What you need to know
The deaths of 14 farmers at the hands of Philippine police point to a wider counterinsurgency strategy which has struck rural communities with fear and outrage.
On March 30, 14 farmers in the province of Negros Oriental were brutally murdered at the hands of the Philippine military and police. Several towns, including Sta. Catalina, were hit simultaneously by platoons of Special Action Forces also arresting and injuring 15 others in a single night.
Police said the farmers were communist rebels associated with the New People’s Army (NPA), a communist guerrilla unit considered a terrorist organization by the Philippine government. Police also said the victims fought back and they acted in self-defense, claims which are disputed by witnesses and rights groups. The actions of police have received the support of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, although cries of public outrage over the killings have become deafening.
Carmela Avelino, who hails from Canlaon, say that around 40 armed men surrounded her family’s home before the sun had come up, according to eyewitness accounts gathered by the Union of Agricultural Workers (Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura, UMA). Without search warrants, according to the accounts, they forced Carmela and her two children out of her home, leaving only her husband Edgardo.
She heard her husband shriek in agony as the beating delivered by the troopers was palpably audible outside. Three gunshots from inside her home followed, then more from the nearby houses.
An ambulance arrived just after dawn, but it was too late.
Edgardo, like many of the victims, was a local leader of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) or Peasant Movement of the Philippines.
Eight casualties were reported in Canlaon, while two other towns, Sta. Catalina and Manjuyod had two and four respectively. All in all, bringing the total of extra-judicial killings of farmers under President Rodrigo Duterte to 200 based on a tally made by peasant groups.
A subsequent fact finding mission by UMA, KMP and human rights network Karapatan revealed that 15 local peasant leaders had been arrested on the same night. Police claim these leaders are also supporters of the NPA. Rights groups deny these claims.
Additionally, the report questioned why a judge from the province of Cebu issued search warrants for many of the March 30 police operations despite there being a number of available regional trial courts on Negros Island which would have more proper jurisdiction.
The groups asked why search warrants came from Judge Soliver Peras of Cebu as back in December 2018, he released a similar warrant for police operations which also ended up with six casualties, all of them peasant leaders as well.
The incident is the latest in a series of crackdown operations engineered by authorities against peasant groups all over the country. Negros Island, however, has been hit harder than most. Negros Occidental, which lies just adjacent to Negros Oriental, has already been identified by the government as one of the top 10 poorest provinces. Now, the spate of killings and arrests have made that destitution much more painful.
Blood stained fields
The crops of Negros have become ruthlessly bloody over the past several months. Locals speak of an ungodly terror that is creeping upon their barrios and fields. Last October, nine sugarcane farmers were shot down, allegedly by paramilitary troops, in the town of Sagay in Negros Occidental. Three of the victims were later burned, two of them were children and all were part of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NFSW). More was to follow.
In the wake of the latest massacre, a fact-finding mission was organized by several human rights and peasant groups that unraveled the extent of the damage. An investigative report by UMA states that on Dec. 27, synchronized assassinations took place in six separate towns. All victims were murdered in front of their families.
At the turn of the year, there was also a recorded 50 incidences of warrantless arrests across eight towns. Leading up to the March 30 bloodbath, an additional 15 were jailed. All were charged with what UMA says are a variety of trumped-up charges designed to paint them as armed insurgents or involved with the illegal drug trade.
Moreover, other assaults on livelihood and communities across the province became rampant in the last three months. Raids, expropriation of cash and crops, destruction of properties and burning of homes were monitored in five separate towns, according to UMA.
But why Negros? The island has never been one to be associated with the illegal drug trade, which Duterte has been vocally insistent on quelling by any means necessary. Why are state forces pouring so much of their resources and efforts to pile the hurt on one of the most disadvantaged places in the country?
UMA says that Negros is the unofficial “hacienda (plantation) capital” of the Philippines wherein landlordism reigns supreme. Conversely, this means that there is a large and impoverished peasant population. In recent times, they have been organizing “bungkalan” protests, or independent and organized land cultivation activities, in order to meet the basic needs of the residents as well as exposing the land monopolies in the area. These activities have not set well with the local elites.
Eye of Sauron
Tinay Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, told The News Lens that the Dec. 27 attacks represented the “launch” of the local counter-insurgency plot dubbed “Oplan Sauron.” Sauron is a so-called “one-time, big time” Synchronized Enhanced Managing of Police Operations, or SEMPO. The villainously named operation is purportedly part of the government’s efforts against illegal drugs and loose firearms in the Central Visayas Region.
However, its targets and casualties seem to have blurred the lines between what the authorities consider illegal drug traders and local peasant organizers.
Palabay explained that the “counter-insurgency design in Negros is of the same strategy and approach as in the rest of the country. It is a militarist design that miserably fails to address the roots of poverty and armed conflict and has done much harm to civilians, most especially peasants and farm workers. In Negros, the pattern of attacks though has gone merely beyond anonymous killings and arrests using warrants on fabricated charges.”
“Tokhang (drug war) style killings have now become a staple method of the authorities in their counter-insurgency campaigns,” she added. “It serves to discredit the victims and rationalize the vicious acts perpetrated by the police primarily.”
Several lawmakers have also called for the resignation of Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Oscar Albayalde and several others in light of the carnage. The police leader has since shrugged off the condemnation by turning the tables against his critics who he says only want to overthrow the government for their own power-hungry agendas.
He went on to defend the actions of the police in reaction to the indignation. “I attest that there is no basis to call for action against our part in the light of the death of 14 suspects during a recent series of police operations in Negros Oriental as I swiftly ordered the administrative relief of the Provincial Director of Negros PPO and three Chiefs of Police in the province to pave the way to the thorough investigation on the incidents.”
Sacked Negros Oriental police director Col. Raul Tacaca, also chided stating that the victims had opened fire on the police during a routine search operation. A familiar narrative similar to the justification for drug war killings, citing targets who retaliated or “nanlaban” which has become colloquially popular under Duterte. Tacaca also said that one police officer was even wounded in the gunfire.
However, he did acknowledge that the victims of the police were considered national security threats. “We should vehemently send our condemnation against these people (critics) supporting the perceived enemies of the state to gain power themselves,” he said.
In a way, this justifies the actions of the police in its operations – the minimal sanctions to their ranks while favoring to blame naysayers of the Duterte government instead.
Has tacit US support played a role?
While the occurrences in Negros have evoked ripples of sympathy and solidarity, Palabay explained that this is nothing entirely new when it comes to counterinsurgency designs and backings.
“Duterte’s counterinsurgency program, like all programs of previous administrations, is well-supported by the US,” she told The News Lens. “Its design and approach are patterned after the US Counter Insurgency Guide of 2009. Its architects are US-schooled military generals. It is heavily funded by the US,” said the human rights worker.
It seems that while there is a well-documented uptake of Chinese influence in the country, American military strategy and methods still have a historical and lasting presence within the Philippine authorities.
Concretely, Palabay pointed out: “In 2018, the US gave US$184.5 million for the AFP and PNP for its anti-insurgency operations and anti-narcotics drive.” The aid in question came right after US President Donald Trump’s state visit to Malacanang (the country’s Presidential Palace) in which he hailed the ”great relationship” between the two statesmen.
The current narrative surrounding the tragedy is now one of accountability. Police executives have been sacked, yet many of the affected and who are on the ground note that this is a recurring phenomenon that has yet to be stamped out of police and military policy.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens
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