Military Accused of Negros Oriental Civilian Killings

Activists point finger at two battalions leading the government’s counter-insurgency campaign in the region.

Military Accused of Negros Oriental Civilian Killings

Activists point finger at two battalions leading the government’s counter-insurgency campaign in the region.

Rights campaigners in this predominantly agricultural central Philippine province are accusing the military of killing four local civilians since the beginning of the year.

They blame the army’s counter-insurgency programme Oplan Bantay Laya 2 (Freedom Watch) for the killings – in particular, the 79th and 11th Infantry Battalions which are at the forefront of the government’s stated plan here to end the communist insurgency “once and for all” by 2010.

The military claims the four victims were members of the New People’s Army, NPA. It says two were killed in a legitimate army raid and the others were the victims of the insurgents.

Negros Oriental and its vast sugar plantations, which are still mostly controlled by a few influential families, has long seen serious clashes between the military and the NPA, now estimated to number only around 200 or so strong.

It has not been easy to separate military operations from the frequent disappearances and killings of peasants and political activists. And, in recent months, the police appear to have become involved: last November the region’s provincial police chief was quoted as saying the Philippine National Police, PNP, aimed to use Negros Oriental as a “counter-insurgency training ground”, a statement that has made some local people suspicious and fearful.

Provincial police director Senior Superintendent Augusto Marquez was reported as saying that 300 PNP recruits who had finished basic training would be required to undergo training with the so-called Special Counter-Insurgency Operations Unit before being assigned to local police stations.

But many people have been left wondering why the police have become involved in counter-insurgency work at all.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, are claiming the army is behind the abduction and killing of farmers Julito Quirante, 48, of Sitio Magsarse and Ronel Raguing, 25, of Sitio Sinamohe. They had been hacked to death.

Their bodies were exhumed from a shallow grave in Sitio Junob in Barangay (village) Nagbin-lod on March 9 by a team of forensic experts led by National Bureau of Investigation, NBI, officer Dr Rene Cam.

The bodies’ identities and the result of the autopsies have yet to be formally confirmed to the families, but the latter are satisfied that the remains belong to their relatives.

They were reported missing to police on February 1, with their families and witnesses claiming they were last seen in the company of 79th Infantry Battalion soldiers.

Quirante’s wife, Alejandra, says that on January 15, two weeks before her husband disappeared, he was detained by soldiers from the battalion at home on suspicion of being an NPA supporter. A 9-mm gun was reportedly found in his possession when military searched their house.

His wife says the soldiers took the farmer to their headquarters for interrogation before he was turned over to the PNP the following day. He was subsequently released without charge.

“We were under surveillance from then on,” Alejandra told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, adding that her husband was “snatched” on January 31 in Barangay Nagbin-lod.

According to a witness, whose name cannot be revealed, Quirante was on his way to his cousin Francisco Namoco at Sitio Kalabasaan, also in Barangay Nagbin-lod, to trade tobacco leaves for rice when he was taken by soldiers.

Raguing’s mother, Virginia, meanwhile, says her son left their house on February 1 to gather squash and other vegetables he intended to sell in the market in Sitio Lag-asan. She says that was the last time she saw him.

Families of both farmers claim they were already targets of the military for some time. In separate incidents last year, military and members of the Barangay Intelligence Network, BIN, and the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units, CAFGUs, repeatedly visited the farmers’ homes for questioning, say the families.

Raguing and Quirante were both members of local affiliates of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, or KMP. They were vocal critics of the government and its policies here and also claimed the 79th Infantry Battalion was responsible for a series of human rights abuses – something the battalion denies.

Quirante’s sisters Emilia and Maricris have been detained since March 2007 at the provincial jail of Guihulngan town, 125 kilometres from here. The military accused them of rebellion and child abuse for recruiting minors into the NPA – charges which Emilia, municipal chair of Kaugmaon, and Maricris, a literacy programme teacher, deny. While the local court has already dismissed the child abuse claims, the two women still remain in jail.

The abduction and killing of Raguing and Quirante followed on very closely from a military attack on the home of a farmer in Barangay Panubigan, Canlaon City, 246 km from here.

On January 25, according a report by the rights group the Promotion of Church People’s Response, PCPR, 15 members of the 11th Infantry Battalion’s Alpha Company led by Lieutenant. Rey Canete allegedly strafed the house of 50-year-old farmer Porferio Pableo which left two people dead.

Pableo’s 48-year-old wife Beverly, a fish vendor, and Felix Renobata, 19, of Barangay Codcod, San Carlos City, were killed. Pableo was left wounded along with 26-year-old Jimmy Calago and 28-year-old Geovani Ogang.

The military says the raid was a legitimate strike against the NPA, insisting that the victims were insurgents.

No weapons were found in the Pableos’ house, according to witnesses.

The military have challenged human rights groups and the families of Quirante and Raguing to file charges against those soldiers they think are responsible for abducting and killing them.

“There is no truth in the accusations,” said Colonel Cesar Yano, commander of the 302nd Brigade that has jurisdiction over the 79th Infantry Brigade. “The NPA did it. We are only here to help.”

And in a statement, Lieutenant Colonel Erwin Bernard Neri, the 79th Infantry Brigade commander, vehemently denied the accusations and challenged human rights groups to come up with evidence for their claims.

For its part, the local Commission on Human Rights, CHR, has already taken up the cases of Quirante and Raguing after their families made a formal request on March 23.

In a recent interview with local radio station dyGB, CHR special investigator Jess Canete said he already went to the areas where the farmers’ bodies were found to talk to witnesses. He also appealed to PCPR to provide access to their witnesses.

PCPR claims that the military, specifically the 79th Infantry Brigade, is responsible for numerous abuses committed against 632 individuals under Oplan Bantay Laya 2 in Negros Oriental last year. It alleges the abuses include cases of murder, abduction, torture and illegal arrest and detention.

“The military do not distinguish civilians from combatants. Community folk are automatically branded as NPA supporters,” said Father Nene Francisco, PCPR secretary-general.

Last June, Melimore Saycon, a local government representative and chair of the Negros Oriental Committee on Peace and Order and Human Rights, called on local government officials, military and human rights groups to form a fact-finding group that would conduct on-site inspections in villages where the military have allegedly committed abuses.

But human rights organisations, particularly Kaugmaon, immediately expressed apprehension over the inclusion of the military in the fact-finding group. “They instigated most of the documented human rights violations,” said Kaugmaon secretary-general Raffy Ducay.

Recently, Saycon, who had been approached by the families of Quirante and Raguing on April 2 to investigate their deaths, is reported to have said he received army intelligence reports that the farmers were NPA members killed by their own comrades, so his committee would no longer investigate.

A constant counter accusation from the military is that such killings are a result of internal fighting of the NPA.

But as one commentator, who prefers to remain anonymous, acerbically put it, “Given the authorities and the military continually insist all activist and farmer killings are the handiwork of the NPA and that the communists and their so-called supporters are constantly killing each other – what need is there for the army?

“According to that logic the insurgency is destroying itself – so let the army pull out and let’s see if the killings really continue.”

Joseph Lagorra is a freelance writer and a human rights advocate in Negros Oriental.
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