A ‘dirty and brutal war’ vs farmers in Mindanao

Under martial law extended till the end of 2018 in the whole of Mindanao, the Duterte government has unleashed “a dirty and brutal war” against communities of farmers and indigenous peoples/national minorities aimed at “instilling fear and terror and silencing their long struggle for land,[human] rights, and justice.”

The continuing extrajudicial killings (EJKs) have claimed the lives of more than a hundred farmers, many of whom are leaders or members of peasant organizations, “in active campaigns for their right to till, and against massive landgrabbing and exploitative ventures of foreign large-scale mining, plantation expansion, and energy extraction.” The farmers’ struggles go hand-in-hand with the national minorities’ assertion off their right to self-determination, which have either been denied or undermined by a succession of administrations.

Besides EJKs, other human rights violations, including the filing of trumped-up criminal charges, faked or forced surrender, forced evacuation, and various form of threat, harassment and intimidation (denoted by human rights defenders as THI) have been also duly documented.

Commendably, the peasant and IP communities continue to confront the state’s dirty and brutal war through their collective actions and organized resistance.

The above conditions sum up the findings of an International Fact-Finding and Solidarity Mission (to Defend Filipino Peasants’ Land and Human Rights Against Militarism and Plunder in Mindanao), in which I was invited to participate on April 6-9. Three groups – each assigned to Caraga, Northern Mindanao, and Southern Mindanao regions – conducted on-site visits of communities, held focused group discussions, and interviewed the victims or relatives of victims of human rights violations. I was with the group that went to Caraga.

In its draft overall report, the IFFSM cites these additional findings:

• The AFP and PNP use old and new tactics of sowing fear and dangling lucrative offers to discourage the farmers from asserting their rights.

“A dubious campaign of forced surrender of thousands of people, mostly poor communities of farmers,” the report says, “deceives the general public into believing they are ‘winning the war.’” But on the ground, it adds, “the reality paints a bleak picture of farmers who are not simply displaced from the land they till, but are also herded to be used and tagged as ‘surrenderees,’ put in detention, forced to report daily to military detachments, and live in constant fear and threats to their lives and security.”

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I intently listened to several testimonies among the 59 victims and their relatives who managed to meet with the IFFSM in Caraga, straining to understand their narratives (in Bisaya/Cebuano) aided by their body language. Later, aboard a van on their way home to Surigao, 15 of them were stopped at a checkpoint. Soldiers directed them to list down their names and addresses in a logbook, took a photo of each one, and seized the van driver’s license before they were allowed to go.

• Observations on the EJKs: 1) Most of the victims were engaged in local peasant struggles, such as land cultivation, resisting landgrabbing, asserting the IP’s right over ancestral lands and territories, and campaigns to improve their living conditions; 2) the victims were attacked in or near their homes and communities and in the presence of family members and neighbors; 3) some were slain in their farms; 4) the killings were carried out by masked men in tandem, some of whom were identified as known “assets” of operating military units; and 5) the victims had been tagged or accused by AFP soldiers as members or supporters of the NPA.

The killing of 23-year-old farmer Aaron Notarte in Barangay Manat, Agusan del Sur, is notable for its brutality. Intercepting him enroute to his family’s coffee farm, soldiers aimed their guns at him and ordered him to admit he was a NPA member. Failing to get an admission after their repeated demand, the soldiers pounded his back with their rifle butts, cut off two of his fingers, then ordered him to run and shot him dead. A few days later, the military reported that Notarte was among the NPA rebels killed in an armed encounter on Jan. 13, 2018.

• Military campaigns in the communities have become not only a deceptive maneuver but a money-making and extortion scheme. Also civilian agencies and local government units have been used as auxiliaries in combat operations and in the counterinsurgency drive called Community Operations for Peace and Development (COPD).

In Caraga, for instance, our group uncovered a modus operandi that has enabled military officers or personnel to access and take the reward money offered by the government to alleged NPA surrenderees, or to extort money from farmers who had acceded or succumbed to military pressure to claim they were NPA fighters and “surrendered” – thus victimizing the farmers twice.

In one province, where farmers accused of being rebels are assigned a PAO (Public Attorney’s Office) lawyer, our group came across a case where the PAO lawyer allegedly demanded from the family of an arrested farmer a large sum of money to facilitate the dismissal of the trumped-up charge and the farmer’s release. Two provincial prosecutors, whom our group’s lawyer and his paralegal team had interviewed, revealed the questionable practices of a judge and certain prosecutors that violate due process. The judge routinely issued search warrants of doubtful basis and validity, while the prosecutors hurriedly filed trumped-up charges in court, simply because the respondents (who may not have received the court summons) failed to submit controverting evidence to the spurious charges.

The three-day fact-finding mission was too short as to enable me to pin down with certainty the deeper rationale for this dirty and brutal war against unarmed farmers and their resistant communities. However, I may come close to it with this concise analysis and conclusion:

Woodenheadedly, the AFP is targeting, via Oplan Kapayapaan, to defeat the NPA in Mindanao by the end of 2018, despite Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana saying it’s an unrealistic target. Now, previous AFP chiefs have assessed the failures of their previous counterinsurgency operational plans. They came to realize that the NPA has survived the intensive and extensive attacks because the revolutionary forces have built up stable areas of support among the farming communities, which are also among the wellsprings for the sustained recruitment of new NPA fighters. Thus the AFP, belatedly and wrongfully, tries to apply the principle: nip the enemy in the bud.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
April 14, 2018

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