Eastern Visayas folk appeal for support as they battle storms, poverty, militarization

“Not only have we been left for dead by the government’s criminal neglect after supertyphoons, we also suffer from the violence of the military – and for what? For practicing bayanihan (mutual aid) and demanding social justice for disaster survivors?” – People Surge

See also: A victim of rights violation, then of typhoon and gov’t neglect

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Since when did fending for your family or seeking a better way of sourcing a livelihood become a cause for military suspicion? In the region hit worst by super-typhoon Yolanda, farmers who went to Tacloban City last month to protest the Aquino government’s “criminal negligence” have complained also of increased military deployment in their communities.

From their accounts, the military is not helping but hampering and threatening instead the communities’ efforts to get back on their feet. “People are getting hungry because they cannot work on their farms,” a staff of non-government EVRAP (Eastern Visayas Rural Assistance Program) told Bulatlat.com. The non-government agency is currently protesting the military takeover of their projects in various villages in this region. They are also defending themselves from military accusations that they are supporting or fronting for the communist New People’s Army. In Eastern Visayas and in other parts of the country, such accusation has led to extra-judicial killings.

Two-thirds of the population of Eastern Visayas are engaged in subsistence agriculture and fishing. For decades now, the defining characteristics of their lives have been poverty, landlessness, inequality, compounded by regular lashing of typhoons and inadequate and scanty government aid and relief. In Samar in particular, historians doubt if its people have ever recovered from the “storm of fire” brought upon them by the American war of conquest at the turn of the century.

Today, Samar and the entire Eastern Visayan region continue to hit the news as a regular site of death and devastation from typhoons and militarization.

Various well-meaning groups with international donors’ funding have sprung up over the years to help provide immediate relief and livelihood assistance especially in the most far-flung communities. One of these is EVRAP. Since 1988, it has extended services to at least 9,479 families from 69 communities in 13 municipalities in Samar. Helping rural communities “in their efforts to achieve economic self-reliance and stability,” the agency has been implementing projects meant to help farmers increase their productivity.

An example of livelihood aid to increase farmers' productivity in Samar - providing work tools -- but the military reportedly suspect that this is NPA project. (Photo courtesy of EVRAP)
An example of livelihood aid to increase farmers’ productivity in Samar – providing work tools — but the military reportedly suspect that this is NPA project. (Photo courtesy of EVRAP)

In an interview, an EVRAP coordinator said they have projects seeking to upgrade the farmers’ backward, manual way of farming and fishing. In their project areas, for example, they bring carabaos, tractors, sprayers, water pumps and other worktools; introduce organic farming, communal farming and cooperative development, among others. The farmers, meanwhile, have already formed organizations so as a group they could implement, improve and sustain the said projects.

But since the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda when the agency focused for a while to bring immediate relief to the most devastated in Tacloban, Leyte, near its head office in Palo (and which was also partially destroyed by the Haiyan’s wind), soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines have been treating their projects with suspicion, accusing its implementers of being fronts or members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

Since June this year, soldiers have tried to take over the non-government agency’s projects while witch-hunting and red-tagging the involved peasant leaders and the EVRAP staff.

A certain 1st Lt. Collado of the 34th IB reportedly met with eight leaders and barangay captains where EVRAP has ongoing projects last June 25. In an EVRAP report, Collado tried to turn the village leaders against the EVRAP, saying the agency has links with the NPA, and that he also tried to make the village captains sign documents saying that the livelihood projects of the EVRAP are to be turned over to the military.

Those who help are ‘suspects’?

Greg Orsolino, administrator of Colegio de Las Navas in the town proper of Las Navas, Northern Samar, reportedly said in a meeting on Oct 28 – attended by Las Navas Mayor Minda Tan (and husband Don Jose Tan), Vice-Mayor Arlit Tan, and EVRAP staff – that a month before, the military tried to search the staffhouse of EVRAP in this town. It is located near Colegio de las Navas.

Sir Greg as he is called in the town said that Col. Rodrigo Illustrisimo of the AFP Civil Military Operations (CMO) personally went to the EVRAP boarding house and insisted that they be allowed to search for materials from partylist groups, especially from Bayan Muna. The landlady had previously turned down the military request, noting the soldiers had no legal document warranting their planned search.

In the villages, farmers where EVRAP has projects reported to them that soldiers from the 34th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines had “advised” them to stay within their villages during military operations. The soldiers told them this is to avoid possible casualties.

But with the military encamped around villages, frequently entering the village proper and questioning the residents on the whereabouts of suspected NPAs, farmers now hesitate to venture out to their farms. It did not help that some of their fellow farmers have been killed allegedly by the military while working in their farm.

Aida Pajanustan, for example, was forced to abandon their house in Las Navas, Northern Samar and bring her children to Leyte after her husband was killed in their farm in a nearby village in 2011. Witnesses tagged the soldiers as the last to be seen with him alive. The youth leader and volunteer for disaster rehabilitation Jefferson Custodio, who hailed from Las Navas, was gunned down in Carigara, Leyte this year. The killing followed a series of harassments by soldiers from 78th IB.

EVRAP noted in a report that these acts of the military have significantly affected the farming activities of the people in the area, worsening the community’s lack of food.

Teaching the people about ‘enemies’

A week ago, a staff of EVRAP told Bulatlat.com that soldiers with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Civil Military Operations (CMO) held a symposium at the municipal hall of Las Navas, Northern Samar. As early as seven in the morning, soldiers were already prowling the grounds of the municipal hall and nearby Colegio de Las Navas, which also happened to be situated near the boarding house being rented by the staff of non-government EVRAP.

Amid the intensified militarization of communities in Samar and Leyte, a dialogue between farmers’ organizations and local government executives was held last month in Las Navas town proper.

According to peasant leaders from the Las Navas village of Poponton, they reported to the town mayor and vice-mayor that a military camp had been set up between barangays Caputuan and Poponton and that soldiers were frequenting the barangay proper of Poponton. They reported also that since August this year, after military operations, the soldiers would stay at the cooperative store (an EVRAP project) in their village.

The soldiers took over the cooperative for a month. Even after they left, the cooperative store failed to reopen as the farmers running it fear the soldiers’ likely retaliation and suspicion.

In other villages such as in Barangay Caputuan, an EVRAP report said the AFP headed by a certain 1st Lieutenant Sinay of the 34th IB conducted a census in September and numbered all houses in the village.

Days following the house numbering, the soldiers returned to take pictures of every person in the village. Asked by the community why the soldiers were conducting a “census,” the soldiers told them this was “so they can be identified in cases of abuse”.

The farmers were also reportedly offered livelihood assistance if they agreed to be “surrenderees”. An EVRAP report noted that although the community had not been specifically told to limit their movements, it has already greatly affected their farming.

The same military “census” was reportedly implemented in Barangay Lakandula also in September. Pictures of everyone in the community were taken and each house was marked with a number.

The soldiers and members of paramilitary group Cafgu told the locals that they have a list of names of members of the “BOP and YM” (said to be unit organizations of Communist Party of the Philippines) and that they were offering these persons the opportunity to turn themselves in.

EVRAP noted that two of those named are members of the peasant organization in the village. The Barangay captain (village chief) reportedly insisted to the soldiers that the two are just members of their peasant organization. The soldiers then confiscated the EVRAP tarpaulin hanged in front of the cooperative store.

The barangay captain recalled that members of the 63rd IB led by a certain Lieutenant Cafugawan assigned in Las Navas in 2012 also stationed themselves in the barangay hall for six months during his assignment. During that period, he said, they documented a rise in the number of harassments.

Call for justice

In the runup to the first year after supertyphoon Yolanda hit the country, the People Surge Alliance for Yolanda (Haiyan) held a Human Rights Victims’ Conference in Tacloban City last month. They held it amid complaints of worsening militarization and repression by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Although the EVRAP was not a participant in the conference, it appears that the military harassment being suffered by their staff and the peasant organizations implementing their livelihood projects are similar to the cases shared by other victims.

“Peasant families who comprise 92-percent of eastern Visayan population, are unable to return to agricultural production due to fear of military harassment, theft, and other human rights abuses,” the statement of People Surge said.

“Not only have we been left for dead by the government’s criminal neglect after Yolanda, we also suffer from the violence of the military – and for what? For practicing bayanihan (mutual aid) and demanding social justice for disaster survivors?” said Marissa Cabaljao, spokesperson of People Surge.

After the conference of rights victims, they issued a statement decrying the response of the government on the persistent issue of poverty in the region: militarization and negligence. While expecting genuine help after they were hit by the strongest typhoon in history, they complained that their brothers and sisters in the countryside who were also hit by the typhoon were instead arrested, harassed and killed, and militarized.

They appealed to “all sectors of society” to join them and be one with them in calling for justice for all victims of criminal negligence and massive militarization.” (http://bulatlat.com)

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