Islamic leaders in the predominantly Catholic Philippines welcomed the Manila police chief’s apology on Wednesday for a plan to collect the names of Muslim high school and university students in the capital area that critics had branded as religious profiling.
Meeting with the congressional Committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity, police chief Brig. Gen. Bernabe Balba said there appeared to be a flaw in communication when he ordered police across Manila to check the backgrounds of Muslim students.
Philippine media last month reported about a leaked copy of the Jan. 31 directive, triggering angry responses from Muslim legislators and human rights advocates, and leading police to recall it.
“We, at the Manila Police District, deeply regret this lapse in communication,” Balba told the members of congress, promising that police would have to be “more careful and more diligent in textualizing our message – whether it be internal or external – to avoid the same gap in the future.”
He denied allegations that police were engaged in profiling Muslim students and emphasized that the directive was “to develop the necessary planning and preparations for conducting a series of seminars and an information campaign” involving students.
He said it was meant to boost the “safety and security of our students on campuses across the metropolis.”
The directive called for police to collect statistical information on Muslim students enrolled in high schools and colleges in Metro Manila, the police chief told the committee.
He said it was part of a police effort to improve relations in designated Muslim communities in the capital and to better safeguard against terrorism.
“Nowhere in the said format did the police ask for the identities of the Muslim students enrolled in these schools, nor the individual information or profile of these students,” Balba said.
“In short, the subject of this memorandum failed to capture the righteous intent of the document, which is to merely collect the contact details of the educational institutions within the district’s jurisdiction,” he said.
Muslim lawmaker offers support
Mujiv Hataman, a Muslim congressman representing southern Basilan island, welcomed the apology.
When he served as governor of a Muslim autonomous region in the south, Hataman said, he launched a program encouraging former militants to surrender in exchange for housing and employment. Nearly 300 extremists took part in the program.
Hataman said he would be willing to work with police to develop a similar program for Muslim communities in Manila.
“We have a working example of how to prevent violent extremism,” Hataman told BenarNews. “What we have accomplished before in Basilan can be replicated elsewhere in the country.”
He thanked the chief for recalling the directive and said he had spoken with police officials about ways to improve relations with Manila’s Muslim community.
Hataman advised police to work closely with the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos and other civic and religious organizations rather than taking steps to alienate the community.
“I believe there are better ways to prevent terrorism in the country,” Hataman said.
Since the directive went public, Muslims across the country have condemned it.
“This is wrong and instead of aiding our effort against violent extremism, it pushes people toward it,” said lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo, the local government minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the new autonomous region in the south.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.