After five days of evacuation, beleaguered residents from fifteen barangays of Calbiga, Samar have already returned to their homes after a successful dialogue with the local government unit, Social Welfare Regional Director Restituto Macuto and representatives from the 87th Infantry Battalion (IB) headed by their Commanding Officer Lt. Col Arnel Floresca last April 9, Sunday. Two dialogues took place on the said date, one set by Calbiga Mayor Luzviminda Nacario and the other initiated by local peasant group Kapunungan han mga Parag-uma ha Weste han Samar (KAPAWA) and People Surge.
In the first dialogue held at the municipal hall of Calbiga, evacuees, represented by People Surge – Calbiga Chapter Secretary General Lina Tabuyan supported by Samahan han Gudti nga Parag-uma ha Sinirangan Bisayas (SAGUPA – SB) Secretary General Nestor Lebico and People Surge Secretary General Marissa Cabaljao, received a negative response from the panel stating that evacuees should just return to their homes and “set aside” their issue on militarization.
Lebico pressed that the evacuees, mostly farmers, are demanding for a total pull out of the military troops in the affected barrios, an end to all forms of human rights violations such as harassment, coercion and torture being committed against several farmers in Calbiga, as well as payment for the damage to farmers’ properties and livelihood caused by the government armed troops.
Municipal Social Welfare Development Officer (MSWDO) Eva Ranas and a representative from the Municipal Peace and Order Council (MPOC) even denounced Cabaljao, Lebico and Tabuyan for what they call deplorable situation of the evacuees in the basketball court of Calbiga but failed to address the root cause of the evacuation.
“It is ironic and uncritical for the members of the panel to feel sympathy for the evacuees and tell us to see the bigger picture, but fail to see the actual circumstances that led to this massive evacuation”, Lebico said.
After almost three hours of raising their claims, the members of the panel headed by Mayor Nacario agreed to proceed to the basketball court and persuade the evacuees to return to their homes, brushing aside their representatives manifestations for “not being able to speak enough”, according to Cabaljao.
Representatives of the evacuees to the closed-door dialogue were harassed by 87th IB Commanding Officer Lt. Col Arnel Floresca by openly linking them to the rebel armed group. Floresca told Cabaljao that she cannot deny the connection of the alliance and SEC-registered organization People Surge to the New People’s Army.
“It is but disgraceful for a military officer in his combat uniform to openly wage a psywar against us”, said Cabaljao.
Floresca even urged the panel to dissuade from listening to Cabaljao, Lebico and Tabuyan as the military official allege that the evacuation was simply orchestrated by the “organizers” themselves. He also said that they are even grateful every time a mobilization is held because “they can read the minds of the NPA leaders.”
Floresca had put the blame to the three representatives and “begged” them to convince the evacuees to just return to their homes since he alleged that these leaders “organized the evacuation.” An MPOC member even told Cabaljao to talk to the NPA leaders and ask them to “leave the communities of Calbiga to finally bring peace to their town.” This is contrary to the manifesto of the evacuees saying that it is the Philippine Army who are waging war in their barrios.
“The AFP always resort to red-tagging when people expose their fascist tendencies. It is just disappointing that the people who should take the side of the oppressed are the same people who give legitimacy to the military’s atrocities”, Cabaljao stressed.
“We don’t want them in our communities”
Discontented with the result of the first dialogue, Cabaljao initiated an open dialogue with the panel at the basketball court of Calbiga, right in front the 2,357 evacuees. Victims of human rights violations gave their loudest “no” when Cabaljao asked their affirmation if they will return to their communities even with the presence of the military troops.
Residents of Barangays Daligan, Sinalangtan, Minata, Caamlongan, Guimbanga, Bulao, San Mauricio, Buluan, Binanggaran, Cambagtic, Hindang, Antol, Biri, Lubang and Literon were forced to evacuate because of fear caused by prolonged military presence in village centers – amidst the civilian populace – and for several human rights abuses perpetrated by the Philippine Army, according to local peasant organizations KAPACSA and KAPAWA. The military encampment alone inside their barrios is already a violation to the International Humanitarian Law according to Mannylin Navalez, Spokesperson of Katungod – Western Samar. “They are putting the lives of the people in danger”, said Navales.
Local peasant group KAPACSA cited that (1) barangay tanods are made to guard the military troops in their communities every night, (2) young children are made to fetch water and gather firewoods for them, (3) operating military troops hide their nameplates and identities and even refuse to give them the name of their Commanding Officer, (4) for any untoward incident that may happen to the military, they will retaliate against the barrio folks and (5) children are being co-opted to become members of the CAFGU. These are just a few of the documented violations of the Philippine Army.
“Diri kami mabalik ha amon kun diri kamo malugsong! (We will not return to our homes unless you pull out your troops!)”, an evacuee interrupted Floresca while giving a message. Members of the crowd howled as an affirmation to the said statement.
Caught off guard, Floresca asked the barangay captain of Brgy. Cambagtic, the barrio with the most number of military officials in Calbiga, to decide whether or not he agrees to the demand of the evacuees. The barangay captain then gave his affirmation. Floresca, urged by the audience, then said he will command his troops to pull out from their communities immediately that day.
“We have once again witnessed the strength of a people united. Today, we just defeated the most fascist of the fascists. But unlike them, we didn’t use guns and bullets. We had our unity to win and prevail”, said Lebico.
Peace talks’ agreements remain unimplemented
Despite a previous unilateral ceasefire declaration by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last August 2016, the Philippine Army’s 87th Infantry Battalion Philippine Army (IB) under the 8th Infantry Division (ID) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) did not leave the hinterlands of Calbiga and Pinabacdao.
KAPACSA reported that even after the GRP’s ceasefire declaration in light of the resumption of formal peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF), more troops were forward deployed to upland barrios. The operating troops started occupying the villages’ dancing halls and activity centers.
Even if the two negotiating parties agreed to strictly comply with the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CAHRIHL), the Philippine Army continues to violate the guidelines of the agreement. According to SAGUPA – SB, the number of recorded military encampments in Eastern Visayas communities did not decrease even with the ongoing peace negotiations.
“We urge the Duterte administration, being the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to command his troops to respect people’s rights, and to comply with the signed agreements of the GRP and NDFP”, Lebico concluded.
Meanwhile, SAGUPA – SB and Katungod – Sinirangan Bisayas pledged to monitor if Floresca will really comply with his words. The two organizations are still receiving negative reports from the residents in Calbiga.