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In Manila, Backlash Mounts Against Aquino

by Simone Orendain March 20, 2015

Philippine President Benigno Aquino is facing the biggest challenge of his political career as more people come to believe he is responsible for a bungled January police operation that left 44 police commandos and at least 23 others dead. The president's ratings have dipped below 50 percent for the first time since he took office in 2010.

At a Manila area neighborhood traffic command post, traffic manager Romeo Maglaya shakes his head and wrinkles his face in disgust at the fact that he voted for President Aquino five years ago.

Nearly two months after the bloody January 25 clash in Mamasapano town on Mindanao Island, Maglaya says Aquino is ultimately responsible for the botched effort by police commandos to capture two internationally wanted suspected terrorists. The police ended up in a fight with several Muslim rebel factions that lasted more than half a day.

"He should apologize to the family of the 'Fallen 44.' He should take the courage to explain everything and anything about what happened."

Fresh on Maglaya's mind is video footage of the 44 Philippine-flag-draped caskets of the dead commandos being laid out on the tarmac of Villamor Airbase in Manila, while high-ranking officials looked on, minus the president who was at a Mitsubishi plant opening.

Explanatory speeches

Aquino has since given at least three speeches related to the incident, explaining what he knew of the operation and saying the commanding officer of the elite commando force lied to him about it. But his words have fueled demands for an apology and given momentum to calls for his resignation.

Friday saw an 'Aquino Out Now!' rally in Manila that was one of a series of recent rallies against the president.

"Slowly, people are waking up to the sad reality that this president has betrayed them and that it's time for him to go,' says Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the New Patriotic Alliance party, one of the organizers of several rallies calling for Aquino's ouster. 'Whether we have that critical mass we will see in the coming months where this goes. But I think right now we're really concerned about putting pressure on the president to speak out and to be accountable about the incident so far."

In the past week a police inquiry board report and a Senate report were released on the clash. Each found Aquino was responsible for approving an operation the reports said was doomed from the start. The reports say the president, suspended Police Director General Alan Purisima and the then- head of the Police Special Action Force, Getulio Napenas, were the only people who knew about the plan to arrest suspected terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan of Malaysia, and Basit Usman, a Philippine national.

President Aquino reportedly told the police officials to coordinate with the Armed Forces as the commandos would be passing through an area controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace agreement with the government a year ago. But the reports reveal military personnel near Mamasapano only learned about the operation after shots were fired and were limited to retrieval support hours later.

The cease-fire between the government and the MILF was broken. And the operation put the peace process in peril, casting doubt on the plan to end 45 years of conflict that have left more than 120,000 dead.

US involvement

To further stoke public anger, the Senate committee report shows at least six Americans at the police action force command post provided intelligence, maps, equipment and cooperation. But they never joined in the fighting. As part of a Visiting Forces Agreement the U.S. does counterterrorism training in the Philippines and does not take part in any combat operations.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman says this operation was led by the Philippines.

With the release of the reports, Aquino's communications staff has been trying to do some damage control. Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma this week quoted text from one of the president's earlier speeches.

"I am the father of this country and 44 of my children were killed. They can no longer be brought back. This tragedy happened during my term and I will carry this to the end of my days. They were my responsibility together with the forces of the SAF involved in this operation," he said.

Political analyst Richard Heydarian of DeLaSalle University in Manila says the political backlash is getting worse because Aquino is not apologizing. He says the president's people do not appear to have any real strategy to fix the situation.

"A tragedy that should not have been necessarily a downfall or… a huge blow to the popularity of Aquino has now become perhaps his biggest political crisis," he said.

But when questions are raised about whether the president plans to give some sort of apology, officials say they have no word on any such arrangement.

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