Was Palace behind removal of SAF men from awards list?
President Benigno Aquino III on Friday attended his final Philippine National Police anniversary as the Chief Executive, saying he would want to leave behind a police force that fights for what is right and serves the people with all its heart.
But what would have been a memorable farewell for the President was spoiled by allegations that he had yet again ignored the Special Action Force (SAF) members who took part in taking down Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias “Marwan” but ended in a debacle that cost lives and dealt a blow to the peace process with Moro rebels.
Two SAF commandos were supposedly removed from the list of police awardees on Friday, allegedly on the behest of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS).
In a statement, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said President Aquino’s office “has no participation in the selection of police officers and individuals that were given recognition in connection with the 114th anniversary of the PNP.”
“According to the PNP, the evaluation process for the proposed giving of the Medal of Valor, which is the highest award that can be bestowed to any member of the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, requires a lengthy process and a thorough evaluation, for which reason the review could not be completed on time despite our best efforts,” Coloma said.
The policemen given individual recognition by President Aquino were Supt. Julius Suriben; Chief Insp. Wilfredo Sy; Inspector John Ryan Doceo; SPO2 Danilo Daquigan; and PO3 Marilou Malonzo.
The PNP memorandum on the “Result of the Selection of Awardees” obtained by Inquirer.net showed that slain SAF officer PO2 Romeo Cempron was to have been posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor (Medalya ng Kagitingan) while Mamasapano survivor Supt. Raymundo Train was to have received the Medalya ng Kabayanihan (PNP Distinguished Conduct Medal). But in the program advisory released by Malacañang and in the official program itself, Cempron’s and Train’s names were not on the list.
Another awardee, Chief Supt. Fernando Mendez Jr., the head of the PNP Intelligence Group who provided the intelligence packet used in the ill-fated raid on Jan. 25, was also not included in the program.
The government official, who requested anonymity, said Cempron’s widow Christine had been informed last weekend of her husband’s award, but that “in the same week, there was a verbal instruction from the PMS to the PNP to remove the Mamasapano awardees from the program.”
“The President did not want to bring back the memories of the Mamasapano [encounter],” he said, adding that the order was “still vague” as it did not say whether the SAF awardees would still receive their medals on a later date or if the citations would be rescinded.
PNP spokesperson Chief Supt. Wilben Mayor said as much. “The review could not be completed on time despite our best efforts. For these reasons, these awards were not included in the program,” he said in a press briefing after the anniversary program.
No mention of SAF
The President had been criticized for failing to acknowledge—or at the very least mention—in his July 27 State of the Nation Address (Sona) the 44 SAF troopers who died in a clash with Muslim rebels while pursuing Marwan in January this year.
Mr. Aquino’s absence from the arrival honors for the SAF 44 at Villamor Air Base in January drew widespread criticism from the public, especially since he chose to stick to his original schedule and attend the inauguration of a car manufacturing plant in Laguna province.
In his speech at his final PNP anniversary guesting, the Chief Executive expressed pride in the achievements and reforms that had taken place in the police agency during his administration.
“In my final Sona, you might have noticed that one of the things I proudly reported was the transformation of our national police. There is no letup in the services provided by the state for the police force, which you (the police) repay by showing zeal in your work,” Mr. Aquino said in Filipino.
The President added that with less than a year left in his term, his “simple wish” was to leave behind a police force that would be truly part of a society that is fair, peaceful and progressive.
“That it is a force that fights for what is right; a force that doesn’t stop pursuing the bad elements; a force that is brave and wholeheartedly serves the nation,” Mr. Aquino said.
One of the President’s final directives to the PNP was for it to ensure that the upcoming national elections would be fair, peaceful and credible.
“We will not allow others to exploit the issues faced by our country; they who choose to trample on and destroy our oneness so that they can abuse their power. I know that you will all continue to tread the path that is equitable and for the good of our bosses,” Mr. Aquino said.
Cempron was among the 44 counterterror commandos killed in the pursuit operation in Mamasapano in Maguindanao province, meant to arrest Marwan and his accomplices Abdul Basit Usman and Amin Baco. The Malaysian bomb-maker, who had a $5-million bounty on his head, was killed in the operation while Usman and Baco, believed to be responsible for several bombing incidents in Mindanao, had managed to escape. Four months later, Usman was killed by Moro Islamic Liberation Front members in Guindulungan town.
Cempron provides cover
The Mamasapano incident was the single deadliest police operation in the recent history of the 160,000-strong PNP. A Senate report said President Aquino was “ultimately responsible” for the high-risk mission.
During the deliberations for Cempron’s Medal of Valor, PO2 Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor from the 55th Special Action Company, said Cempron had told him to escape while he provided cover. Cempron was shot to death.
12-hour gun battle
Train, meanwhile, led the 84th Special Action Company known as Seaborne which assaulted Marwan’s hideout in Mamasapano. Nine of his 36 men were killed in the 12-hour gun battle while Train himself was wounded.
Chief Supt. Augusto Marquez of the Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management and a member of the deliberation board had earlier said that the President himself would give Cempron’s family the medal in a ceremony. But curiously enough, Marquez’s speech at the PNP anniversary made no mention of the heroism of the SAF commandos.
Cempron’s widow, Christine, a pediatrician, heard the news about her husband’s Medal of Valor on her birthday last July 8.
Another police source said the SAF had shouldered the travel fare for Christine and her family from Leyte province as well as the cost of their hotel accommodations in Manila. The SAF also bought them Filipiniana attire for the awarding—only to learn that they would no longer be joining the program.
“It was really disappointing for the (family). They had prepared for it and were excited to attend the ceremony,” said the source, who also declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.
All SAF troopers who died and who were injured in the encounter were recommended for the highest decoration for intrepidity and gallantry in action.
Monthly cash allowance
Receiving the highest PNP distinction would mean Cempron’s family will receive a monthly cash allowance. His children may also enter the Philippine Military Academy or the PNP Academy without taking the entrance examination. They are entitled to scholarships in private universities as well.
On July 14, the steering committee for the PNP anniversary led by Deputy Director General Danilo Constantino met for the first time to discuss security arrangements, logistics, activities and awardees for the event.
The minutes of the first committee meeting indicated that Constantino had wanted to “fast track” the processing of the two highest awards for the SAF officers, and said that the PNP service anniversary was a “good venue” to highlight the bravery of the troopers who laid down their lives for the mission.
Mayor said the PNP “initially intended to honor the courage and sacrifice displayed by some of those involved in Oplan Exodus,” or the Mamasapano incident.
Friday’s awarding ceremony recognized the outstanding achievements of eight PNP units and six PNP personnel for 2014. The Mamasapano incident transpired in January 2015, but Mayor said the proposed awards for the SAF commandos were a “special exception.”
He added however that only the President can give the Medal of Valor, upon recommendation from the PNP special committee, the PNP chief, and the National Police Commission.
“We tried our best efforts but there were time constraints so we didn’t make it. But rest assured the PNP will recommend the awards for those deserving persons,” the PNP spokesperson said, although he did not disclose what stage of deliberations on the SAF awards had been completed prior to Friday’s anniversary.
SAF chief Director Virgilio Lazo said they applied to be recognized for the unit award, but it was the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group which won it.
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