Saturday, August 26, 2006

Rights Groups Say Military Is Behind Killings in Philippines

Rights Groups Say Military Is Behind Killings in Philippines

By SETH MYDANS, International Herald Tribune
Published: August 25, 2006

LUPAO, the Philippines — The two heavyset men with pistols said they had come to buy goats, but it was Beatriz Perido they were after. When her father, a farmer and clergyman, turned them away, she said, they told him, “You will receive the news that she has been killed.”

Beatriz Perido, the local leader of a human rights group, is in hiding because, she says, the military “can kill me at any time.”

Ms. Perido is the local leader of a human rights group, and like many other community organizers and activists around the country she has gone into hiding to avoid what they say is a military-backed campaign of assassinations of leftists.

“I am on their order of battle,” said Ms. Perido, 34, referring to lists of names the military lets slip from time to time. “They can kill me at any time.”

Her organization, Karapatan, says more than 700 civilians, including more than 300 left-wing activists, have been killed around the country by “suspected security forces” in the past five years. Some were local government officials who represent a leftist political party that the military calls a Communist front organization.

In a report issued on Aug. 15, Amnesty International said “a politically motivated pattern of killings” of members of legal leftist groups was spreading, with 51 victims in the first six months of this year, compared with 66 in all of 2005.

“The question is whether the state of human rights in the Philippines is sliding back to a time when political killings were a norm,” said Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The government denies that it is involved, and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo recently said she was creating a commission to investigate the violence.

“The president has condemned these killings in the strongest terms and is determined to take all the necessary measures to protect human rights and uphold the rule of law,” said her spokesman, Ignacio Bunye.

Amnesty International’s conclusion that the government is implicated is based in part on the similarity of the killings, often involving surveillance and death threats like those that have driven Ms. Perido into hiding. The fact that few arrests have been made also suggests government involvement or complicity, it said.

This sense of fear has succeeded in choking off much of the work — particularly in rural areas like this one — of human rights advocates, farmers groups, labor organizers, church workers, activist lawyers and leftist local officials.

“Before, we could mobilize more than 50 people to conduct fact-finding,” Ms. Perido said, describing her work in investigating and reporting on killings and other abuses. “Now in this area there are only four leaders available to do it.”

On one recent mission here, 93 miles north of Manila, she was accompanied by two men who said they had also come out of hiding to visit the sites of recently reported abuses.

“It is difficult now because, even if we are only asking for better prices for rice, we are accused of being communists,” said one of the men, Boy Facunla, 49, who heads a leftist farmers’ group. “For 20 months, I have not been home. There is a rumor that there is a standing order for me to be shot.”

Modesto Reyes, 47, who was with him, said that he had once been an armed fighter in the Communist New People’s Army but that for years now he had worked above ground, particularly in organizing protest rallies.

“They are two methods of struggling for the same goal,” he said. “We are different from them; we are legal organizers.”

But in the eyes of the military, he said: “We are all connected. If you are a supporter of one group, now the impact on yourself is that you are a supporter of the armed group.”

One hamlet they visited, Namulandayan, was the scene of a massacre in 1987 in which the military, frustrated in its pursuit of a unit of communist guerrillas, rounded up and killed 17 villagers, including 6 children. Many others were wounded.

That massacre helped wreck a cease-fire with the communist insurgency that had been declared the previous year when Corazon C. Aquino was swept into the presidency on a wave of hope and reconciliation.

Many in the military had opposed the cease-fire then, just as they have opposed efforts at reconciliation initiated by Mrs. Arroyo when she took office in 2001.

She invited the leftists to form political parties and to bring their contest above ground into a legal arena. But it is these legal groups that now appear to be the targets of the killings.

Like Mrs. Aquino, Mrs. Arroyo has found herself trapped by a debt to the military, which helped bring her to office and has supported her in the face of coup threats and coup attempts.

In June she declared an “all-out war” on the insurgency, and she has praised military officers widely believed to be connected to the killings, who she said had “come to grips with the enemy.”

There are still clashes with armed communist guerrillas here at the foot of the mountain range called the Cordillera. But what the villagers now say they fear are the killings and kidnappings that surround them.

The site of the massacre is abandoned and overgrown with weeds and bushes, but some of the survivors still walk past to work in the rich green rice fields that surround it.

After sundown, the little houses nearby are dark and silent. “The people say, ‘We are afraid,’ ” said the Rev. Arleen P. Tagasa, the parish priest of Lupao. “‘We try to listen to the sounds because maybe the military will come and abduct us.”

Not long ago, a tricycle taxi driver who lived in Namulandayan, Elpidio Gante, 56, was shot and killed by unknown men for unknown reasons. He had not been publicly involved in leftist activities and his widow, Nievres Gante, said he had not received threats or warnings. One night he went out to work; in the morning she was told to collect his body. Just across a hedge lives his cousin, Jovita Lacasandile, 44, who was wounded in the massacre in 1987. Her husband and parents were killed. One younger sister lost a hand.

She still weeps when she is reminded of that day. But now it is the killings by stealth that trouble her sleep.

“We don’t know who did it,” she said of her cousin’s death. “Just like that, he is dead. We are all afraid here nowadays because we never know when we will hear that somebody else has been killed.”

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