Rappler Talk: Moving on after Mamasapano
MANILA, Philippines – Rappler talked to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr.
Catapang visited soldiers in the frontline of an all-out-war against members of a breakaway Muslim rebel group, Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters, in Maguindanao Wednesday, March 4.
Catapang gave gold and bronze cross medals to two officers and five enlisted men who helped extract members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force on January 25 after a mission to kill Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The police operation left 44 police, 18 rebels and five civilians dead.
Since last week military spokesmen say two camps of BIFF were overrun by soldiers in Maguindanao and nine BIFF rebels were killed.
What lessons did the military learn as an institution in dealing with the Muslims and indigenous people, and the realistic prospects for peace at this point? How successful is the Philippines' fight against terrorism? What is the military's role in this?
How about the situation in the South China Sea, where the Philippines claims disputed territories that cause tension between China? How is the AFP's modernization coming along? What is the military's role in climate change adaptation?
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Here is a transcript of the interview:
Maria Ressa: Hello and welcome, I’m Maria Ressa. This is RapplerTalk.
After the bloody carnage in Mamasapano maguindanao, that special operations killed 44 police 18 rebels and 5 civilians. What lessons did we learn from that? In the Philippines’ fight against terrorism what are the realistic prospects for peace? Joining us to answer these questions today is Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang. He’ll talk about the lessons the military learned among other issues it faces at the moment. General Catapang thank you for joining us.
General Catapang: Thank you for inviting me.
Maria Ressa: So it has been an overheated environment both politically and in the security, what’s the impact on this?
General Catapang: Apparently in the Christian world, we’re just about to celebrate the 40th day of the death of these fallen heroes. And unfortunately we still can’t move in because you know there’s a lot of things that come about on what really happened in the Mamasapano unfortunate incident. Even the senate, congress, DOJ and the ombudsman are all investigating these things. It involves a lot of strategic operational and tactical lapses or maybe areas that they say there were failures. That’s why a lot of people, and of course the video that was shown to the entire world, the brutality and the difficulty of war being shown to the whole world. I was thinking if indeed you have now this video, it goes back during the world wars wherein you have to create the International Red Cross, the Geneva convention, if there will be wars it will not be that brutal and barbaric.
Maria Ressa: Right before this I seem to remember a video, I think this was the 6TH ID, shooting an unarmed MILF member. If you go on the ground they will say these types of killings happen on both sides. Did this incident whip up anti-Muslim sentiment? what impact do you see it having?
General Catapang: These things have been happening for the longest time, even during the 70s now it’s brought to the houses, in front of your living room so people have difficulties understanding this kind of war, unfortunately its not only the soldiers who now know about this. It has become very very public - global. I think we are in a situation that our people must understand the brutalities of war, and maybe, from this now that we have seen it, we really have to make sure that everybody, all combatants, have to respect international humanitarian law, the rule of law and the respect for human rights. Even if the war is happening in front of them.
Maria Ressa: What would you want to see happen next?
General Catapang: I think the best thing to see is that we have to move on. Number one, we have to give due honor for the fallen SAF 44. If need be, it may be in our case in the military, maybe even recommend the highest award, the medal of valor, maybe the PNP has a counterpart award. So that once and for all we will have to recognize whether there was tactical, operational lapses on the ground. These fallen SAF heroes indeed contributed their lives in order to address terrorism. It all boils down to terrorism. These soldiers or these SAF commandoes gave up their lives just to get the terrorist in that area.
Maria Ressa: You’ve been part of many special forces operations, you’re familiar with it and what we’re seeing in the public is really only the tip of the iceberg, what people are debating, even the details of this operation that come out in the Senate hearing, we’re not seeing a big chunk of it. When you look at the way this one was planned, how does it rate compared to other special forces operations?
General Catapang: Well I really don’t know or do not want to deal on the tactical side, but you really have to make sure that you as the saying goes, you have to plan well because if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. At that level, we will see that there was a failure in planning, and of course after that, the execution, there was a failure on the execution. I hope the BOI, the report will come out very truthfully the lapses that they can see and hopefully this will be corrected and it will not happen again.
Maria Ressa: We’ve seen the senate hearings and all of the conversations around it, seems to have doomed the passage of the Bangsamoro Law. What do you see happening with this, what does this mean for the peace process?
General Catapang: I’m not still that pessimistic, I think if you will still pass, but there willl be a delay because the BBL the bill will be extremely scrutinized and they would want to be assured when we really normalize relationship with MILF and allow them to join the mainstream, they have really given up in their hearts and in their mind. Their rebelliousness and their willingness to be part of the system. A governing system where there are rules and laws to be followed.
Maria Ressa: If the Bangsamoro Law doesn’t pass, what will happen?
We just have to ask the extension of the ceasefire agreement, and then look, pass another law or revise the law or improve on the law. We cannot go on saying this will not pass, or we will not pass it, we have to pass it no matter how difficult the system, the way it will have to go through - congress and the senate.
Maria Ressa: Many people online are calling for war? What do you have to say to them?
General Catapang: It’s easy to call for war, I hope that they’ll be the first war to be dealing, to be called to call to active duty and sent in the front lines. If they want war, they should be the first one to volunteer to be on the front lines. And maybe they’ll know what kind of war they’re talking about.
Maria Ressa: Can you put this in the context of the international , the global terrorist threat? What is that global terorist threat you’re looking at now, where this is the backdrop for it, and what could be the worst case scenario?
I came in as the chief of staff saying the wars of the 21st century will be global - global terrorism, global climate change, global maritime concern, and global transnational crime. Right now we’re facing all of these challenges. Global terrorism, who is Marwan? He’s a foreigner came into our country, different ideology, and his ideology is of making terrorism, making bombs, so we have to address these areas, that’s why the Armed Forces to include all the armed services or to include the entire government have to go into an interagency collaboration not only cooperation - to ensure the safety and security of our country.
Maria Ressa: How would you describe the evolution of this threat? One of the things we heard in the senate was MILF’s ties to terrorism. Again in the research that I’ve done that was there leading up until 2005 and supposedly in 2005 the MILF kicked out Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah and of course what we’ve seen is JI itself, Jemaah Islamiyah itself has splintered and has even changed its name in Indonesia. How will you describe that global threat in the Philippines today?
General Catapang: Unfortunately these groups always have a breakaway, that’s why very simply you just have to call them as terrorists, they have to be declared as a local terrorist movement and then elevate them into being an international terrorist movement so that the whole world will have to fight this terrorism anywhere where they are.
Maria Ressa: Early on in 2002 the US came in with counter terrorism operations, and that’s when the OEFP - Operation Enduring Freedom Philippines - which became JSOTF-P came to the Philippines - What impact has that had and how has it evolved?
General Catapang: We became part because of the 9/11, we became part of that anti-terrorist global movement in order that it will not also spread unfortunately we saw because our country is so porous, we don’t have the equipment to monitor our sea, our air, so we became part of this and it has helped us a lot. It has developed our tactics, technique and procedure, and now that they are being recalled because they too have their own, very much concerned in the Middle East, we have learned a lot from them and they have transferred their experiences and I think we can, if and when they really - now that they’re leaving us, I think we can on our own be independent on fighting terrorism.
Maria Ressa: General Catapang JSOTF-P may be leaving the Southern Philippines but the US, under EDCA, has greater powers, looking like they’re moving towards maritime, towards China, is that correct? How do you see this relationship evolving?
General Catapang: Because of their new strategy of pivot, they want more to concentrate on the West Philippine Sea in as much as China has claimed the entire area, so I think that is a bigger concern for them. They know that we can handle terrorism but as far as, in terms of maritime or global maritime concern, we are really just beginning to address these issues.
Maria Ressa: General Catapang in the Southern Philippines, in these areas, many analysts have pointed out that over the years it can’t just be a military or a law enforcement solution to get rid of terrorism that in the end it comes down to good governance, do you agree with that, do you see it happening?
General Catapang: We have seen that happen, previously we have the communist movement, a terrorist movement in Central Luzon the birthplace and the hotbed, now if you go to Central Luzon, is now a haven of tourism and investment. I believe you can turn this around, we can turn this around but we really have to put some resources now you can see that in Mindanao there’s a lot of development coming in and we’re winning on the CNN in Eastern Mindanao - please clarify the CNN, it’s not the Cable News Network - the Communist CPP-NPA-NDF - we’re winning over them. Lately we just captured their highest leadership and they’re even asking also for peace talks, I think that’s a sign. Going back to BIFF they’re suing for peace also. As I stated earlier we should not only win the peace,
we have to win progress and then ultimately prosperity, so prosperity for all - but the president calls for inclusive growth. Like here in Metro Manila, we have peace, we have progress, we have prosperity for all there’s a lot of job available that’s why so many migrants are coming here - it is just a matter of time and of political will and then what we now want to happen in Mamasapano is to turn around that situation by putting in more resources on the ground. That’s why we now call as roads for peace, bridges for peace, schools for peace, hospitals for peace. With the issue on the PDAF, we saw an opportunity there. Now we are the ones going in the barrios asking the people to identify the projects that they need through the barangay council, municipal council and then they pass a resolution. And then that resolution we elevate to the province, the province say that they can support this, in case this cannot be supported we ask the national government to support this so we are able to - in due time - we will be able to address all these social economic and cultural problems that our country have. Because what EDSA 1 did for us we just gained back our civil and political rights, what we need to do is move on, move forward, have our social, economic, and cultural rights given to the people. So that is how I think should be how we will move on given that this Mamasapano incident.
Maria Ressa: Is it fair to say that terrorism in Jolo, in Basilan, in Central Mindanao in these areas that it is driven by poverty and lack of jobs?
General Catapang: Yes of course.
Maria Ressa: Unlike Indonesia, say where it is ideologically driven, here do you see that kind of, is development the cure for it and if so how do we get there?
General Catapang: Just like in Jolo it has come to a point that people don’t want violence anymore. Whether it’s terrorism or political violence, what they want is for their children to be able to study and to have a better life. That’s why in Jolo, our operations is not hampered. The ASG, they have been pushed in the boondocks and in the jungle areas. That’s why when we hit them, there are no collateral damages or civilians that internally displaced people. In Mamasapano the situation is quite difficult, their relatives, their friends are part of the MILF, and part of the BIFF. There’s a new strategy that we have to look into to address this situation in Mamasapano.
Maria Ressa: Isn’t that part of your strategy in the past anyway, to separate the terrorist from the community and then the debate with Marwan is that he is sheltered by the MILF but isn’t Marwan also a special case because he was so embedded in the communities. Would you tell us a little bit more how he evaded arrest for so long?
General Catapang: Because he came in as a friend of the BIFF and the MILF and he was able to teach them a cottage industries by making bombs. The bombs are being sold if you have an enemy you just buy a bomb from them and you have it detonated in front of the house of a foe. So these are the things we have to look into, we have to say to them that we will not allow this. That’s why we have to come in. But unfortunately there’s some cost, we have to ask the forgiveness of our people who are now in the evacuation centers. We have to do this to make sure what enemy are we after, after coming in, it has now become a terrorist haven in that area and an IED factory. We will not allow that. In fact I’m asking another 3 days to move around but I will not pull out the troops.
Maria Ressa: What are your plans now? You’re asking for another 3 days what do you want to do?
General Catapang: I’ll stay there for a longer time, but I will not anymore operate. We have now our IPSP campaign, Internal Peace and Security Plan wherein we go in the barrios help the people identify the projects and then pass resolutions up to from the barangay, municipal, provincial, and then we ask funding for it, and now the government whether you’re pro or against the administration they have allotted 5-10 million each, for each municipality I think that fund can be made available. What we’ll do is come in stay with the people and help them identify the projects that they need.
Maria Ressa: So what many may not know is that the IPSP was actually looked at as a model for the region as a whole of nation approach to counter terrorism. Is it working?
General Catapang: I think so. Right now a lot of petitions asking us to get away from the communities are coming in. Sometimes our soldiers are killed when they go to the market without arms, I think our campaign plan is very effective. Of the 81 provinces we are able to declare about 80% of our country declaring it peaceful and ready for further development. We’re not saying there are no more terrorist or NPA remnants, but we’re saying the people have claimed the peace in their respective areas and we have to respect that. If the terrorists are still there, the people just text us that there are terrorists here, would you please help us tell them to get away.
Maria Ressa: Why didn’t you do this sooner? When Marwan was still there?
General Catapang: Marwan? That place was really a forbidden area.
Maria Ressa: Is it in the box?
General Catapang: It’s very near the box the SPMS box and sometimes he goes out of the box.
Maria Ressa: That was not something that you were ready to do earlier?
General Catapang: It really needs a lot of troops on the ground. That’s why we have about 4 brigades operating now in that area.
Maria Ressa: Let’s talk about the US role, some of the media reports, some of what the senators were saying about it is that the US can control the Filipino troops and the police. Is that possible?
General Catapang: I don’t think so. That will never happen. I don’t know really with the operations of the PNP, it’s better to ask them but in our case they just provide us training and they are also available when there are casualties, the MEDEVAC, and also they teach us night flying, that’s the capability we need to develop - night fighting capability. That can be the best advantage we can have.
Maria Ressa: Could you tell us what roles the FBI and the CIA and the JSOTF-P are playing in the Philippines right now?
General Catapang: FBI, I don’t know they are more on I think the transnational crimes, arms smuggling, drug trafficking, just like the case where you have the news about - it’s now a combination of two threats - a smuggling occurred somewhere in Jolo. The Vietnamese came in they don’t want to pay the tax. And there was a plan after the Vietnamese delivered the contraband, the Vietnamese will be kidnapped by the ASGs. So you see the interplay of these global threats to national security. They all come in. They all come in together.
Maria Ressa: What about the CIA? We know what JSOTF-P, actually the most documented is really the role of the US military to train and advise us, but the FBI and the CIA are both here. You talked about the FBI in terms of law enforcement, but the CIA - what does it do?
General Catapang: I haven’t met any CIA operative here so I’m really not on the know what’s happening.
Maria Ressa: One of the other things that the US did bring to the Philippine military is the PGMs - precision guided munitions - smart bombs. The first smart bomb was used to attack Marwan in February of 2012. There are 22 of these that were given to the Military, what happened to them at what do you plan to do with them?
General Catapang: These smart bombs, they are not in our possessions - we don’t have an inventory of these so we really talk about it in public because these are classified capabilities we don’t intend the public to know.
Maria Ressa: Sorry. I guess part of it is everybody now knows that there was supposed to be a PGM attack I think this came out in the senate hearing also. Are you uncomfortable that these types of things are now public? Things that were special operations information for special ops?
General Catapang: These are the things that are confidential. These are capabilities that we do not want our enemies to know.
Maria Ressa: Let me ask you in terms of where we are today and the impact on the AFP. You talked about how the Americans are going to be pulling out. The modernization plan for the AFP, how would you describe the AFP today?
General Catapang: The modernization and the peace are equally supporting, that’s why we want to claim the peace and then after winning the peace we want prosperity to come in, just like what happened in Central Luzon and Northern Luzon and then ultimately, progress and then prosperity. That’s the only way we can fund our modernization. That’s why if there are terrorists we will hunt them down because that’s the only way we can declare an area peaceful, so it goes hand in hand because if our country becomes prosperous - right now our country proposes 2.06 trillion national budget and it goes higher every year. Just imagine if only one percent of that is given to us that’s about 26 billion then next year 27 billion, that can easily fund our modernization so they are mutually supporting each other. If we don’t win the peace, we don’t win the progress then we don’t win prosperity. Our modernization program is dead so we really have to push hard on winning the peace on all areas because right now Luzon is contributing a lot to the gross national product. Visayas. Luzon a problem now is only Bicol, and maybe Quezon, a smaller part of it and then in Visayas only Romblon, Negros, and Samar. And in Mindanao, of course Davao, Surigao, but all of these are coming into play. Our time frame to declare our country peaceful and ready for further development is on time.
Maria Ressa: Which is when?
General Catapang: 2016, before the president (election).
Maria Ressa: That’s assuming you have a Bangsamoro Law?
General Catapang: Yes of course.
Maria Ressa: Let me ask you, some analysts have stated that the Philippine military and police do not have, cannot win a war and cannot keep the peace without the MILF is this a fair statement do you agree with it?
General Catapang: It’s not a fair statement because we can win the peace, we can win the progress and prosperity but we don’t want to go repeat history, going back to war with the MILF is quite absurd. It’s illogical, it’s unlawful mainly. Because here are the people asking that they want peace and all of a sudden you say no let’s go to war to finish all these things. Maybe it’s unconstitutional that we don’t want to give the peace these people are asking from us.
Maria Ressa: So General Catapang how do you feel like you sat in the senate hearings, lawmakers called for it, many Filipinos are actually seem to be more prone to go to war now. How do all of this process make you feel?
General Catapang: I think there’s a lot of emotion up to now that’s coming in, that I think we have to settle the issues first. Number one is we have to give honor to the fallen 44, maybe declare them as national heroes, as medal of valor awardees then maybe from the tactical or operational lapses we have to make people, those people who are responsible for this failure really accountable. And then for the people there in Mamasapano who are equally affected, bring in development, help them understand why are they in that situation simply because they don’t have roads for peace, bridges for peace, hospitals for peace.
Maria Ressa: What about the local government who themselves have their own private armed groups…
General Catapang: We’ll deal with them because that’s part of the normalization process that after the MILF have given up their arms, or hand in hand with the MILF, this army should also be the disarming of the pacts or the private armed groups so we will be moving towards that direction.
Maria Ressa: The last estimate I saw of private armed groups are almost are almost 1,400.
General Catapang: Yes of course what we want to happen now is after we have settled with the MILF is let’s say in one barrio there’s about 5 or 6 guys who keep arms, we ask the police or the judge to issue the search warrant and we will in a morning, a battalion size of police and soldiers are all around the barangays searching in the houses. We just have to show them that the government is willing to have the capacity and capability to run after these armed groups.
Maria Ressa: Let me throw a question to you from Twitter from @titalove13, how do you know if you’re dealing with, who you’re dealing with is from the MILF, the BIFF, the Abu Sayyaf, can you give us differences?
General Catapang: The Abu Sayyaf is based in Jolo. BIFF and MILF we asked them to separate ties. Right now the MILF is staying in a safe place while we are running after the BIFF. Of course, the BIFF was a breakaway group of the MILF and they don’t want peace or the peace talks to prosper so it’s very easy to identify them.
Maria Ressa: What about links to ISIS, this global network?
General Catapang: Yes, they are going online telling themselves that they want to be identified with the ISIS and having done that I saw to it I have to run after them that’s why we really have to run after them, if they succeed they can attract the young generation to join them.
Maria Ressa: Governments around the world are worried about their homegrown fighters going to Syria to fight with ISIS, do you have evidence of Filipinos going to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS?
General Catapang: We don’t have any information yet.
Maria Ressa: In terms of one of the things I remember most when you were younger, when we were both much younger was when you were in Pinatubo, the disaster risk reduction how you deal with all of the crisis that happened, how do you see this evolving now for the AFP, you talked about disaster risk reduction or climate change, please tell us what that means for you.
General Catapang: This is a new war that really will devastate us, very very much. You have seen the Yolanda, we were “unprepared” the people insist even if there will be a typhoon that pa sses through they insist they’ll go back after the typhoon they’ll build again their house and their house will be destroyed again. It becomes a never ending story of destruction and relief, rehabilitation and response. We really have to deal with all of this. What we really need now is a climate change summit. So that in every province, I think they’re doing that - how to be resilient, how to adapt, these are the things we cannot control. The global warming continues to be a threat to our national security.
Maria Ressa: Before you, Manny Bautista said that this was his main priority as main AFP chief, how important is this dealing with climate change and disasters for the military under you and what does that mean when it comes to deployment?
General Catapang: Climate change is - we need a capability to address climate change because more people will die, innocent civilians will die, not like the wars that we’re fighting, we just tell them go to the evacuation center we do the fighting here. This kind of enemy, they will haunt down the civilians. Those who insist on staying near the sea, those who insist on killing the forest, those who insist on the factories, it’s a global thing. We can’t put a stop on the factories of China, US because they will have to have to lay off people, so we also have to learn how to be on our own, indigenous way of adapting to climate change.
Maria Ressa: If you were to prepare, which I think you are preparing for a disaster, what is the worst disaster that you are preparing for now as the head of the armed forces?
General Catapang: The greatest challenge now is, hopefully it will not happen, they’re saying an earthquake here in Metro Manila is due, that’s why we have prepared for that, to unified command maybe about 4 divisions will have to come here, come in Metro Manila and control the situation and help the local officials manage this disaster.
Maria Ressa: The estimates of the potential death toll counts of something like this is about 32-37,000 people…
That’s why when the PHIVOLCS announced initially there will be 30,000 dead. I immediately went to MMDA chair Tolentino, where will I bury that 30,000 dead do you have a mass grave here… He was shocked to him he didn’t have a plan where to put the cadavers or the dead. These are things that we really have to prepare for. And of course, let’s say we will be hit by a Yolanda storm in Metro Manila how do we prepare? The population centers, how do we prepare?
Maria Ressa: And even after that, after the shaking buildings falling down will be the fires that would happen right there, we’re working very closely to try to help them.
General Catapang: We will have to help each other because what I’m also planning are not affected by the earthquake, it’s better to have an exodus outside Metro Manila we are even preparing Clark, as far as Clark, Tarlac, as far as Lipa City…
Maria Ressa: Where are the safest parts?
General Catapang: Here the safest parts are in the golf courses, open spaces.
Maria Ressa: General Catapang your last thoughts, it’s a pivotal moment because it’s near the end of this administration, we’re in the last two minutes of the Aquino administration. Your last thoughts for the armed forces and for our country…
General Catapang: I have to, I’ll be retiring early than the president, I’ll be going out in July, so I really - I am in a hurry to put these things in place. The people take cover know how we will be dealing with these problems that our country are facing. These are more serious problems, it doesn’t mean when our country becomes prosperous everything will be just like a paradise or a place of honey and happiness. Together with progress or prosperity are new challenges that will come in and the challenges now will all be global, global terrorism, global climate change, global transnational crimes, and global maritime concerns. We have to prepare for it. Fortunately for the armed forces we have to thank the president, the commander-in-chief, for allowing us to spend some amounts over and above that is authorized, the minimum amount that we talked about 75 billion worth of projects, modernization projects, they authorized us at 90 billion, so it will really help a lot and we thank our commander-in-chief and the president for helping us, it’s the only - you combine all the modernization projects of the past for three or four president and he has given us more than the last three presidents we have had.
Maria Ressa: Thank you very much, we’ve been talking to military chief General Gregorio Catapang about the lessons learned in the fight against terrorism and in winning the peace. I’m Maria Ressa thank you for watching Rappler.
Please, he’s on Twitter, @gengregcatapang… Stay tuned we’ll be back with more thank you so much.