A Killing Season

It's harvest time in Central Luzon, freshly picked grain dries on the highway, waiting to be scooped into bags and sent for milling. Christmas will be coming soon. It is also fiesta season, when the simple towns in an area - known as the rice bowl of the Philippines - celebrate with parties, dances and masses dedicated to patron saints.

Here on a bright and sunny morning in Santa Clara, a village in the town of Cuyapo, Nueva Ecija, about 150 kilometers northeast of Manila, Jocelyn Javier is not thinking about the harvest as she approaches a gloomy little house off a footpath near the highway where the rice is drying. She removes the flimsy padlock and peers into the darkness before stepping into what was once her home.

Portions of the simple thatch roof have fallen in and the split bamboo walls are in disrepair. Most of the furnishings in the one-room dwelling are gone and there is no covering on the dirt floor. The only decorations are a scattering of dusty family portraits fading on a shelf, a wedding picture, a graduation portrait, and a snapshot of her son's first birthday party.

When she sees the calendar from a local rice miller still hanging where she left it just over a year ago she points to the date October 2, 2005.

That was the Sunday evening when she and her husband, Armando, were watching a television variety show while their young son slept nearby. "It was 8.45," Jocelyn Javier says quietly as she sits on the remnants of a wooden bench that once served as the family sofa. "I was sitting here and Armando was laying back watching."

Then the night exploded. The room filled with acrid smoke and the loud pop of an automatic weapon. Nine bullets hit Armando Javier, a peasant rights activist and farmer, from what a police report said was an M16, killing him instantly. One grazed Jocelyn Javier's shoulder. The bullet holes are still visible in the bamboo walls. A few days later, she fled with her son, afraid that the soldiers she blames for her husband's murder would return to kill her.

This is Javier's first visit back to the room she shared with her husband, the man she still calls, "the only one for me." A one-time New People's Army (NPA) rebel, Armando Javier left the hills in 1994 to get married, his wife says. The couple tended to a small farm and he dabbled in legal leftist politics. She looks dazed during the brief visit, alone with her thoughts. She rummages in a dusty cabinet and finds the white shoes she wore on her wedding day, 11 years ago. Finally, she cries.

"My house is gone," she sobs.

Jocelyn Javier and hundreds of others in the Philippines are convinced that their lives have been shattered and their loved ones slain because of a dirty war that is targeting leftists involved in legal political activity as a way of fighting the communist NPA.

Human rights groups here and abroad say the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has crossed the line with an anti-left campaign that some say has claimed nearly 800 lives since she took office in 2001. Amnesty International says 51 leftist leaders were assassinated in the first half of 2006 and the group earlier in the year condemned the killings in a strongly worded report. "Attacks rarely lead to the charge, arrest, or prosecution of the murderers," Amnesty said. "A long-existing failure to prosecute and convict those suspected of human rights violations is having a corrosive impact on public confidence in the rule of law."

The United States-based Human Rights Watch said in September that the government has made "little visible progress" toward solving the killings "amid a climate of fear and a lack of cooperation by military authorities."

While Arroyo has insisted that she is doing everything possible to investigate extra judicial killing, the campaign of assassinations seemed to shift into a higher gear in February after leftist political parties were accused of allying themselves with military rebels planning to overthrow Arroyo's government. In the aftermath of that coup attempt, which failed when the military hierarchy rejected overtures from rebel colonels, Arroyo declared a state of emergency and castigated a handful of leftists from legal political parties who have gained seats in Congress. Cases have been filed against a number of politicians for allegedly backing the attempt to overthrow her.

In June, she abruptly declared a new strategy of "all-out war" against the communist insurgency designed to eliminate, once and for all, what is the last revolutionary communist movement in Southeast Asia.

Congressman Teodoro Casio, a member of the left-wing Bayan Muna party, denies backing the coup plot and says it is being used as an excuse to go after leftist opponents of the government out of revenge. "They have removed the distinction between combatants and those who are in civilian groups," he says.

One of the apparent architects of that strategy is retired major general Jovito Palparan. His troops, soldiers of the Seventh Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, which he commanded until his retirement in September, were stationed just a few meters away from the house where Armando Javier was murdered.

Palparan, a trim and convivial career officer still regarded as a leading counter insurgency strategist, has been blamed for creating a climate of virtual military occupation in parts of Central Luzon. Activists, victims and some politicians say his approach over a period of less than a year led to the targeted slaying of more than 100 activists in three provinces with a long history of infiltration by the left - Nueva Ecija, Tarlac and Bulacan.

"This problem has been running since 1969," Palparan says of a communist insurgency that began that year and whose armed members number no more than about 8,000 currently, according to military estimates. "It has done a lot to make our lives miserable."

While the insurgency has dwindled from its height of some 25,000 armed rebels in the mid-1980s, it has continued to plague the government. The Communist Party went through a fratricidal internal purge in the late 1980s after former president Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown. Hundreds of cadres were killed by their own comrades and the movement seemed headed for oblivion, especially since democratic reforms brought in under president Corazon Aquino seemed to open a path for the revolutionary left to work inside government. Draconian subversion laws passed during the Marcos regime were repealed and a reform constitution guaranteed the rights of so-called "people's organizations" and provided seats in Congress for groups representing the poor, workers, women and peasants, among others, the very areas where the left has traditionally been strong.

In recent years, a handful of party- list seats have been won by candidates more or less openly allied with the communist movement. It is these same party-list groups, such as Anak Pawis (Sons of Toil) to which Armando Javier belonged and served as a local coordinator, that have seen their grass roots organizers assassinated.

Further, as corruption, poverty and weak governance remain facts of life in much of the rural Philippines, the insurgency itself has made a comeback. Ideologues loyal to founding Communist Party Chairman Jose Maria Sison reasserted their control of the Party after the purges. Peace talks have broken down with the government and the number of armed rebels has been creeping up from a low of about 5,000 a decade ago. They have also become bolder in recent months, attacking an airport construction site in a southern province last month and frequently retaliating against companies that refuse to pay protection money, according to analysts.

Sison lives in exile in Europe and is known for his hard-line Maoist views and a curious attachment to releasing off-key recordings of his tedious revolutionary poetry set to music and sung in English. But his odd pop star aspirations aside, Sison can also be credited with using the democratic space offered by the government to build up a vibrant network of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and party-list groups to contend in the open political arena.

This is what galls hard right soldiers like Palparan, who says the armed insurgents are not the real problem. The issue lies with what he calls a support system of communist sympathizers, most of them operating above ground and providing intelligence to rebels, undermining local authority and extracting so-called "revolutionary taxes" that keep the communist movement afloat.

His strategy, which he developed over a military career that began when he was fighting Muslim insurgents in the 1970s, is to "cleanse" a village of communist influence through whatever means necessary. "I was the division commander," he says. "I told my officers that my policy was to clear the barangays (villages) of insurgency. Whatever they have done, I wanted the barangays cleaned."

Asked if that meant targeting leftists for liquidation, Palparan admits that some people have been killed but he says he only had "theories" about the killings. His instructions to his men were clear though. "I told my commanders, I did not want to see them (communists) anymore."

Killings, he notes somewhat blithely, had gone on long before he took command in Central Luzon in mid- 2005, but those could often be blamed on NPA guerrillas targeting mayors, policemen and others standing in the way of communist activities. "When I arrived, the victims shifted to their side," he says.

For some mainstream figures, the approach personified by Palparan is dangerous and foolhardy. Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a retired Philippine Marine Corps general who battled insurgents with success in the 1980s, believes the pattern of extra judicial killings plays into the hands of the communists by providing fertile ground for revolutionary recruiters. "I maintain that if you project the Palparan strategy you will have a resurgence of the NPA like we had in the Marcos years," he says.

In Central Luzon, however, there will be no let up in strategy in the near term. The new boss at the Seventh Infantry Division, Major General Juanito Gomez, calls Palparan his "idol" who is "like a brother to me." The pair served together throughout their careers and share a similar evangelical devotion to hard-line anti-communism. In his current command, Gomez says, the cleansing of villages would continue and "operationally, it is the same" as under Palparan.

When asked about the extra judicial killings in the region, Gomez says, "It is not a military or government policy to eliminate anyone in political organizations." His men, he says, are out to win "hearts and minds" and any suggestion that they are carrying out extra judicial killings is the result of "black propaganda" spread by the left.

In the case of Armando Javier, his family says he saw it coming when Palparan's soldiers pitched up in the village in October 2005. Javier's name was on a list of supposed NPA sympathizers which was read off by soldiers who called villagers to a meeting to inform them that their area was to be cleansed of communist influence. The reading of such lists by military units and the interrogation of presumed leftist sympathizers in villages targeted by the military has been confirmed by dozens of sources, many of whom say torture is common during interrogation.

In one case in a nearby village, a witness, who asked to remain anonymous and is in hiding in Manila, said that two of his neighbors, a middle-aged couple, committed suicide in August by drinking rat poison after they were forced to sign papers implicating some of their neighbors as sympathizers of the NPA.

Javier was frequently called by a detachment of soldiers camped near his house for questioning. "Before the killing, the soldiers talked to my son every day," his mother says. "They asked him to pinpoint the NPA. But he had no information and so he was killed."

The police report on the killing speculated that Armando Javier was killed by the NPA, an idea that his wife says is ridiculous. She says he gave up the revolution when they got married and is certain her husband was killed because of the work he was doing for Anak Pawis. So far, she says, there are no suspects named in the killing, and no arrests have been made.

She has refused to cooperate with police in any investigation. "I said (to the police), `What am I to do? He's already dead and, anyway, the killers belong to you, the government."'

The anger and despair of Jocelyn Javier and those like her can be found throughout the country. It is as if the ground has shifted beneath the feet of people who believed that because they had not taken up arms against the government they were free to pursue a radical vision of social change.

In the village of Daraga, Albay, for example, in the far south of Luzon, in an area where units other than those commanded by Palparan are operating, United Methodist church Pastor Isaias Santa Rosa, 47, was rousted out of his house by nine armed men while his family was held at gunpoint in their modest home, according to his wife. A short while later the family heard gun shots and ran to a rice field behind the family home to investigate.

There they found the body of Santa Rosa and also that of a man carrying an identification card naming him as Corporal Lordger Pastrana of the Philippine Army's Ninth Infantry Battalion, a unit stationed in the region. Apparently Santa Rosa had struggled against his attacker and the gunman panicked and shot both the intended target and one of his own men. Members of Santa Rosa's family say Pastrana was the leader of the group that forced their way into the house and seized the victim.

Sonia Santa Rosa says her husband, who was a local leader of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Farmers' Movement of the Philippines), another leftist NGO, had rarely been threatened but that armed men had been seen in the village in the days before the murder. Daraga Chief of Police Colonel Jose Capinpin later said in an interview that he had been seeking the cooperation of the local army commander in trying to find out why Pastrana was at the scene. Do you expect cooperation, he was asked. "Not really. But we are asking," he said.

Indeed a staggering variety of victims, united only by their involvement in groups seen as allied with the left, have been reported on a regular basis in recent years. Activist pastors, including an elderly Bishop of the Philippine Independent Church who was slain in his home in early October, have been victims. But so have student activists who have disappeared, labor leaders, journalists, small town politicians and former rebels.

So dire has the problem become that Arroyo was forced to order a special police task force to investigate the killings. "I continue to condemn media and leftist killings in the strongest terms," Arroyo said in ordering special investigations. "I have ordered law enforcement to dig deeper into the motives involved." Task Force Usig, as it is called, has accomplished little and a deadline for it to solve a number of killings has passed. In August, Arroyo appointed a commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to look into the killings. The commission has yet to issue its report.

For his part, Palparan doubts that the government has the political will to continue the tough line he implemented in Central Luzon. It is too easy to backtrack, he says, noting the many investigating bodies - including senate hearings - where he has been forced to testify. "You cannot have conflict without hurting some people," he says matter of factly toward the end of a lengthy conversation. The casualties, he believes, are not civilians anyway. They are the leading edge of the communist network of infiltration and subversion. The deaths are "necessary incidents," he says without admitting to any blame.

"There is nothing more desirable than victory," he adds, saying that if he were given command of the entire counter insurgency program he would duplicate nationwide what he had done in Central Luzon.

If that happens, there are bound to be more widows like Jocelyn Javier. "I kept a good house," she says in the darkness of her abandoned dwelling before leaving again for the relative safety of another town where she is not so well known. "I had a happy family. The longer it goes on the more I miss him. It always hurts."

Photos by A. Lin Neumann