 Filipino Muslim military trainees in Corregidor, known as the “Jabidah Massacre”, which the sitting president’s father, Senator Benigno Jr, fought hard to expose.

More than 120,000 people have already died directly as a result of Moro rebellion since the 1960s — certainly one of the Philippines’ darkest hours.

On the brighter side, Manila’s economy today is firing on all cylinders, with manufacturing and stock markets being Asia’s top grossers. Record gross international (foreign-exchange) reserves — bigger than developed economies like Canada, the Netherlands or Sweden — means lower interest rates and more cash to go around.

Recovery under Aquino did not go unnoticed as most ratings agencies had given it a notch above investment grade.

From being a net borrower, Manila has started lending to other countries and remittances from the Filipino diaspora are estimated at $24 billion in 2014.

Dealing with the fallout of the SAF44 humiliation requires a strong, but not a Rambo, leadership. Aquino could still be that leader, though greater odds are now stacked against him. And his presidency ends in 18 months.

Mindanao, the so-called “Land of Promise”, is like a wound left open for so long. But as the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland showed, a realistic dose of self-restraint and the ability to see the world beyond emotionally-charged headlines are needed from all parties to deal with the festering infection.

Only a strong resolve to make tough compromises can end Mindanao’s ugly war. That's when real healing starts and the Philippines can rise to its full potential.