Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

AFP Chief Catapang meant well, but used wrong term: Pinoys' "greatest escape" from Golan Hgts more the "great disengagement" (well within parameters of UN Disengagement Observer Force). Controversy hounds Catapang's use of term as well as Singha's verdict of Pinoy "cowardice." Both playing on different stages: Catapang to AFP and local media, and Singha to UN family and Indian military. Episode shows off Pinoy as non-team player.

I must admit that when the Filipino contingent guarding UN Position 68 in the Golan Heights in Israel "escaped" under cover of darkness last weekend, while the enemy slept, I felt bad and knew it would spell trouble for our peacekeeping forces there. 

True, our troopers won plaudits here at home and abroad for having gallantly defended their position against advancing Syrian rebels for seven hours, despite their running low on ammo. Then AFP Chief of Staff Gregorio Pio Catapang toasted the Pinoy soldiers' feat as "the greatest escape," and commended them "for exhibiting resolve even while under heavy fire."


But exactly that phrase---"the greatest escape"---from the AFP Chief became the meat of controversy, for sure enough, the Chief of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singha of the Indian Armed Forces, immediately lambasted our Pinoy troopers for countermanding his order to stay put in their assigned area in the Golan Heights. 

Worse, he said, they exhibited "cowardice" by escaping from the enemy. 

To the average Filipino soldier, who would probably prefer to die in battle than be labelled a "coward" that would shame his family for generations, that label from Singha is, a real ouwie, as my grandchildren would say. In the annals of Filipino battles, be it at Tirad Pass or in the Bataan and Corregidor, defense was most gallant, except that in the case of those last two theaters of war, the fighting soldiers were ravaged by disease and lack of ammo---forcing them to surrender to superior forces after months of seige and starvation. 


Actually, Catapang meant well but he used the wrong term. The Pinoys' "great escape" was actually the "great disengagement" which is well within the parameter of the very name of the UN Disengagement Observer Force. In military parlance, especially in Philippine setting, our troopers' "escape" from their Golan Heights post was actually just "withdrawal" or "extrication" from a conflict site. 

According to generals I spoke to recently, such action is well within the rules of engagement that local military understand very well, vis-a-vis the NPAs or secessionists in the South. In case of conflict, those rules state that extricating and transferring the battle to another locale---to live in order to fight another day, as the saying goes---holds.

By using the term "greatest escape," Gen. Catapang was trying to please local media and more importantly the command he leads. Then too, the Aquino administration could be seeking to regain lose ground from the Palparan issue which left military ranks disgruntled about what they termed undeserved ill treatment of the once-fugitive general. It's easy to imagine how President Aquino, who had already earlier disclosed his intention to recall the troops from the Golan conflict, would have suffered further tremendous drop in ratings had a massacre happen to the troopers.


In the process, however, Catapang obviously wounded the pride and service reputation of the Indian three-star general who commanded UNDOF, and who therefore was playing to the world stage---the UN family---and the Indian Armed Forces. The daring escape of the 40 Pinoy troopers under cover of darkness made Gen. Singha look quite inept by seeking to subject troops under his command to more danger---when they could have escaped naman pala without much trouble. 

Obviously the AFP Chief of Staff and Gen. Singha were operating on two different stages. To Catapang, from the statements he has made since, without the direct order in black and white from Singha to his troops to surrender their arms---and thus be at the mercy of the Syrian rebels, just like the Fijian troops---his immediate concern was to get his people out of harm’s way. He was doubtless thinking of the backlash here if the Pinoy troopers were slaughtered by the Syrian rebels.


The issue of the "greatest escape" has been beclouded by various side controversies such as, did Singha really order the Filipino troopers to surrender their firearms to the rebels? Singha now denies making such an order and his UN superiors are backing him on this.  But the Filipino troopers insist there was that order---which doubtless made them very nervous and so they called their superior at home via skype. 

Now various local politicians are making capital of it---and pat the Pinoy troopers on the back for not being stupid and for disobeying Singha. Sen. Bongbong Marcos is filing a formal complaint to the UN.

It was tough for the Pinoys to obey Singha's order---assuming there was one---for they already knew what had happened to the Fiji  contingent which had earlier surrendered its firearms to the Syrian rebels and until now languishes in captivity. If Singha indeed gave such order, it would appear as his effort to appease the Syrian rebels, who are part of the Al Qaida terrorist group---and worse, to replace the Fiji troops with Pinoys as captives. 

Apparently the Pinoys used their brains to put two and two together---and decided to "disengage."  Lost in the controversy is the fact that Gen. Singha's Filipino chief of staff, Col. Ezra Enriquez (a PMAyer) had felt something was wrong with his boss' order to the Pinoys to surrender their arms. After consulting by skype with Manila GHQ, Enriquez defied Singha's order and later filed a leave of absence and resignation that still has to be acted on by higher UN command.


A retired Filipino general was quoted by the Daily Tribune as opining that “no country member (of an international peace-keeping force can issue orders to its own peacekeeping contingent under the UN peacekeeping rules, as it is the UNDOF commander, an Indian general, that issues all orders for all the peacekeeping forces." 

The Tribune story quoted this retired general as opining that “countermanding the UNDOF commander’s orders places the lives of all peacekeepers in peril.”

Gen. Singha lamented after the Pinoys' "greatest escape" that their precipitate action imperiled cease-fire negotiations with the rebel forces and even the lives of the Fiji troopers. Perhaps.


But this again points to the peculiar character of the Filipino---be it in the military or economic front, or almost any other consideration. The Pinoy is just NOT A TEAM PLAYER, and this is so evident especially in our politics which is a sordid mess.

Some comparison was recently made with the Japanese who have such a strong sense of nationhood, evident even in their lowest level of community existence and from childhood. Walk in a Japanese neighborhood, for instance, and you cannot but be impressed by the fact that each homeowner realizes that he has to keep all his surroundings neat and clean. 

Had the Japanese troops been assigned in Golan Heights, some insist, ythe world would find them defending their position till kingdom come. Look at that solitary guy in Lubang Island who thought the war was still on. 

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