BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
Vol. VII, No. 15 May 20-26, 2007
Just four days after the polls, Jubien Abrena, 25, poll watcher of Bayan Muna in Magara, Roxas in the province of Palawan, was abducted by the Naval Intelligence Security Group-Western Command at about 3 p.m. of May 18 near the Puerto Princesa terminal. Three days before this incident, two other poll watchers, Jun Bagasbas and Ramilo Vallevare for the party-list group, Kabataan, were abducted by soldiers on May 15 and were found dead the next day.
This two incidents add up to the still increasing number of election-related violent incidents (ERVIs) this year which police data show has climbed up to 217, including 126 dead and 130 wounded. The total number ERVIs this year is relatively lower than that recorded during the 2004 elections which totaled to 249. With this data, the Philippine National Police (PNP) declared the recent polls as “relatively peaceful.”
However, foreign observers belonging to the People’s International Observers Mission (IOM), who went around 10 poll hotspots in the country from May 13-16, said the strong presence of police and military officials before, during and after the elections have caused them to conclude that there was a “military take over of the polls.”
“As instances of militarization have been increasing in the Philippines, it is not surprising that military presence was also felt during the election season,” Elizabeth Hendrickson, one of the foreign delegates who visited Cebu City and neighboring towns, said. “In all of the locations of the IOM teams, militarization was prevalent,” she added.
The People’s IOM, with 27 foreign delegates from 12 countries, visited the provinces of Cebu in the Visayas, Sorsogon, Masbate, Quezon, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija in Luzon, Lanao del Sur and Compostela Valley in Mindanao, Makati City and urban poor communities in Metro Manila.
In its report, the IOM said armed soldiers and policemen were seen inside polling places and canvassing centers in Lanao del Sur and were stationed outside the centers in other areas. “But they were still inside the 30-meter radius which was defined by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) as off-limits to military and police personnel,” said Hendrickson, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the U.S.. “Their presence in such close proximity to the voters and ballot canvassers created an environment of fear and intimidation,” she added.
In other areas considered highly militarized, Hendrickson said, the “military was suspiciously absent.” The People’s IOM noted that state agents were not seen near voting areas in Bicol, Cebu and Compostella Valley “although there were reports of soldiers in the area for many months previous to Election Day.”
“While the voters may not have seen soldiers on Election Day, they have been coping with the presence of military detachments in their communities for many months, some of them for years, before that,” Hendrickson said.
Barangay officials, church, voters and poll watchers interviewed by the People’s IOM said military units had descended upon their communities and have “seized” barangay halls, day care centers or other public buildings to be used as bases while on patrol in the community, Hendrickson said.
The foreign evangelist said soldiers have tried to “influence the people’s votes in the last months.”
In Guimba, Nueva Ecija, the People’s IOM team represented by a Presbyterian Minister from the U.S. Rev. Larry Emery reported that voters declined to vote for any party-list group because soldiers have threatened them not to vote for progressive party-list groups such as Bayan Muna (PeopleFirst), Gabriela Women’s Party and Anakpawis (Toiling Masses). The three groups have been assailed by government and the armed forces for being “fronts” of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Some have also been forced to vote for Bantay, the party-list group allegedly funded by the government. Its first nominee is (Ret.) Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan who is called the “butcher” by militant organizations because of the surge in political killings and enforced disappearance in regions where he was assisgned. The victims’ families have held Palparan responsible for the politically-motivated killings and disappearances in Nueva Ecija and the rest of Central Luzon, his last area assignment before he retired in September 2006.
“The intimidation of voters and poll watchers in Nueva Ecija were consistent,” Emery said.
Hendrickson and her team experienced first hand how soldiers manned the streets on Election Day. The People’s IOM Cebu Team was held twice at a checkpoint in the northwestern part of Cebu by soldiers belonging to the 78th Infantry Battalion (IB) of the Philippine Army (PA).
The soldiers, Hendrickson said, required the People’s IOM participants to list down their names. “They also took pictures of the foreign delegates without any authorization,” Hendrickson said.
Taking over amid the chaos
The People’s IOM said there were many instances where state security agents “became the authority over the conduct of elections,” especially in places where Comelec officials were either too inefficient, lax, or absent.
Canadian journalist Stefan Christoff, who visited urban poor communities in Metro Manila, said the “military systematically intervened in the democratic process by harassing the voters and telling them who to vote for and how to vote.” Christoff is involved in organizations in Canada that have shown their concern over the political killings in the Philippines that have been taking place in recent years.
Last March 21, Bayan Muna filed a case against the Armed Forces of the Philippines before the Comelec for electioneering citing cases of harassment of its organizers and supporters. That same day, another case was filed against the AFP, by Bayan Muna member Alberto Corbes before the Quezon City fiscal’s office.
Australian professor Gill Boehringer said there might have been “intentional manipulation” of the whole electoral process while Canadian visual artist Freda Guttman said the elections was “suspiciously disorganized.”