A second look into Negros Oriental killings

In 2015, on the fifth year of the P-Noy administration’s counterinsurgency program (Oplan Bayanihan), the Armed Forces of the Philippines declared the province of Negros Oriental as a “conflict-manageable and ready for further development” area. The implication was that the state security forces had succeeded in weakening the presence/influence of the New People’s Army in the province as to enable government development programs to proceed unhampered.

Four years after, however, Negros Oriental is back in turmoil. A series of killings of civilians since December 2018 until the last two weeks of July have been reported in media. And Malacañang is using the killings as justification for President Duterte to declare martial law in the province.

Referring to the situation in a speech last Thursday, Duterte said, “I am about to do something drastic. It will not sit well with everybody… but it is needed.” His spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, interpreted the “drastic” presidential move as declaring martial law in Negros Oriental. “It appears to be soon,” he added, saying Duterte would wait for the recommendation of local government officials and security forces on the ground before issuing the declaration.

A day earlier, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon told a media forum that he had received calls from three mayors he didn’t identify who allegedly wanted martial law to be declared in Negros. He said he told the mayors, “Please allow us to handle the situation.” On the same day, AFP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said the AFP was conducting an assessment, but remarked, “The President declares, we only recommend. If our recommendation is sought… we can consult local executives.”

So with the President having made clear his intention, can one expect the local government officials not to recommend the declaration of martial law? (It seems the onus is being passed on to them). Moreover, considering the experience in Mindanao, wherein Duterte’s martial law declaration in March 2017 (due to the siege of Marawi) has been extended three times already and is eyed for further extension, wouldn’t the same likely happen in Negros?

Why has the “security situation” in Negros – from the viewpoint of the military and the civilian authorities – reverted to being turbulent after becoming “manageable” in 2015? Why, indeed, whereas the US Army-crafted “whole-of-nation (WON)” counterinsurgency approach, adopted by P-Noy’s Oplan Bayanihan, has been continued by the Duterte regime via Oplan Kapayapaan (in the first two years of his term) and changed to Oplan Kapanatagan (2018-2022), with the perspective of attaining all-round stability as Duterte’s legacy to the nation?

The most likely explanation is the “whole-of-nation” approach itself – the same one that has been unsuccessfully applied by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 – despite using up a lot of financial, material, and human resources of the national and local governments, is proving to be a failure. Just look at one aspect, the expenditure incurred in the 2018 AFP budget of P195.4 billion – almost half was allotted for its “internal security operations” or ISO, per the AFP public affairs office chief, Col. Noel Detoyato.

An additional explanation for the recent turn of events could be that military field commanders and the AFP itself have been excessively enthusiastic in pronouncing the successes of their Oplans. Recently an Ateneo de Manila University political science professor cited an AFP report which said that of the country’s 81 provinces, 76 were deemed as “conflict-affected.” The report glowingly claimed that of the 76 conflict-affected provinces, 71 have been declared – just like Negros Oriental – “conflict-manageable and ready for further development.” What are the actual conditions now in these 71 so-called CMRFD provinces?

(These data are culled from a special report of the Business Mirror last Thursday, titled “Peace in the Philippines remains an elusive dream.”)

Going back to the three most-recent spates of killing in Negros Oriental, from media accounts the victims totalled 48 civilians (human rights monitoring groups have cited higher figures). The first two clusters – from Dec. 27 to Jan. 15, then on March 30 – were acknowledged to have been authorized joint operations by the AFP and PNP. Here’s how they happened:

On Nov. 22, 2018, President Duterte, through Memorandum Circular 32, directed the Department of National Defense and the Department of Interior and Local Government to coordinate the immediate deployment of additional military and police forces in the Negros provinces, Samar provinces and the Bicol region “to suppress lawless violence and acts of terror.”

A month later, a large-scale AFP-PNP military operation was carried out in Negros Oriental from Dec. 27 to Jan. 15, 2019. It used platoon- to company-size forces in searching houses and arresting targeted persons using close to 100 warrants issued by a single regional trial court judge in Cebu City (RTC-7 Branch 10 Judge Soliver Peras).

The operations resulted in seven persons killed (including a radio broadcaster-commentator in Guihulngan City) and 40 others arrested and charged, invariably, with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

A second similar operation was carried out from dawn to dusk on March 30 in Canlaon City and the towns of Majuyod and Sta. Catalina. Result: 14 farmers were killed in their homes during the search operations for alleged illegal firearms. The PNP justified the killings, claiming that the slain persons “fought back” (as in the “tokhang” operations against illegal drugs). Malacañang, through presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, backed up the PNP’s justification.

The third round of killings (civilian victims: 17, according to a Philippine STAR report) was carried out by unidentified men after the NPA acknowledged responsibility for ambushing and slaying four police intelligence men in Ayungon town on July 20. President Duterte reacted angrily, ordered state security forces to go after the NPA unit, offering initially P3 million (later raised to P5 million) for the head only, “not the body,” of the leader of the NPA unit.

Now PNP chief Oscar Albayalde blames the civilian killings on the NPA, and Malacanang does the same. Panelo said Duterte “vows to replicate the atrocious acts done by the communist rebels to civilians, the barangay officials and the law enforcers… in defense of our countrymen.”

Will there be more state-directed killings if and when martial law is declared in Negros? Four Catholic bishops in Negros and the supreme bishop of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Aglipayan) have cried out “No! Stop the killings!” May the nightly tolling of the church bells ordered by the bishops achieve their objective.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
August 3, 2019

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