This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus. An earlier version appeared in Telesur English, which graciously gave its permission to reprint it.
Early in the morning of January 25, commandos belonging to the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police crept into the southern town of Mamasapano—a stronghold of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The elite Seaborne Unit had come for Zulkifli Abdhir, a Malaysian bomb maker better known as “Marwan.”
By the end of the morning, dozens lay dead.
The episode has severely discredited the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, jeopardized decades of progress on peace talks with Moro separatists and underlined the perils for developing-world governments that put themselves at the beck and call of Washington.
The commandos were able to kill Marwan, who’d sat high on the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.” But then all hell broke loose. The insurgents woke up and opened fire on the intruders, forcing the commandos to leave Marwan’s body behind. They had to content themselves with cutting off the corpse’s index finger to turn over to the FBI.
As they retreated, nine of the Seaborne commandos were killed. They radioed for help, but they were told that the “Quick Reaction Force” charged with covering their withdrawal was already pinned down in a flat cornfield with little cover. Over the next few hours, that separate unit of thirty-six men was picked off one by one by Moro snipers. Only one of the thirty-six survived, by running for his life and jumping into a nearby river.
All in all, forty-four policemen died in the bloody battle. Moro fighters estimated that eighteen of their combatants and about four civilians were killed.
A timely rescue effort was not even mounted, since an infantry battalion in the area wasn’t informed till late in the morning that the commandos were under fire. When ceasefire monitors finally reached the cornfield late in the afternoon, long after the battle ended, they found corpses that had been stripped of their weapons and other gear, some exhibiting wounds that indicated they had been shot at point-blank range.
Biggest Casualty: Moro Autonomy
The “Mamasapano Massacre,” as it has come to be called, upended Philippine politics.
The biggest casualty was the Bangsa Moro Basic Law that was in the last stages of being shepherded through the Philippine Congress. Known as the BBL, the bill was the product of nearly five years of intensive negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to put an end to almost fifty years of fighting in the southern Philippines. It would have created an autonomous region for the Muslim Moros, a fiercely independent people that have long resisted integration into the broader Filipino polity.