“Civilians must be treated humanely in all circumstances. They must be protected against all forms of violence and degrading treatment including murder and torture.”
By JUSTIN UMALI
SANTA ROSA, Laguna – At least 26,200 people have been forced to evacuate their homes as a result of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continued aerial bombings across the Quezon province’s Bondoc Peninsula region.
Human rights alliance Tanggol Quezon reported that the Philippine Army’s 59th and 85th Infantry Battalions have forced residents from 22 barangays across the municipalities of Catanauan, Buenavista, Mulanay, and San Narciso to leave their homes before proceeding with their aerial bombing and strafing operations.
The AFP is also conducting focused military operations in 20 barangays across Catanuan, Lopez, General Luna, and Macalelon.
“We are very much concerned with the situation of the farmer’s communities and the livelihood of the farmers affected by the AFP’s aerial bombing and military operations,” said Jonabelle Almeyda, spokesperson for Tanggol Quezon. “Especially now that we are only beginning to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown.”
History of military operations
The clearing operations began following an encounter between state forces and the revolutionary New People’s Army (NPA) last February 5, which resulted in the deaths of two NPA fighters, Ronel Batarlo and Eduardo Torrenueva. That same day, two incidents resulted in the deaths of two soldiers, including AFP 1st Lt. Romeo Sabio, Jr.
Militarization has historically been a standing issue for farmers in south Quezon. According to Tanggol Quezon, it has prompted families over the years to flee their homes and communities “or else be suspected and harassed as supporters of the NPA.”
One example is an incident last October 2020 when nine human rights volunteers were blocked and arbitrarily arrested by San Narciso police on alleged violation of quarantine measures. The volunteers were conducting relief operations when they were detained for three days before they were released.
Meanwhile, rights group Karapatan Quezon reported multiple human rights violations perpetrated by state forces over the course of the past year alone. They range from harassment and threats to trumped-up charges and murder.
Karapatan Quezon’s Secretary General, Genelyn Dichoso, is herself one of the victims of this policy; police charged her with a trumped-up case of attempted homicide last year.
At the same time, south Quezon is home to several development projects and economic ventures which Tanggol Quezon dubbed as “environmentally destructive.” Last November 2020, residents blamed illegal logging projects as the cause of indiscriminate flooding and destruction caused by Typhoon Ulysses.
The group also cited the economic crisis gripping the farmers in the area. “Rural poverty – intensified only by the vast limitations in movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coconut farmers in the province have only been more vulnerable to poverty as they cannot carry on with their normal, yet low-profit, livelihoods,” they said in a statement.
The prices of copra and coconut have plummeted since 2018; copra from P38 per kilo (2017) to P12 per kilo; and coconut price to as low as P4 per kilo, respectively, the group said.
The aerial bombing and strafing operations in Quezon are part of the Duterte government’s counter-insurgency operations, headed by the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
Established in December 2018, its goal is ostensibly to use a “whole-of-nation approach” to “eradicate the Communist Party of the Philippines and NPA before 2022.” To achieve this, it uses a combination of focused military operations and “community engagement programs” like the Retooled Community Support Program.
In Quezon province, 17 barangays and five municipalities are slated to receive P 20 million as part of RCSP, on the condition that these places are already “cleared” of NPA presence. These include barangays affected by the military’s indiscriminate bombing and focused military operations.
Tanggol Quezon asserted that international humanitarian law “must be always be adhered to.”
“Civilians must be treated humanely in all circumstances,” the group stated. “They must be protected against all forms of violence and degrading treatment including murder and torture.”
Tanggol Quezon plans to reach out to the affected communities to provide relief and gather information in the coming days. Almeyda said they hope to conduct “psycho-social debriefing, ecumenical worship, and relief operations” in the said communities.