Military rules in Bicol region

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Newly installed 903rd Deputy Brigade Commander Col. Samuel Felipe. The 903rd Infantry Brigade based in Poblacion, Castilla, Sorsogon. Photo courtesy of PIA
Newly installed 903rd Deputy Brigade Commander Col. Samuel Felipe. The 903rd Infantry Brigade based in Poblacion, Castilla, Sorsogon. Photo courtesy of PIA

Schools and village halls are being used as camps by soldiers. Residents have to seek the permission of the military and sign in their logbooks whenever they go in and out of the community.

By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
Bulatlat.com

GUINOBATAN, Albay – Before Felix Paz, 81, became a peasant leader in the Bicol region, he was a farmer himself. Having his own share of hard work in the fields during his days as a farmer, Paz told Bulatlat.com, life is harder for farmers now because – they do not just worry about making a living. Their rights are violated by no less than the government itself.

Paz was among the supporters of farmers from communities in Guinobatan, Albay who held a protest action last Feb. 25. Though it coincided with the commemoration of the first EDSA uprising in 1986, their protest was far from celebrating the supposed restoration of democracy in the country.

Peasants from Bicol region held simultaneous protest actions in Guinobatan, Albay, Bato, Camarines Sur and in Barcelona, Sorsogon against the continuing militarization in their respective communities.

“We are united in fighting for our basic rights,” Vince Casilihan of Karaptan – Bicol, said.

Signing at military’s logbooks

Karapatan-Bicol said the Aquino government tried to sugarcoat Oplan Bayanihan by calling soldiers conducting military operations as “Community Peace and Development Teams.” But in reality, they said, violence lies beneath the military’s relief and disaster response and supposed campaigns on human rights.

Under President Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan, a counterinsurgency program patterned after the U.S. Counterinsurgency Guide of 2009, the human rights group said, nothing much has changed.

The human rights group documented 86 cases of human rights violations from July 2010 to December 2012. These include harassment, killings, torture, physical assault, surveillance, use of schools and other public facilities for military purposes, among others.

Various towns of Guinobatan, Albay, such as Batbat, Cabaluaon, Onggo, Pood, Balite, Palanas, Sinungtan. Bololo, Malipo, Malobago and Doña Mercedes, were among the pilot areas of Oplan Bayanihan.

“(One common occurrence) is the interrogation of residents, who, soldiers claim, are supporters of the New People’s Army. Ordinary peasants and workers who are living in rural communities need not become victims of these human rights violations,” Casilihan said.

In the village of Pood, one of the pilot areas of Oplan Bayanihan, Meriam Pardines, 32, was tagged by members of the military as a supporter of the New People’s Army. In a fact sheet sent by the human rights group to Bulatlat.com, Pardines was summoned by the soldiers at around 10:30 a.m. She was brought to the community’s chapel for interrogation.

“According to Meriam, one of the soldiers placed a knife on the table while the investigation was happening. There were several times when soldiers acted as if they would slap her because she, according to them, was lying. They threatened her that they would burn down their house if they find out that she was lying. The interrogation lasted for about 30 minutes,” the report read.

In another pilot area of Oplan Bayanihan, in the village of Bololo in Guinobatan, residents heard three gunshots coming from the direction of the 2nd Infantry Battalion detachment in their community on Aug. 15, 2011. Karapatan – Bicol reported that these gunshots were fired by soldiers who were having a drinking spree at that time.

The following day, at around 1:30 p.m., peasants Anna Brenda Rosero, 40, Oscar Rosero, 44, Benito Mangampo, 46, Ramon Bangampo, 58, Faustino Paje and Nelson Paje were invited to the military barracks. Soldiers took their pictures of them and told them to put their thumbmarks on a blank paper, which would supposedly “clear” their names. They refused to do it.

As a result, six of them were told to pay the military a visit three times a day to sign in their logbook.

Forced signing in logbooks of the military is also happening in other villages of Guinobatan.

In Sinungtan, Severito Ortecio was invited to the village hall by the military on Aug. 4, 2011. He was interrogated by soldiers and tagged as a supporter of the New People’s Army, Karapatan – Bicol said in its report. According to soldiers, Ortecio is an active members of the “Milisyang Bayan,” whose name purportedly appeared on a list they got from the rebel group.

He was forced to sign a blank paper to supposedly “clear” his name but he refused. As a result, the military wanted him to go to their barracks everyday to sign in their logbook.

His neighbors Salvador Oyardo and Rudy Rosales were also invited by the military to go to the village hall on Aug. 16, 2011 on two separate instances. They, too, were interrogated and were forced to admit that they are supporters of the New People’s Army and that they regularly attend the meetings the rebel group held.

“(Oyardo) was also threatened that if he would not admit it, something bad would happen to him and to his family,” the report read. Soldiers then took Oyardo’s photo, with him on it holding a placard that read “GMP.” He was also asked to sign and put his thumbmark on a blank paper.

“Peasants could no longer go out of their villages. They have to ask the permission of the military and sign in their logbooks. They now see soldiers as their landlords,” Casilihan said.

Casilihan added that soldiers said they have to keep peasants from going in and out of the community as for “security purposes.”

“They said they need to monitor every move of residents. And so that members of the New People’s Army could not visit the community,” he said.

In other towns

Troops belonging to the 42nd Infantry Battalion arrived in the town of Bato in Camarines Sur on October 15, 2012. They reportedly visited former town mayor Jaime Gonzales to coordinate their deployment not the incumbent mayor Jeanette Bernaldez. Among the villages where there are confirmed military deployments are Buluang, Payak, Salvacion, Sooc, Cotmon. Cristo Rey, Guyudan, San Juan, San Roque, Sagrada, San Isidro and Pagatpatan. About 10 to 16 soldiers are deployed in each village.

In the village of Sooc in Bato, Camarines Sur, residents decried the occupation of their health center for military purposes. Soldiers also stationed two of their barracks in the middle of the community, which, according to Karapatan-Bicol, “poses danger to residents should there be a gun fight between soldiers and the New People’s Army.”

Karapatan-Bicol, in its report, said they also tried to reach out to locals of the village of Cotmon, also in Bato, but the villagers were afraid to talk to them. Again, they cited fear from soldiers who are also deployed in their community.

Here, soldiers, too, used their village hall, which is surrounded by homes belonging to locals, for military purposes. According to a village official, they allowed the military because “they were not using it.”

Locals, too, have been summoned in village halls by soldiers, where they were reportedly interrogated and tagged as supporters of the New People’s Army, Karapatan-Bicol said. There were 15 and 20 documented cases of interrogation in the village of Sooc and Payak, respectively.

Even village officials, themselves, were not spared from interrogation. Kagawad Roland Reyes was summoned four times by soldiers deployed in Buluang since the troops were deployed there last Oct. 9, 2012. Another local, Jessie Talagtag, was also invited to go to the military barrack and was tagged as a supporter of the New People’s Army.

Karapatan-Bicol, on the other hand, reported that in Buluang, five locals were hurt because of indiscriminate firing reportedly committed by members of CAFGU. They are Romar Talagtag, 36, Jerson Talagtag, 36 and three minors Gerald Din, 16, Jasmin Talagtag, 11, John Paul Talagtag, 6.

“Even with all the documented abuses of the military, the local government does not lift a finger to pursue justice for the victims,” Karapatan-Bicol said in a report the group sent to Bulatlat.com.

The group, together with the Ecumenical Bishops Forum, held various dialogues with local government officials. But to no avail.

“There were several instances when we reached out to the local government officials of Guinobatan but there was no response, which could directly address our concerns on human rights violations,” Casilihan said.

“Somehow, it was of help that the (Commission on Human Rights) came up with an advisory, forbidding the military to use schools and village halls,” Casilihan said, “They followed (the advisory) for a while. But a year later, we observed that they started using schools, village halls, among others, for military purposes.”

“(The military) is using these public facilities as a place where they could have their drinking spree, their home and their barracks,” he added.

Livelihood

Militarization, according to peasant leader Paz, is endangering livelihoods of farmers and farm workers, who are also facing cases of displacements from land owners.

These farmers, he said, earn mainly from planting rice and coconuts. “According to our study, they earn roughly $2.25 a day,” Paz said, “There were cases that peasants left the community and the land they are tilling because they were afraid of the harassments they were getting from the military.”

Paz said he got several reports that when a peasant is seen doing work in the fields, “a soldier would go to him and interrogate him if he saw a member of the New People’s Army in the area. If they respond that they have not seen any, the soldiers hurt them.”

He was consistent in saying that these kind of harassments never happened during his time. He started working in the fields at the age of 12 to support his family. Harassments, for his part, from state security forces later came into the picture. He has been charged with trumped-up cases, and had “visits” from the military, when he was already known as one of the most outspoken peasant leader in the region.

“Peasants usually wake up early in rural areas. They do not go out to the fields when it is still dark. They also go home earlier than before,” Casilihan said, “They could not go and do as they wish. They fear that if they do something, which soldiers might deem as out of the ordinary, they would be interrogated or worse, killed.”

Paz also expressed his concerns for several peasant families who are sending their daughters to Manila to work as household help for fear that they might be impregnated by soldiers. “It is tearing families apart.”

Casilihan said they received reports where soldiers impregnated women from the communities. Their families, however, did not want to speak out because they are worried of the embarrassment it might cause them.

Impunity and injustice

Aside from calling to put an end to militarization, activists from the Bicol Region also remembered those who have died under the government’s Oplan Bayanihan, and lamented that justice remains elusive.

Last Feb. 25 was the first year since the killing of the Mancera family – Benjamin and sons Michael and Richard. The military claimed that it was a legitimate encounter and that Benjamin was a New People’s Army fighter. But Karapatan-Camarines Norte and Karapatan-Bicol concluded after its three-day fact finding mission that the incident was a massacre.

“Oplan Bayanihan here in the Bicol Region is violent, bloody, inhumane and deadliest in the history of our region. It is bloody because only under Aquino, 37 individuals have become victims of extrajudicial killings. Children, mothers and even village officials, too, are not spared,” Casilihan said, “Even those who are not members of progressive groups are falling victims to human rights violations.”

Editors Note: Re-posted with permission from Bulatlat.com.

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