COTABATO CITY , Philippines – Manny Pacquiao once again showed the whole nation that he could be a dominant unifying force.
For the first time, civilians, soldiers, militiamen and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) sat side-by-side as they watched the Filipino boxing icon humble American Shane Mosley in their World Boxing Organization (WBO) welterweight championship bout last Sunday.
The Army’s 6th Infantry Division opened their military detachments to the public Sunday and allowed barrio folk to watch the fight on their television sets.
In Camp Iranun, former bastion of the MILF originally known as Camp Abubakar, farmers, mostly members of the rebel group, watched the bout at command headquarters of the 603rd Brigade, which has various peace-building projects in the area.
“The ceasefire between the government and the MILF has been holding strong and so that was an opportunity for us to show that Muslim communities and the military can help one another become very good friends and partners in community-building efforts,” said Col. Rodelio Santos, commander of the 603rd Brigade.
Local officials said dozens of unarmed MILF guerrillas came to different areas where the 603rd Brigade and its component units had set up TV sets for free public viewing of the much-awaited Pacquiao-Mosley fight.
Hundreds of Muslim villagers, among them MILF guerrillas, also watched Pacquiao earn an easy victory over his opponent on television sets brought by soldiers in several barangays inside MILF enclaves in North Cotabato’s adjoining Pikit, Aleosan and Midsayap towns and in Pagalungan, Maguindanao.
The project, a joint initiative of the Army’s 7th and 40th Infantry Battalions and the local government units in the areas within their respective jurisdiction, was meant to complement the cordiality of the12-year-old peace overture between the government and the MILF.
“We are happy to see Manny Pacquiao beat Mosley through this project of the military and our LGU,” Kisay Mamasalagat, chairman of Barangay Buliok in Pagalungan, said in halting Filipino.
Buliok area, a 3,000-hectare marshland criss-crossed by rivers, is home to hundreds of MILF guerrillas, led by commanders related by blood to the founder of the rebel group, the late Ustadz Salamat Hashim, a jihadist who studied Islamic theology at the Al-Azzar University in Cairo Egypt in the 1960s.
Lt. Col Benjamin Hao, commanding officer of the 7th IB, said they brought their portable power generators and TV sets to selected barangays in Pikit and Pagalungan with prior coordination with local officials and MILF leaders as a public service.
But the military never let its guard down.
Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer had directed soldiers on the ground to keep alert, especially in areas where the Abu Sayyaf is known to have presence and in areas vulnerable as targets.
Wesmincom spokesman and acting operation officer Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang said their forces have remained in the field and maintained the alert.
“We are not allowing terrorists possible chances while everyone is… watching and supporting Pacquiao,” Cabangbang said.
Pacquiao, congressman of the lone district of Sarangani, is an enlisted army master sergeant of the Philippine Army (PA).
Cabangbang said they have already anticipated the usual lull every time Pacquiao fights and they were prepared just in case criminals take advantage of it.
The military recorded last Sunday one encounter between Army troops and New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in Aroroy, Masbate.
Troops from the 9th Infantry Battalion clashed with an undetermined number of insurgents in barangay Manamoc in Aroroy town at about 10:40 a.m. The insurgents withdrew in different directions after the ten-minute firefight.
Reports reaching Army headquarters showed that one NPA member was killed during the clash. Soldiers recovered an M16 rifle and an M203 launcher from the site of encounter.
Fight disrupts evacuation
The whole country experienced relative peace for the duration of the fight.
Davao City recorded no crime incident as the streets were virtually empty. Few utility vehicle drivers plied their routes as they chose to take a break and cheer for a local hero.
In Legazpi, Albay Gov. Joey Salceda admitted that the preemptive evacuation in the province for over 10,000 people residing in flood- and landslide-prone areas affected by typhoon “Bebeng” was disrupted and delayed because of the Pacquiao-Mosley fight.
Salceda said had he known that the fight would delay the usually smooth preemptive evacuation, he would have anticipated the putting up of live viewing screens in the evacuation camps.
However, the fans failed to view the live coverage on cable when the power went off due to strong winds that rocked the electric poles.
In Baguio, Isabela and Pangasinan, people trooped to places where free television coverage of the fight was being shown, even as the tail-end of typhoon Bebeng brought rains and cloudy skies over most of northern Luzon.
Hundreds of residents stayed glued to their TV sets, expecting a toe-to-toe fight between two future Hall of Famers. Most of them, however, went home disappointed after Mosley failed to bring his A-game into the ring.
In Balanga, Bataan, about 5,000 barangay officials and residents trooped to the province’s people center to avail of the free wide screen viewing sponsored by Gov. Enrique Garcia Jr. and Rep. Albert Garcia of the second district.
Authorities in Pampanga said there were no reported crime incidents in Central Luzon during the fight, even as the police were on alert status.
In general, Central Luzon regional police director Chief Superintendent Edgardo Ladao said it was peaceful in Central Luzon mainly because everyone was glued to their TVs watching Pacquiao defend his WBO title.
Congress proud and elated
Meanwhile, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone has urged the Filipino boxing hero to hang up his gloves and focus on his commitment to help eradicate poverty since a formidable opponent inside the ring has been hard to come by lately.
“Pacquiao, the icon of boxing, did our country proud again. He is at the peak of his career and physically, he is in top shape. So maybe, one or two fights more,” Evardone said.
“But his next fights, if ever, will be boring already. The tills may be empty because he has no equal. All of them are scared to death,” he said. “In that case, retirement becomes a viable option as he has nothing more to prove.”
He said Pacquiao can focus after his retirement on his commitment to alleviate the plight of the poor, which will be his biggest challenge outside the boxing ring.
Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo said Pacquiao’s biggest fight is yet to come.
“Let’s celebrate Pacquiao’s latest victory as he now unleashes his biggest fight to eradicate poverty in the country with his charisma, leadership and generosity. His new crusade will be his greatest legacy. I join him in this fight. And for one, I am proud to be his colleague,” Castelo said.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said “national pride has once again been ignited by the impressive victory of our colleague Manny Pacquiao over renowned boxer Sugar Shane Mosley.”
“It is an overwhelming achievement which he holds not just for himself but for every Filipino,” Belmonte said.
House Deputy Minority Leader and Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla said Pacquiao’s fight once more had a unifying effect on the nation as Filipinos rooted and prayed for him, and ultimately celebrated his victory.
“His victory reaffirmed his title as the world’s pound-for-pound king. He is truly a strong, well-focused and brilliant ring fighter,” Padilla said.
He said it was sad that prior to the bout, while every Filipino was fervently hoping Pacquiao would win it, “it seemed President Aquino’s people did not wish him well.”
“Why the timing of the announcement to investigate Rep. Pacquiao regarding payment of taxes? They could do the investigation without any pompous announcement so as not to distract him psychologically in his bout against Mosley,” he said.
Senators Ramon Revilla Jr. and Loren Legarda also lauded Pacquiao for his impressive victory.
“For the nth time, Manny Pacquiao had exemplified the most admirable of all Filipino traits – never surrender. He had not lost his spirit and will to win despite his questionable knockdown in the tenth round,” Revilla said. “His latest victory showed that we Filipinos can achieve anything if only we put our minds and hearts to our goal.”
“Pacquiao is truly a national treasure who not only gives pride to the Filipino but more importantly unites his people from all walks of life. Filipinos should emulate him and his belief that hard work and focus in life has its rewards,” Legarda said. – With Alexis Romero, Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez, Edith Regalado, Ric Sapnu, Raffy Viray, Celso Amo, Cet Dematera, Raymund Catindig, Artemio Dumlao, Cesar Ramirez, Roel Pareño