Massacre or misencounter? #SAF44 debate goes on

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Policemen carry the body of their comrade during a retrieval operation on January 26, 2015 in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

(CNN Philippines) — Nearly two months have passed since the January 25 firefight between elite commandos of the Special Action Force (SAF) and Moro troops in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The Senate, the Philippine National Police (PNP), and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have all wrapped up their separate inquiries on the incident.

And yet, the debate continues on what is perhaps the incident's most basic facet: Was it a massacre or an encounter?

Given the SAF's loss of 44 officers, there are those who would label the firefight as a massacre.

On the other hand, others argue that what happened was an encounter, on the grounds that both sides were armed.

The arguments boil down to a matter of perspective.

Related: Bangsamoro: Many cultures united under Islam

Cold blood, crushed skulls

The Senate report explicitly labels the incident as a massacre.  It says that the SAF's 84th Seaborne and 55th Special Action Company walked into a trap as they made their way out of the hideout of Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.

"There was nowhere they could go because their escape routes were fully covered by the gunfire of the enemy. All the MILF and BIFF [Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters] did was to go there and shoot them individually, one by one."

The report also points to an unverified video of an alleged MILF soldier executing an already wounded SAF officer lying on the ground: "The autopsy report on the 44 fallen cops is strong evidence that further proved that the Mamasapano incident was not a misencounter, as close to 30 policemen bore gunshot wounds to the head."

Another point of contention is the allegation of the report that the Moro troops used excessive force, with their mortars and .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifles: "The said firearms are so powerful that it crushed the skulls of the fallen troopers."

"The Mamasapano incident was overkill. Labeling the tragedy as a misencounter would do injustice to the fallen 44 PNP-SAF heroes."

The Senate got its definition of massacre from two dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term as "the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty."

The Oxford Dictionary describes a massacre as the "indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people."

Not so fast

For her part, Commission on Human Right Chairperson Loretta "Etta" Rosales, disagrees with the report's use of massacre.

In a statement released last Saturday (March 21), Rosales argued that the term itself is quite loaded: "While the Commission commiserates with the families of the victims and acknowledges that the killing of the Fallen 44 was unjustified, categorizing the incident as a massacre is excessive."

She said that the Moro troops' use of high-powered firearms and mortars does not automatically equate to cruelty, inasmuch as it has yet to be established who, between the MILF and BIFF, used what.

"Moreover, this characterization also overlooks the fact that the SAF were armed, albeit outgunned," she said. "In other words, although their situation was dire, the SAF were not necessarily 'helpless or unresisting'."

Rosales countered the Senate's argument that the SAF troops walked into a trap: "This equates the incident to an ambush, which is not borne out by the records because the MILF itself, much less the BIFF, was unaware of the arrival of the SAF."

Related: Where will the Bangsamoro funds go?

The bigger picture

Regardless of what one would call the firefight, one thing is clear: The Muslim Mindanao region today can be called anything but peaceful.

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team (ARMM-HEART) says that as of March 16, about 24,714 families, or 123,537 individuals in Maguindanao have been displaced as a result of the intensified law enforcement operation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines against the BIFF.

The government says the fighting has caused the region about P600 billion in damage to property and livelihood from 1970 to 2001.

And of course, there is also the cost of human life. Apart from the fallen SAF commandos, Rosales pointed out that 17 MILF fighters and five civilians lost their lives on January 25, including an eight-year-old child.

But such a number is minuscule compared to what the government estimates to be the 120,00 lives lost from 1970 to 1996.