FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

When a unit of Filipino peacekeepers at the Golan Heights abandoned their besieged camp last week, slipping out under the cover of darkness, the AFP Chief of Staff was quick to define the spin on the event. He called it the “greatest escape.”

By the AFP’s version of the event, the Filipino soldiers were low on ammunition after engaging an encircling force of Syrian rebels in a 7-hour firefight. The Indian general who commanded all peacekeeping forces in the Golan, according to the AFP version of events, ordered the Filipino soldiers to surrender their arms.

The narrative of brave Filipino troops slipping out of a siege rather than surrendering their arms was a strong one, particularly for the domestic audience. A possible massacre of our troops was averted by the bold maneuver. The Indian commander was incompetent and the Filipino top brass directing our troops from Camp Aguinaldo somehow had a more adequate grasp of military tactics.

Our official narrative was selling briskly until a few days ago, when the Indian commander called a news conference. He described the action of the Filipino contingent unprofessional and the abandonment of the outpost “an act of cowardice.”

It might have been easy to dismiss as self-serving the statements of UNDOF commander Lt. Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha — except that sitting beside him as he made those statements was the UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Herve Landsous. That gave the Indian general’s version of events the semblance official UN imprimatur.

Speaking later to India Today, Singha denied he ever ordered the Filipino troops to surrender their firearms. He went on to say: “The non-professional actions of the Filipino troops have endangered the lives of Fijian soldiers. They have defied orders at a time when we had negotiated a ceasefire with the rebels to ensure that all troops in the conflict area could exit…they broke the chain of command and UN orders.”

Shortly before the Filipino-manned outpost came under siege, a nearby outpost manned by Fijian troops was overrun. The Fijians were disarmed and taken prisoner by Syrian rebel units supposedly affiliated with Al Qaeda. UN authorities were negotiating with the Syrian rebels to free the Fijian troops.

The matter about breaking the chain of command might have some credence. The ethic of disciplined obedience in the military service was articulated in the immortal words of Alfred Lord Tennyson in “Charge of the Light Brigade”: ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die.

It is evident that the multinational peacekeeping forces are bound by the UN-mandated chain of command. Even before the “greatest escape” happened, we saw news clips of AFP Chief Gregorio Catapang, Defense Secretary Volatire Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario camping out in some sort of war room, communicating directly with our besieged troops.

I found this news clip more than a little disturbing. It did seem that Catapang, Gazmin and del Rosario established a parallel chain of command, issuing their own orders to our besieged troops. That so obviously violates standard protocols.

No question about our authorities’ concern for the safety of Filipino troops on foreign missions. We must attend to that concern through the institutional hierarchies, though. We cannot be as lawless abroad as our politics is at home.

Recall that incident when a unit of Filipino peace-keepers were indeed taken prisoner at the Golan by Syrian rebels. The UN authorities on the ground worked the delicate diplomatic lines to get them released unharmed. Troops of other nationalities quietly obeyed orders to get the diplomacy done.


For some reason, proper timing escapes our policy-makers.

Days before a Filipino-manned outpost came under siege, Manila was talking very loudly about withdrawing our peace-keepers at the Golan. I was preparing to write a piece objecting to the idea, or at least objecting to talking very loudly about it.

As far as dispatching troops to participate in international missions, the Philippine record is suspect. It has been since Manila unilaterally decided, about a decade ago, to abort our participation in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.

The unilateral withdrawal of the miniscule Philippine contingent was taken, almost in panic, after Sunni militants threatened to decapitate a Filipino OFW named Angelo de la Cruz unless Manila withdrew its troops from the troubled country. We not only so cowardly succumbed to the demands of terrorists. We did so with such dispatch we failed to properly consult with our partners in the endeavor.

We ran from the war in disgrace. The reliability of participating Filipino contingents came under serious doubt. We became the brunt of jokes globally.

By the way, all we had deployed in Iraq was a small unit of “civic action” personnel. A bigger number of troops from elite units of the Polish army protected our puny delegation of uniformed non-combatants.

If we withdraw our troops from the Golan because the situation has become unsafe for them, we will revive memory of our inglorious withdrawal from the theater of battle in Iraq.  The international humiliation will be relived.

It is, after all, the business of soldiers to be in unsafe situations. That is, at least, what the rest of the world thinks. Hereabouts, it seems, keeping our soldiers safe is far more important that meeting our international commitments.

The apparent policy adopted by Manila, at least before the “greatest escape” happened, is to pull out our peacekeepers when their current tour of duty expires. Since the official UN version already characterizes our troops’ behavior as cowardly and in breach of the chain of command, our contingent will not be missed.


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