Deeper look into the slay of 14 farmers in Negros Oriental

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Definitely justified are the strong public outrage and calls for impartial investigation into the killing last March 30 of 14 farmers, by police and military forces in joint day-long operations in Canlaon City and the towns of Manjuyod and Sta. Catalina in Negros Oriental. 

The Philippine National Police has justified the killings, as the operations were supposedly intended to search for and confiscate illegal firearms. And Malacañang, through the presidential spokesperson, promptly backed up the justification: that the persons gunned down during the search operations “fought back.”  Such a claim – “nanlaban” in the police lingo -- has become the standard rationale for the killing of thousands of suspected illegal drug users and pushers since Duterte assumed the presidency in July 2016 and launched his “war on drugs” through Oplan Tokhang.  

However, Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo and Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos City (Negros Occidental) weren’t convinced by these explanations.  Similarly unconvinced and outraged were the relatives of the victims, witnesses to the killings, and human rights and people’s organizations who all have raised questions and demanded a thorough investigation. 

The Commission on Human Rights took preliminary steps to look into the incidents, with its Central Visayas director saying he would check on reports he had received that “what happened were tokhang-type killings.”  PNP chief Oscar Albayalde ordered the relief of four Negros Oriental police officials purportedly to clear the way for what he called an “impartial investigation” by the PNP Internal Affairs Service; the investigation would focus on whether the joint operations had complied with existing rules of engagement and relevant jurisprudence.

At the House of Representatives, the Makabayan bloc of partylist representatives has sought congressional action by filing two resolutions. The first resolution urges the committee on human rights to hold a public investigation on the killings. The other calls for the scrapping of “Oplan Sauron”, the implementing program in Negros of President Duterte’s Memorandum Circular No. 32.

It was through Oplan Sauron that the joint police-military teams carried out the oddly-named “Synchronized Enhanced Managing Police Operation” which led to the March 30 killings in Negros.

The Makabayan bloc’s suggested inquiries, starting with Memo Circular 32, can provide a deeper and wider perspective not only on the March 20 killings. It could also shine a light on similar operations carried out earlier: one of these happened in Guihulngan City (Negros Oriental) on Dec. 27-29, 2018, in which six persons were killed and several others arrested for alleged illegal possession of firearms.

Memo Circular 32, issued on Nov. 22, 2018, provides “reinforcing guidelines” for the AFP and PNP in implementing “measures to suppress and prevent lawless violence.” 

It was issued pursuant to President Duterte’s Proclamation No. 55, issued on Sept. 4, 2016, declaring a state of national emergency on account of lawless violence in Mindanao, after the bombing of a night market in Davao City.  It called on the AFP and PNP to undertake “all necessary measures to suppress any and all forms of lawless violence in Mindanao” and prevent its “spread and escalation elsewhere in the country.”

The memo-circular was spurred by “a number of sporadic acts of violence” particularly in the provinces of Samar, Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental and the Bicol region which “appear to have been committed by lawless groups.” It directs the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) to coordinate the immediate deployment of additional forces of the AFP and PNP in these places “to suppress lawless violence and acts of terror” and “prevent such violence from spreading and escalating elsewhere in the country.”

Further, it orders the AFP, PNP, and the Department of Justice (DoJ), in close coordination with other law-enforcement agencies and the intelligence community, to “intensify their local and transnational intelligence operations against individuals or groups suspected of, or responsible for, committing or conspiring to commit acts of lawless violence” in the country.  Likewise, it orders the prompt investigation and prosecution of “all individuals or groups apprehended for committing, or conspiring to commit, acts of lawless violence.”      

Previous press reports on how the Police Regional Office 7 (PRO-7) based in Cebu City implemented Memo-Circular 32 cited the following:  PRO-7 deployed more than a thousand policemen, supported by AFP troops, to conduct a massive police operation in Guihulngan City that resulted in the killings and arrests earlier mentioned. More than 80 search warrants used in the operations had all been issued by Judge Soliver Peras of Regional Trial Court Branch 10 in Cebu City. (In the March 30 operations, 35 search warrants were reportedly used.)

The reports also said PRO-7 Director Debold Sinas had announced the relief of and the filing of administrative charges against five Cebu-based police officers, who were found to have failed to perform their duties in the Oplan Sauron operations on Dec. 27-29, 2018.

Given that precedent case, couldn’t there also have been failures in the performance of duties, to say the least, in the wider March 30 joint operations? 

Who is committing this lawless violence now? How worse can the situation get? 

Consider this: Proclamation No. 55 (that is, the state of national emergency) remains in effect, supplemented with a slew of executive orders giving more leeways to the AFP and PNP in carrying out their operations.  And most recently, riled by criticisms all around, Duterte has been grumbling that he has “enough problems with criminality, drugs, rebellion and all,” and threatening to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, order the arrest of all critics, and declare a “revolutionary war” until the end of his term. 

Isn’t this senseless violence, instigated, inflicted and condoned by the state? What will stop it?

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