Saturday, August 13, 2011

An overview of the human rights situation in Eastern Visayas*

The 8th Infantry Division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines covering the whole of Eastern Visayas, considers Acosta's arrest a "significant accomplishment."

By ERICSON ACOSTA
Published in Bulatlat.com

Many are surely wondering, why did the military detain Acosta? Why was he imprisoned?

In what far-off corner of the islands could Barangay Bay-ang be found, and what could a writer and poet like Ericson Acosta possibly be doing there?

In truth, these are vital questions, not just to the overly curious or to the sectors that know me as an activist and cultural worker and are now calling for my release. I bore direct witness to the deliberately illicit and deceptive conduct of my arrest and detention by the authorities; directly witnessed how the very institutions that must defend my rights had instead conspired to suppress the same. These then are questions vital to anyone concerned in human rights issues, especially in the context of the dismal state of affairs in the Eastern Visayas, as well as in other parts of the country.

The latest Commission on Human Rights findings on the case of missing activist Jonas Burgos attest to the fact that widespread extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances around the country are systematically and regularly being committed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in line with their counter-insurgency program. While the AFP has not been charged nor held liable for thousands upon thousands of violations throughout the islands, citizens remain trapped in a climate of terror and fear.

In spite of the much awaited advent of justice and reform touted by the new regime of President Noynoy Aquino III, poverty endures in Eastern Visayas. Of course, Region VIII is the land of the Waray (a word which literally means “without,” “empty” or “naught”), the ethno-linguistic group inhabiting the clustered islands of Samar, Leyte and Biliran.

Local culture and tradition so permeates the lives of the Waray that it nearly overwhelms the daily tragedy of a backward agriculture and economy. Though they amuse themselves with tuba (palm wine) and kuratsa (an indigenous dance), they face a sobering reality. The absence of social justice is made even worse by natural calamities. Persistent rainfall has raised alarm against heavy landslides and flash floods in Leyte akin to those that befell Ormoc City and the town of St. Bernard. In Catbalogan City and San Jorge town in Samar, farmers expect their crops to be submerged in apo or flood – this disaster has hit them year in, year out for over 50 years.

Widespread military operations are common occurrences in the interior barrios and upland areas. The AFP boasts it has “pulverized” insurgency in the isle of Leyte, and regards the whole of Samar as a national priority. The two islands were struck in the “last salvo” of extensive militarization under Oplan Bantay Laya II (OBL II or Operation Freedom Watch II) of the Arroyo regime. The Aquino regime extended the implementation of OBL II until January 2011, before it was recently replaced with Oplan Bayanihan (Operation Teamwork). In Region VIII, this “last salvo” has been dubbed “Operation October Left Cross” by the 8th Infantry Division (8th ID) of the AFP, the armed forces division that oversees the entire Eastern Visayas.

The region has suffered tremendous aggression under OBL, and though a succession of generals ultimately served as chief of the AFP and the 8th ID, militarization in the whole of the region has assumed a single visage. Singularly the most infamous military man, the one called the “butcher,” Jovito Palparan was assigned in the island.

The human rights situation in the region

Fact-finding missions led by Katungod-Sinirangan Bisayas (Katungod-SB), the local arm of national human rights alliance Karapatan, have documented about a hundred thousand peasant and civilian victims of militarization in town centers and in the countryside throughout the region. These were the case facts I reexamined and sought to directly validate from the farmers concerned, particularly in the upland barrios of some municipalities in Samar.

The documented cases involve political assassinations, illegal arrests, forced evacuation and displacement, bombings, strafing, arson, destruction of crops, food blockades, physical and mental harassment and torture, and many others. The height of the OBL onslaught against the civilian population came in 2005, in what is often referred to now as the “Palparan era.” Nonetheless, militarization remains in full effect, carrying on with Aquino’s current Oplan Bayanihan.

Karapatan reports that in Eastern Visayas, there were 126 victims of extrajudicial killings and 27 disappearances under the Arroyo regime. These statistics represent the highest number of victims among the Visayan regions. Among those murdered were known activists and human rights advocates Atty. Felidito Dacut, Dr. Bartolome Resuello, Atty. Norman Bocar, Rev. Edison Lapus, Prof. Jose Ma. Cui, and Fr. Cecilio Lucero.

Activists and human rights groups are perpetual targets of military intimidation. Soldiers constantly threaten Katungod-SB via military sponsored radio programs on the DYMS Catbalogan station. This past year, former Katungod-SB Secretary-General Atty. Kathrina Castillo received death threats in the mail.

Massacres are not uncommon in the region. The 19th Infantry Battalion (19th IB) in Leyte, aka the “Massacre Battalion,” earned the moniker for its relentless spate of killings. The controversial deaths of renowned botanist Leonard Co and his staff in Kananga, Leyte in November 2010 were purported as the result of an encounter between the guerrilla New People’s Army (NPA) and the 19th IB. Apparently, this incident in Kananga had a precedent. Like Co and his companions, the nine who died in Kananga in 2003 were clearly deliberately shot by 19th IB soldiers – except these victims were ordinary farmers and therefore did not catch media attention. In 2005, nine more farmers, including a pregnant woman, were killed when soldiers gunned down a tiklos (a communal farming activity) in Barangay San Agustin, Palo, Leyte. The farmers who survived the gruesome massacre were arrested and slapped with manufactured criminal charges to prevent their testimony.

Suspected members or supporters of the NPA are similarly assaulted with illegal arrests. Such was the case with Dario Tomada, leader of Samahan han Gudti nga Parag-uma ha Sinirangan Bisayas (SAGUPA-SB), the regional alliance of militant farmers. Tomada survived an assassination attempt in 2005, and decided to leave the militarized region to ensure his safety. Tomada was arrested in BiƱan, Laguna in July 2010 and charged with 15 counts of murder, in connection with a supposed “mass grave” discovered in Inopacan, Leyte. There are other farmers whose incarcerations remain unreported, civilians who allegedly “surrendered” and are kept in military custody against their will, and other undocumented cases.

With my own illegal arrest and detention, there are now 16 political detainees in Eastern Visayas. But as the farmers of Barangay Bay-ang will tell you, this sort of abuse – and worse – is not at all unexpected.

Where is Bay-ang?

The farmers have grown accustomed to the archaic mode of transportation in the island of Samar. Typically sold in the tabo (local markets) and on occasions such as the patron (fiesta) is that most reliable and most basic requirement of farmers for their mobility – a pair of boots. When there are even no proper roads leading to interior municipalities like Matuguinao and San Jose de Buan, what could one expect of the more remote barrios in various towns?

Barangay Bay-ang is one of the innermost barrios of the town of San Jorge, Samar. It is situated on the tri-boundary of the upland towns of San Jorge, Motiong and San Jose de Buan. Interior Bay-ang is a funnel for “nearby” barrios (several kilometers apart in actual distance) needing transportation toward the Maharlika Highway and the San Jorge town proper. There is a local port and several baloto (boats) that traverse the river.

During the Filipino-American War, Gen. Jacob Smith vowed to turn all of Samar into a “howling wilderness.” Who would imagine that this horrifying threat would be felt to this day, and in fact realized in Barangay Bay-ang and the other interior barrios of Samar?

From 2005 to 2007, Bay-ang was known as a “no man’s land.” Residents were forced to evacuate owing to intensified militarization and widespread military atrocities. Many homes were torched, not even the barangay chapel was spared. Even the image of their patron saint, but silently looking on as these attacks occurred, had been desecrated and blown up by the soldiers.

As the OBL has demonstrated all over the country, military abuse applies no distinctions to its victims – targets may include prominent church people, journalists, doctors, professors or lawyers. Mired thus in their remote dwellings and perhaps limited knowledge of the law and their basic rights, the ordinary farmer suffers vicious intimidation in the hands of soldiers on a much larger scale.

On August 8, 2005, soldiers of the 34th IB summoned Arcadio Gabani, barangay captain of Bay-ang, and Artemio Gabin, a barangay tanod (watchman). They were brought to the Purok 2 barangay hall in the San Jorge town proper and subjected to torture.

Within a few days, on August 12, farmers Rodolfo Lukaban and Lodilo Gabiana ran into 34th IB troops conducting operations, purportedly in search of NPA camps. They were forcibly used as guides in the military operations and knocked about repeatedly along the route to the suspected camps. At one point, the troops came across Artemio Ellantos who was out fetching water. The soldiers roughed him up when he could not immediately respond to their questions. A minor, 16-year-old Eyet Dacanay, was pulled from a small gathered group and beaten up in one of the houses. Dacanay was also used as a guide in their operations.

Another Bay-ang resident, Paquito Badiola, 35, suffered a crueler fate. On that very day, he encountered a separate group of 34th IB soldiers in a forested area of Barangay Mobo-ob, and was slaughtered.

Said military operations took place in less than a week, but already there were several victims. One other case is that of Nonita Gabina, whose head was bashed against a staircase while she was under investigation. She was forced to sign papers stating she had “surrendered” to the troops. A few days after the incident, soldiers burned down the hut in their farm.

Bay-ang Sangguniang Kabataan (SK, Youth Council) Chairman Nonito “Ronie” Llantos, 18, was tortured and forced to stand though bedridden with illness. Soldiers smashed his genitals with a rifle butt. His younger brother, 13-year-old Salvador, was another victim. The soldiers gave him a beating as he moved to protect an ailing Ronie.

On August 17, the residents of Bay-ang were forced to evacuate to the old Samar National Agricultural School (SNAS) building in Barangay Matalod, San Jorge. In three months time, soldiers paid a late night visit, raucously pounding the doors of the SNAS building. The evacuees were shaken and terrified anew.

Bay-ang “post-Palparan”

Two years would pass before the residents could return to Bay-ang. But in mid to late 2008 came another parade of aggravated military atrocities.

In end July 2008, a platoon of the 46th IB had encircled the barrio. From 6:00 in the evening to 5:00 the morning of following day, soldiers strafed and opened fire on the barangay chapel, several houses, as well as scampering farmers. Apart from the strafing, the soldiers practically held one family hostage as they were trapped in a house without food and deprived of sleep. Looting and razing of the farmers’ crops were also reported.

On September 5, soldiers came upon 42-year-old Ombie Labong as he worked in the fields. Accompanied by Bay-ang barangay officials, Labong revealed the details of that day’s ordeal, his torment in the hands of the soldiers, to a Tacloban radio station. He was blindfolded, beaten up, and threatened with murder if he refused to report NPA presence in their community.

Ronie Llantos survived torture in the “Palparan era,” but in three years time, soon met his doom. High noon of September 13, 2008, he was taking shelter in the field when 20th IB troops fired on the hut he then shared with brother JR Llantos, aged 12, and cousin Barton, aged 13. Ronie was shot dead.

Apparently, this vile act came too easy and was not enough for the soldiers. With wood from the hut, they set fire to Ronie’s corpse, marking their helicopter’s landing spot with his charred remains. From razed crops, to looting, to the fire-gutted houses of Inocito Gabane, Federico Lazarra, and that of the former SK Chairman reduced to ashes along with his lifeless body, the operating 20th IB troops wrought immeasurable ruin.

Like scenes taken out of a Vietnam war movie, from September 16 to 18, 2008, three fighter planes dropped 33 bombs in four separate blasts around Barangay Bay-ang in San Jorge and three other barrios in San Jose de Buan, Sitio Galutan, Barangay Canaponte, Barangay Hagbay and Barangay San Nicolas. Powerful explosions shook the ground, destroyed crops and the livelihood of hundreds of farmers from the affected barrios. The residents were once again forced to evacuate. This time the people of Bay-ang left for the San Jorge town proper.

The farmers have now gone back to Bay-ang. Bomb craters remain scattered across the landscape.

Continued militarization of the region

I was informed of the successful completion of “Tabang Samar” (Help Samar), a relief and fact-finding mission (FFM) conducted last March 10-15 in the town of Matuguinao, led by Katungod-SB and other regional organizations. FFMs like these document cases similar to the ones reported in Bay-ang and in other barrios under military repression.

Some of the FFM participants managed to visit me in prison. I thank Katungod-SB for providing me again with copies of factsheets and previously recorded testimonies made by victims of military atrocities in the region. Unfortunately, the testimonies I personally gathered from the farmers of Bay-ang and other barrios are now in the hands of the 34th IB, the perpetrators of my illegal arrest. It was neither a gun nor a grenade that was taken from me but my personal belongings, notably my laptop computer which most aroused their suspicions.

In Matuguinao, helicopters patrol the skies and carelessly land on cultivated fields. This goes on to this day – despite the cessation of the hard-line OBL. As in a line from one well-known song, news has it that these atrocities happened only to towns like Silvino Lobos and Las Navas; in truth, it is a recurring circumstance in San Jorge, in Kananga, Lope de Vega, Albuera, Balangiga, Palo, and any corner of the region plagued by militarization.

The deployment of additional troops to an already militarized region notwithstanding, the AFP and the 8th ID are also in active recruitment. In the past few months came announcements of consecutive training for new recruits: 239 in October, 333 in November; in March, 125 new recruits were sworn in for the training that would supposedly transform them from boys into “real men.” AFP spokespersons referred to them as the “new blood” that would serve the armed forces; “new blood” as well that would engage in widespread military operations continually enforced in the region.

The reforms promised by the Aquino administration have now made their way into Samar. Foreign aid agencies like the Millennium Challenge Corporation are pouring large sums into the Pantawid sa Pamilyang Pilipino Program (a government-sponsored conditional cash grant program for destitute families) and other grand Samar construction and road improvement projects. This was a frequent topic in my conversations with the farmers in the barrios. But during one interview, the farmers simply stared into their muddy boots: “Diri man namon kinahanglan an karsada (We don’t need roads),” they declared. “An hangyo namon, hustisya (What we long for is justice).”

But for whom? Will it be for Casiano Abing? Bayan Muna (People First) partylist member from Balangiga, Eastern Samar: the first victim of extrajudicial killing in the region under the Aquino administration.

Will it be for Joselito “Itok” Tobe? Farmer, Palo massacre survivor and witness: died from illness in prison, just weeks before fellow accused detainees were freed.

Will it be for these farmers hounded with debilitating disasters far worse than flood and landslides? When I was arrested, I saw for myself how they turned pale and wept as they sensed they had no choice but to leave me with the soldiers.

Is it still a wonder what a writer and poet might be doing in a far-flung barrio like Bay-ang? Perhaps our question now must be, why must it be so elusive, and seemingly unable to pop in on places such as this, that much awaited visitor whose name is Justice?


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*Translated from “Isang Pagsipat sa sitwasyon ng karapatang pantao sa Silangang Kabisayaan,” published 12 April 2011 on Pinoy Weekly Online: http://pinoyweekly.org/new/2011/04/isang-pagsipat-sa-sitwasyon-ng-karapatang-pantao-sa-silangang-kabisayaan

Ericson Acosta’s counter-affidavit filed over his illegal possession of explosives charge: Linkhttp://pinoyweekly.org/new/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/ERICSON-ACOSTA-COUNTER-AFFIDAVIT.pdf

See Amnesty International's statement on Ericson Acosta.