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Anguish in the Philippines as lush lands become killing fields

Belligerents in Asia’s longest-running armed conflict have left residents on Negros, the Philippines’ fourth largest island, terrorised over the last two weeks of July.
Armed men killed 21 people in 10 days, now 300 elite police commandos have headed for the island, which has two provinces and a population of four million people.
National Police chief, Oscar Albayalde, announced the deployment of the commandos on the heels of an appeal for a ceasefire between warring parties by Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos.
The communist New People’s Army (NPA) has waged a protracted guerrilla war across the country for the past 50 years and Negros has been one of its strongholds. 
At least four Catholic bishops have warned of a human rights crisis on the island, but Albayalde has shrugged off the warnings. He called the deployment of crack forces as a response to the religious leaders’ call for peace and a move to quell criminality and terrorism.
Human rights workers and faith groups fear the elite unit could turn their guns on civilians.
They blame police, soldiers and paramilitaries for 87 political killings on Negros since 2017. At least 15 of the 21 killings since July 18 are being blamed on state forces.
A Global Witness report released on July 29 ranked the Philippines as the worst violator of the rights of environmental and land defenders in 2018. The report cites Negros—a lush, volcanic island bedevilled by grave economic and social contrasts—as being at the centre of a war waged largely against farmers and agricultural workers. 
As Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, races to beat a self-imposed year-end deadline to crush Asia’s oldest insurgency, one born from agrarian unrest, Bishop Alminaza and other Church leaders are urging one more effort to restart peace negotiations.
But they face a tough challenge. The recent killings on Negros range from an ambush of four police officers to city attacks targeting prominent citizens like lawyers, educators, a former mayor and a sitting member of the city council. And those are just the acknowledged ones.
From July 25 to 27, teams of killers kept pace with Bishop Alminaza’s appeals for peace and calm. The bishop issued four appeals over two days, culminating with a harsh repudiation of violence wielded by both state security forces and guerrillas.
He called for an emergency conference of bishops and laity a few hours after gunmen prowled across the city of Guihulngan in Negros Oriental province in the pre-dawn hours.
The gunmen barged into homes in separate attacks, killing a village chief, a science high school principal and his sister, and the city’s Education Department head who was serving her last year before retirement.
Two days earlier, in the same city, human rights lawyer, Anthony Trinidad, died in an ambush (Sunday Examiner, August 4). A day later, suspected rebels killed a former comrade and a leader of a farmers’ organisation.
Bishop Alminaza urged clergy and the laity to shake off helplessness and apathy, and come together to discern the roots of the violence and work for solutions.
Three massacres over six months, from October 2018 to March 2019, saw the deaths of 29 farmers. Among the dead, at least two were minors working as field hands.
“The right to life is inalienable and inviolable,” said the bishop as he sent teams to aid families that lost breadwinners in October 2018.
“Killing the perceived enemy, especially if they are defenseless, will never solve, only further aggravate the problem,” he said.
“Guns are not the solution,” said Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network, a pro-environment group that partners with Global Witness.
There is a reason why Negros is at the centre of agrarian unrest, Dulce said.
“Through many, many decades, a sea of monocrop plantations in Negros have driven cycles of hunger and poverty, and the resulting unrest,” he explained.
Bishop Alminaza has called on local government officials to end their silence and “join in the cry to end the senseless killings,” and for police and military forces to “act within the law, not beyond it.”
He ordered parishes to ring church bells every day at eight o’clock in the evening starting on July 28 as a call for justice and an appeal “for God to touch the hearts of perpetrators.”
Catholic bishops say that rural communities are caught up in a “cycle of violence and vendettas” between state forces and communist rebels.
Contradictory and sometimes astounding claims by police and military officials only worsen an already murky legal landscape.
During the last outbreak of violence on Negros, military and police officials blamed communist guerrillas for the murders of men they repeatedly tagged as rebel allies. In one case, an alleged claim of rebel responsibility was stenciled carefully on walls, an anomaly that had Justice Department agents shaking their heads.
In a massacre in the city of Sagay last year, police first branded the slain workers as rebels or sympathisers, then later turned around and claimed the rebels had killed the victims.
In two other massacres that followed, police in the countryside started using tokhang tactics (knock on doors and kill), echoing Duterte’s war against largely poor drug users and dealers on the main island of Luzon.
They fanned out across hamlets and towns, bursting into their victims’ homes in the early hours. The families of their targets were ordered out of the houses at gunpoint.
All those slain “fought back” police claimed. Several families have already filed complaints with the Commission on Human Rights.
The Catholic bishops of Negros—Bishop Louie Galbines of Kabankalan, Bishop Patricio Buzon of Bacolod, and Bishop Julio Cortes of Dumaguete—joined Bishop Alminaza on July 26 in issuing an Oratio Imperata, or obligatory prayer, with the special intention to end killings and remind Filipinos “of the value of life.”
The next day, men in four white vans stormed into the house of former mayor, Edcel Enardecido, of Ayungong town.
The gunmen shot the mayor and his cousin, Leo, dead. The incident happened 10 days after police officers were ambushed and killed in the town.
In the city of Canlaon, two hours away, under exactly the same conditions, a team killed councilor, Ramon Jalandoni, a long time target of military and police red-tagging (called out as communist).
Also killed was Ernesto Posadas, council head of Panubigan village where police and soldiers shot dead two farmers in March.
Sunday, July 28, ended with one more death in Panubigan.
But the communist rebels have also been busy the past month with their offensives.
One rebel commander claimed that units under him killed 43 soldiers and a policeman in three clashes from June 22 to July 18. He described the casualties in one clash as members of a security team for a regional police medical mission. He said another ambush used command-detonated mines. The military has only reported a fraction of the rebel casualty claim and there is no way to independently verify the latter.
Bishop Alminaza speaks out against killings perpetrated by both sides. He believes the Church and communities can work together to convince government and insurgent forces to talk peace.
Duterte, who called off peace talks with the rebels last November, said he would never allow a ceasefire that limits military and police movements or recognises rebels’ hold over any territory.
The National Democratic Front, which represents the leftist underground movement in peace talks, said it would be suicide to accept a ceasefire that allows military incursions into guerrilla zones.
The Duterte government vowed to isolate exiled rebel negotiators by convincing guerrillas in the Philippine countryside to accept local peace talks.
It is the how of this goal that has caused the bloodbath among civilians. UCAN