In the last two weeks, over 21 civilians have been assassinated on the island of Negros. Arthur and Aldane Bayawa were brothers, one a school principal and another an official in the Department of Education. Marlon Ocampo was at home with his one year old son when their house was strafed by bullets, killing them both. Ramon “Bobby” Jalandoni and Ernesto Posadas were both local government officials. Attorney Anthony Trinidad, who represented political prisoners, was already on a hit list. He was ambushed on his way home from court by a pair of gunmen on a motorcycle. These are just glimpses into some of the lives taken away from us.
What most of the victims had in common is that they were known to be critical of the government, and that their killings were committed brazenly and in public, by people who do not act like they are scared to be caught. Testimony from eyewitnesses, including family members, linked the killings to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP).
Negros has already become infamous for government-linked killings within the last year, notably because of the “Negros 14”, who were peasants killed by the police, and the “Sagay 9” massacre of sugar worker families. As of August 1st this year, 87 people from Negros, mostly farmers, have been killed under President Duterte’s regime. His explanation of this latest spate of killings has been to blame such “lawless violence” on the New People’s Army (NPA), despite the fact that he has also accused many of the victims of being NPA. In retaliation, he also promised to “replicate the atrocious acts”, especially with regard to the NPA’s alleged killing of 4 policemen.
However these killings must be seen within the context of Duterte’s militarization of government bureaucracy, where more and more of his direct appointees are current or former military and police. Under Duterte’s Oplan Kapanatagan, the military and police are working together to practice a “whole-of-nation” counterinsurgency strategy, as outlined by Executive Order 70.
Oplan Kapanatagan seeks to remove the distinction between police-style operations against ordinary criminals and organized crime, with military-style counterinsurgency operations. This strategy, which was crafted by the US Army and was also adopted by Duterte’s predecessor, former President Noynoy Aquino, gradually takes away democratic civilian rule and checks-and-balances. It employs politically-justified killings of indigenous people, unionists, and farmers advocating land reform, accusing those murdered as communist rebels or their sympathizers. In addition, it implements a total war strategy that does nothing to address the roots of the armed conflict in landlessness, joblessness and government corruption and impunity. Often, the same methods of extrajudicial killings have been used as those in Duterte’s infamous Oplan Tokhang “drug war”.
Additionally, Duterte’s Memorandum Order 32 specifically names Negros alongside Samar and Bicol as in a “state of lawless violence”, directing additional and more aggressive deployments of AFP and PNP forces. While Oplan Kapanatagan is a country-wide strategy, its local manifestation in Negros known as Oplan Sauron was developed in late 2018 as the military and police response to Duterte’s M.O. 32 order. Nadja de Vera, convener of the group Defend Negros, said the order “was just issued to legalize the killings” that were already happening.
With these orders and military operations, Duterte has imposed a state of de facto martial law in Negros and other rural areas, using the 50-year-old communist-led insurgency as an excuse after rejecting the call for peace talks. However, even de facto martial law is not enough for Duterte. In response to the violence, which even pro-Duterte newspapers have speculated is the responsibility of the government, Duterte has opened a discussion of extending martial law beyond Mindanao and other “drastic measures,” in his own words.
The killings in Negros come right after Duterte and Trump administration officials met in Manila to discuss topics including greater security cooperation. The US ambassador tweeted that they met to “explore ways to deepen our military partnership”, while US-trained and educated Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana spoke about strengthening the Mutual Defense Treaty, one agreement that has long made the Philippines a major outpost of the U.S. military. As part of this relationship, the U.S. military has 280 operations planned in the Philippines in 2019, more than any other country which falls under the responsibility of the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command.
The recent meetings between Trump’s State Department officials and the Philippine defense officials act to embolden, not curb Duterte’s fascism, and underscore the importance of ramping up the campaign to expose and end US support of Duterte’s regime. In 2018, the Philippines received at least 193.5 million dollars in direct military aid alone, with no sign of being reduced by Congress in 2019. Without restrictions or reductions, Duterte’s death squads operating with impunity becomes a moral issue not only for Filipinos, but for all of us.