Aquino holds 12-hour dialogue with soldiers’ kin

President Benigno S. Aquino III condoles with the family of the fallen Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) Troopers during the Necrological Service at the Moral and Spiritual Formation Center of Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig City on January 30, 2015.

MANILA — The quest for justice for their slain loved ones and ensuring the education of the children they left behind were the primary concerns of the families of the 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos who perished in the police operation against an international terrorist in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, a week ago.

According to Roxas, a number of Cabinet members were present during the meeting, which lasted for more than 12 hours.

“All the families were given an opportunity to talk with the President who assigned the specific needs of the families to the concerned Cabinet secretary,” Roxas told reporters in an interview after the send-off to their respective hometowns.

The President stayed in the police camp in Taguig from 12:30 p.m. Friday to 12:30 a.m. Saturday.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said the bereaved families brought their immediate needs to the attention of President Benigno Aquino III, who met with them behind closed doors after the necrological rites for the fallen SAF commandos at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Taguig City, on Friday.

He said the President spoke with each of the families of the commandos who were killed in the daring operation to arrest Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as “Marwan,” a bomb expert and senior member of the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group based in Indonesia.

Authorities said Marwan was killed by the SAF assault force, but the bigger blocking force of the elite police anti-insurgency unit got into a gun battle with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas. Forty-four commandos were killed during the 11-hour firefight.

“Of course we cannot undo what has already happened. But the government, led by our President, is doing its best to take care of the concerns of our fallen heroes who were also fathers, [husbands] and brothers. We have started the process to help them,” he said in Filipino.

During the meeting, Roxas said, the President handed over a check for P250,000 to each of the families. He said the financial assistance came from the President’s Social Fund.

Roxas said the Philippine National Police also released 25 percent of the death benefits due to the fallen commandos.

“The remaining 75 percent will be given to them in full once all the documentary requirements are satisfied. We expect to give them the full death benefits within six weeks,” he said.

Roxas said he had assigned an “attending officer” to each of the 44 families to help them with the documentary requirements in claiming the death benefits.

“The attending officer will take care of all their concerns with the different government agencies to ease their burden,” he said.

Children’s education

In their conversation with the President, the grieving families asked Mr. Aquino’s help in the schooling of the children and younger siblings of the slain commandos, Roxas said.

He noted that many of the fallen policemen were the breadwinners of their families and were supporting their aging parents.

Some of the families, he said, sought the President’s assistance in handling the mortgage on the houses or lots that the slain commandos had bought for them.

“The most common concern is [the children’s] education. In fact, almost all of them raised that concern with the President. If not for their children, [then] for the siblings of the slain SAF members who are still attending school,” Roxas said.

Common refrain: Justice

Although they did not ask for the specific details of the operation to get Marwan and local terrorist Basit Usman, Roxas said the families sought the President’s intervention in seeking justice for their slain loved ones.

“They asked for justice. They specifically mentioned the word ‘justice,’” he said. “There were one or two of them who questioned the need for the peace process.”

Amid the public outrage over the killings, Malacañang has called for sobriety as government peace negotiators met this week with their counterparts from the MILF in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a bid to seal an agreement that would clear the way for the laying down of arms by the guerrillas to end the four-decade conflict in Mindanao.

“The President listened to them. He accepted what they had to say and assured them [of government’s help],” Roxas said.

“Without giving the specific details, he told them that he ordered the Armed Forces and the PNP to find Abdul Basit Usman. He also told them about the investigation of the PNP Board of Inquiry and the MILF’s own investigation to see what really happened,” he added.

Presidential instructions

Roxas said Mr. Aquino tasked National Housing Authority chair Chito Cruz to help the families with their housing concerns, while Commission on Higher Education chair Patricia Licuanan was directed to assist those who were enrolled in college.

Roxas said Education Secretary Armin Luistro was ordered by the President to help the slain SAF members’ relatives who passed the teachers’ licensure examination to get jobs as public school teachers.

Others, like Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman and Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, were also tasked to provide whatever assistance their agencies could give the families, Roxas said.

He said the President directed acting Health Secretary Janet Garin to check the medical and other health needs of the parents of the fallen SAF troopers.

Rallying SAF

After the meeting with the commandos’ families by midnight, the President called on the SAF to regroup after the Mamasapano debacle, and urged the troopers to bring their grievances to him through any means.

Hours before facing the SAF troops, Mr. Aquino met with some of 14 commandos hurt in the Mamasapano battlefield.

“In his message to the SAF, he thanked them for their loyalty and honored them for their heroism in their mission against terror suspects Marwan and Usman,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said on radio dzRB yesterday.

Mr. Aquino also promised to meet anew with the SAF officials in the next few weeks “to discuss ways to stabilize their forces after the period of mourning for the heroic SAF 44,” Coloma said.

At the same time, Mr. Aquino urged the wounded SAF troopers to write down their recollection of the clash to help authorities get to the bottom of the debacle, Coloma said.

“He also asked them to communicate, or air their grievances through any means – they can have an audience with him, write a letter to him, or course a communication through their superiors,” he said.

Not Roxas

Roxas is not one of those with grievances to air to the President.

He played down insinuations that he was offended at being kept in the dark about the SAF operation to get Marwan and Usman.

“I don’t think about it at the moment. This is not the time to think about our ego,” Roxas told reporters.

“Like what I have said, we are grieving because we’re burying our heroes. We have to make sure that they and their families will be taken care of. That’s what we are doing now,” he said.

Coloma also welcomed resolutions proposing burial for the SAF commandos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, but said this wasn’t an issue among their families.