‘Battlefield’ Bicol

The Bicol Region, located at the southernmost part of Luzon, is one of the places where the battle between the government and communist revolutionaries for winning the hearts and minds of the people is particularly intense. Mang Ricky and Aling Melba, interviewed by Bulatlat somewhere in the region, said that aside from the poverty they face everyday, they also have stories about their bad experience in the hands of state forces.

BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Bulatlat.com

The Bicol Region, located at the southernmost part of Luzon, is one of the places where the battle between the government and communist revolutionaries for winning the hearts and minds of the people is particularly intense.

So when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo about two months back declared “all-out war” against the Left, she identified Bicol – which encompasses the provinces of Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Sorsogon, Masbate, and Catanduanes – as among three critical areas, the other two being Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog. The “all-out war” declaration was further pumped up by the allocation of P1 billion ($19.5 million, based on an exchange rate of P51.25 per U.S. dollar) as additional funds for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) purportedly to crush the “communist insurgency” within two years.

Mang Ricky (not his real name), a peasant somewhere in the region, tells of having come into contact with both government soldiers and New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas.

He does not at all have bad words about the NPA guerrillas who, he said, occasionally pass through their village. “Tumutulong sila pag may gagawing trabaho” (They help when there is work to be done), he said, referring to work in the field.

He first met NPA guerrillas in 1972, when he had just finished grade school, he said. He wasn’t afraid of them then and he isn’t afraid of them now, he said. “Wala namang rebeldeng nananakit ng sibilyan” (There are no rebels who hurt civilians), he said.

Aling Irma (not her real name), 42, who also lives somewhere in Bicol and makes handicraft from abaca for a living, shared the same observations about NPA guerrillas. “Noong una kaming makakita ng NPA, hindi naman kami natakot. Bakit kami matatakot? Ano nga ang ikakatakot ko? Hindi naman gumagawa ng masama sa amin. Tulad sila ng mga normal na tao” (When we first saw NPA guerrillas, we weren’t scared. Why should we be scared? What have we to be scared of? They don’t do anything bad to us. They’re like normal people), she said.

Aling Melba (not her real name), a peasant woman also somewhere in Bicol and a mother of 10, agreed. “Parang natural lang pag dumadaan sila. Kasi, maganda naman ang pakikitungo nila sa amin. Wala namang problema” (We go on with our daily lives if and when they pass by. Because they treat us well. We have no problem with them), she said.

Pag may ginagawa kami, sila na ang gumagawa. Tinutulungan talaga kami” (When we’re doing something they volunteer to do it. They really help us), she said.

Poverty and armed conflict

Critics of the “all-out war” policy now being employed by the Arroyo administration against the Left argue that armed revolutionary movements cannot be crushed by sole military might. Poverty and social injustice are at the core of armed conflict, they say.

Mang Ricky said whatever he earns as a farmer has never been enough to adequately feed himself, his wife, and his six children.

In the village where Mang Ricky, Aling Irma and Aling Melba live, the usual huts hardly have room for three people. Access to water is difficult and you can count with the fingers in your hand residents who have power supply. The road is all dirt and children spend hours walking to and from the nearest public school.

Does the village where Mang Ricky, Aling Irma and Aling Melba live in reflect the condition of common folk in the Bicol Region? The latter is known as one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. Even government statistics prove this.

The most recent data from the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) on poverty incidence – which date back to Jan. 24, 2005 – lists Bicol as the fourth poorest region in the country as of 2003 – next to the Caraga Region, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and Western Mindanao.

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