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Philippine army's rules of engagement

Publication Date : 02-11-2012

 

Some two weeks after a Philippine Army unit killed the wife and two sons of a B’laan tribal leader in the southern province Davao del Sur, the Armed Forces announced that the 13 soldiers involved—one lieutenant and 12 enlisted men—would be tried before a military court.

We welcome the news, and the unprecedented dispatch with which the decision to begin court-martial proceedings was reached. But at the same time, we realise that the court-martial is only the beginning.

The road to justice for the pregnant Juvy Capion and her sons Jordan, 13, and Jan-Jan, 8, remains long and tortuous.

All of the accounts that relate the events of October 18, even the statements attributed to military spokesmen, agree that the three victims were—to use the noncommittal language of bureaucracy—collateral damage. They were killed when a unit of the Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion, in pursuit of Juvy’s husband, the tribal leader Dagil Capion, fired upon them.

According to a relative and neighbour of Juvy’s, Rita Capion Dialang, she heard a short burst of gunfire at around six in the morning of October 18 in the direction of the Capion family’s hut. When she and others reached the place, they saw the victims, with the soldiers standing around. “It was a massacre. They were unarmed and sleeping. Dagil was not around and nobody from our family’s side could have started the fire fight,” Dialang said.

Right from the start, the Army had insisted that Dagil fired on the soldiers. But even the initial statements of the battalion commander showed that he knew the accidental nature of the killings. “We did not know there were unarmed civilians inside,” Lt. Col. Alexis Bravo said.

A fact-finding report of the Social Action Centre of the Diocese of Marbel states that there was in fact no fire fight. And in explaining the decision of the Army’s board of inquiry to hale the soldiers before a court-martial, spokesman Lt. Col. Lyndon Panisa of the 10th Infantry Division the other day implied that Juvy and her two sons were in truth collateral damage: “There is a violation of the rules of engagement. You should fire only aimed shots and determine your targets before you fire.”

The Army is firm, however, that Dagil Capion himself is a legitimate target.

There are conflicting reports about Capion’s fate; some allege that he was wounded but managed to escape, others that he was not even in the hut when the shots were fired. This lack of clarity reflects the controversial either-or character of his reputation. To antimining activists opposed to the entry of Sagittarius Mines Inc. into the area, Capion is merely an environmentalist like them. To the military and the police, Capion—together with his two brothers the leaders of an influential tribal clan—is a mere bandit, notorious even before the mining company came into the picture.

But on one key point everyone, including Capion’s own family, is agreed: The tribal leader is engaged in armed resistance to the mining project.

While we sympathise with the B’laan tribe’s concerns, we find Capion’s resort to violence regrettable. But nothing he has done or will do can justify the strafing of his house and the killing of his wife and two sons. (We understand that a daughter and another female relative, both children, were also wounded.) Nothing in the military’s rules of engagement can justify dragging the victims’ bodies out and leaving these out in the sun in an attempt—according to a report in Davao Today—to flush Capion out into the open.

We trust the court-martial will establish not only which rules of engagement had been breached and by whom, but also whether the assault on the Capion house was the tactical plan all along. It is one thing to “determine your targets before you fire.” It is entirely another to determine that a suspect’s house is the target before even ascertaining that there are no innocents in harm’s way. The lesson from over 30 years of counterinsurgency work remains the same: You cannot save a village, or a hut, by destroying it.

The Army has acted with commendable speed to determine responsibility for the October 18 massacre, but to prevent the death of innocents in the future, it must also learn, in the field, to act slowly, deliberately.

 

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