Campaign of annihilation
Thirteen deaths in five days could hardly be called “just a few isolated cases.” But that was how Central Visayas Philippine National Police director Police Brig. Gen. Debold Sinas blithely described the recent killings in Negros Oriental. The province “is still in normal situation,” he said.
How normal is normal?
Since July 23, unknown assailants have targeted unarmed, even sleeping civilians on the island, barging into their homes after midnight or otherwise gunning them down from unmarked vans and motorcycles in broad daylight.
The casualties in the bloodbath include a human rights lawyer, a former mayor, a village chief, two educators, a city councilor, an antimining advocate, a farmer, a year-old child and his father, and a rebel returnee.
Although some of the dead had been tagged as communist sympathizers by local officials — with New People’s Army (NPA) slogans conveniently smeared in blood on the wall of one victim’s home — police have predictably named NPA rebels as behind the killings.
The outlawed group has denied this and is instead pointing at the military, police and paramilitary forces in the area, and describing the carnage as “(President) Duterte’s cowardly retaliation” for the death of four police officers earlier captured by the rebels.
The wave of killings in Negros began shortly after President Duterte and several police officials visited the wake of the four cops on July 20. The President promised a P3-million reward for the head of the communist leader behind the ambush on the police.
On July 23, human rights lawyer Anthony Trinidad was fatally shot by motorcycle-riding men while driving home with his wife, who was seriously wounded.
A series of separate attacks quickly followed, with unarmed civilians proving to be easy targets for the unidentified gunmen.
Activist groups have expressed alarm that the killings could be a prelude or an excuse for the declaration of martial law; the PNP’s announcement that its anti-insurgency campaign, Oplan Sauron, would continue despite the unsolved killings did not help any.
The results were “good,” said PNP Police Gen. Oscar Albayalde of the beefed-up campaign against suspected NPA guerillas in Negros Oriental. Records show that campaign has resulted in 20 people killed in less than six months.
In November last year, Mr. Duterte issued Memorandum Order No. 32 directing the military and the police to undertake “all necessary measures to suppress any and all forms of lawless violence” in the Mindanao region and the provinces of Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, Samar and Bicol. The same directive prompted the deployment of additional troops to Negros Oriental.
However, the lawlessness and breakdown in law and order show no signs of flagging.
Since January 2017, the human rights group Karapatan and the Defend Negros #StopTheAttacks network have recorded at least 83 victims of shooting incidents in the province. The groups say it has also been difficult to get information needed to validate their reports on the killings, with many leaders of farmers, youth and women’s organizations gone into hiding in fear for their lives.
While human rights organizations, lawyers’ groups and civil society have called for a swift and thorough investigation of the Negros killings, the PNP has downplayed the incidents and seems to be in no hurry to seek out the assailants. No strong words of condemnation from Malacañang, either, no pro forma vow to root out the culprits, not even a half-hearted “son of a whore” that the President has been known to throw around at the slightest provocation over the violent rampage happening under his watch, particularly in an island already historically much-brutalized by poverty, unrest and social injustice.
Instead of sending over police teams to probe the unabated killings, the PNP was all over the news in recent days—closing down lotto outlets. It had enough manpower and resources to serve closure notices on more than 5,000 lotto outlets nationwide as of Sunday, but has yet to apprehend a single gun-for-hire in Negros—earning them a withering reprimand from Sen. Nancy Binay.
“Mobilizing the police force to quell gambling activities over investigating deaths of unarmed civilians only shows the PNP’s misplaced sense of priority,” said the senator in a statement, adding that the police should instead be chasing after criminals and looking into serious crimes, like the Negros killings.
That they are not only raises disturbing implications about who may actually be behind this campaign of annihilation.
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