Ex-UN envoy to PH peacekeepers: Stop talking, stand by decision

By Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 05 2014 06:21 PM | Updated as of Sep 06 2014 02:21 AM

MANILA - A former Filipino representative to the United Nations (UN) believes the Philippines should do two things about the current Golan Heights controversy: stop talking, and stand by its decision to protect its troops.

Speaking over the phone, Ambassador Lauro Baja, permanent representative of the Philippines to the UN from 2003 to 2007 and former president of the UN Security Council in 2004, said the Philippines will not gain anything in responding to the statements of Lt. Gen. Singh Singha against the Filipino contingent of the United Nation Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

"I think we should stop reacting. Let sleeping dogs lie. It will not end if we react to them," said Baja.

Singha is the force commander of the Filipino UNDOF troops who decided to craft a dangerous escape out of position 68 in the Golan Heights, after they were allegedly ordered by Singha to surrender their firearms to the Syrian rebels.

This, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said, was an order given after the Filipinos were engaged by the rebels in a seven-hour firefight, significantly depleting their supply of ammunition.

In an interview with the publication "India Today," Singha accused the Filipino troops of being unprofessional for breaking the chain of command.

Singha also implied that it was the Filipinos who aggravated the situation in the Golan Heights.

"The non-professional actions of the Filipino troops have endangered the lives of the 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," said Singha, as quoted by India Today.

The early morning evacuation by the Filipino troops -- the very act of defiance lauded by the AFP as "the greatest escape" -- was called by Singha as nothing more than cowardice.

"It is an act of cowardice to desert posts especially when a delicate ceasefire was in place," Singha was quoted as saying. "They broke the chain of command and UN orders."

Singha said the move by the Filipinos ruined the ongoing negotiation with the rebels, both for safe passage of the Filipinos from position 68 and the possible release of the Fijian peacekeepers.

"We had already moved 212 Filipinos to safety. There was only one post left with 40 soldiers and we were negotiating for them too and had secured a ceasefire for the night. Military action would have resulted in casualties on both sides and that would have also affected the fate of 45 Fijians abducted earlier," Singha told India Today.

But the Philippines tells a different tale. Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., chief of staff of the AFP, said Singha was about to extricate the Filipinos from position 68 the same way he did with those in positions 60 and 69, but then changed his mind at the last minute.

"General Singha ordered no military operations. He put a stop to it. He told us when the next attack comes in, surrender your firearms and put up a white flag,'' Catapang said.

"But you know we were monitoring them, and they were amassing, regrouping. We think the following day we will be attacked again and that would be the end of it. We will be massacred. That was unacceptable. General Singha should not make the soldiers a sacrificial pawn in order for the Fijians to be allegedly freed by the hostage takers," he added.

But while Baja is advocating for the Philippines to keep silent, he maintained that the nation should not apologize for its actions, and that the government and the public should support the AFP on it.

"We stand by what we did. Huwag tayong maging sensitive. What we did was right, backed by realities on the ground," he said.

"It's not for us to prove we were right. It is up to Singha to prove what we did was not correct," he added.

Baja said he was not surprised that the UN supported Singha as he was the UNDOF force commander. "In the culture of the UN, they always support who is head," he said.

But the ambassador was surprised at Singha's statements against the Filipino troops.

"It's almost unheard of to accuse a fellow soldier of cowardice," he said, adding that he also saw no wrong in the Filipinos fighting back when position 68 was attacked, an act that Singha said compromised negotiations.

"That is talk unbecoming of a soldier. When you are attacked, you defend," Baja said.

He believes the issue will be forgotten in a matter of months, but that it is time for the Philippines to rethink its deployment to peacekeeping operations. "We have done our part," he said.

Baja said there was no reason to start an investigation, but that the Philippine mission to the UN -- now led by Ambassador Libran Cabactulan -- should be given a copy of all records, data, and information from the Philippine contingent in order to appraise the UN which he said had based their conclusion on the report of Singha.

"The conflict is over. No need to belabor who is to blame. What is important is our troops are alive, and that we acted on the basis of information on the ground," said Baja.