MAY 2, 2011 — ZAMBOANGA CITY, PHILIPPINES — Officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command will have a lot of explaining to do, not only to their commander-in-chief, Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, but also to the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, after US President Barack Obama made a statement at the White House earlier that Osama Bin Laden was killed in a firefight with members of the the US Navy’s Seal Team One in a pre-dawn raid in Barangay Taluksangay, Zamboanga City.
According to the US President, the operation was the fruit of several months of intelligence gathering by several units of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines in several areas in Western as well as Central Mindanao. Intelligence sources said, Bin Laden had been in the Philippines, particularly in Zamboanga City, since late 2009, entering the country via what Filipinos have dubbed as the “back door” – the open sea lanes between the Philippines and Malaysia.
With supposed assistance from the few remaining members of the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah, Bin Laden secured a house just a few meters from the fabled Taluksangay Mosque. Built in 1885, the mosque is considered among the oldest in the country and instrumental to the propagation of Islam in Western Mindanao and the resistance against Christianization. The mosque has been known as to attract Muslim religious scholars from as far as Turkey, Arabia, India, and Malaysia.
Residents in the area were surprised when news of Bin Laden’s death broke through the local Philippine media. Many among them have grown accustomed to the sound of helicopters flying overhead since the US and Philippines governments joined hands in the Global War on Terrorism. The whiring sounds of the rotors in the neighborhood then, did not arouse too much suspicion.
Since 2001, the United States has maintained a sizeable presence in Western Mindanao in an effort to aid the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the fight againtst the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Aside from the troops in the area, the US has also regularly conducted military exercises, called Balikatan, or shoulder-to-shoulder in Filipino, with the Philippines defense forces in other areas of the archipelagic nation. Under the Philippine Constitution, foreign troops are not allowed to be directly involved in military operations in the Philippines.
Immediately after Mr. Obama’s White House briefing, Philippines President Benigno, called by his constituents as Noynoy, Aquino III, called for a press conference at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, to express his dismay over the US actions in Mindanao. Aquino said that while the military operation might have put an end to the supposed hunt for Bin Laden, it has seriously maligned US-Philippine relations and placed his administration in a precarious situation. He said that the under the Visiting Forces Agreement, the US forces in the Philippines are only supposed to provide trainings and contribute intelligence material to the Philippines armed forces.
Several cause-oriented and nationalist groups all over the country have expressed their loss of confidence in the Aquino administration. Some progressive organizations in Metro Manila took to the streets and marched up to the Mendiola bridge, which is just a few meters from the president’s official residence, to demand for Aquino’s resignation.
A number of Filipino lawmakers have also expressed their outrage over the US’ unilateral military action and considered the operation as an affront the sovereignty of the Philippines. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said that the attack against Bin Laden, while legal under US standards, violated several agreements and principles in international law. House Minority Floor Leader Edcel Lagman said that Aquino’s inability to defend the Philippine Constitution against American foreign and miltiary policy, can be considered as an impeacheable offense.
Other than making Aquino account for his alleged tacit approval of the US military action, the legislators would also like to have Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Eduardo Oban explain why the US was allowed to operate in Philippine territory. The Senate has scheduled an emergency investigation into the operation, while the House of Representatives have decided to issue a resolution condemning the US operation.
In the chaos which ensued in the aftermath of the successful US operation, the Philippine stock market collapsed, while talks of disgruntled members of the armed forces planning a coup have circulated. While the US was rocked with jubilant crowds celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Philippines government hangs in a balance, reduced to bits in the aftermath of what Obama called as a good job.