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Tragic loss amid climate of impunity

By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Published in Business World

Leonard Co, unarguably one of the country’s foremost botanists and biodiversity experts, as well as an indefatigable conservationist, was killed in a forested area in Kananga, Leyte last Monday, together with two of his companions, while undertaking scientific explorations under the auspices of the Energy Development Corporation.  Two others survived.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) immediately claimed that the three killed were “collateral damage” in a legitimate military operation against rebel New People’s Army (NPA) who had been sighted in the area.

More than seven years ago, also in Kananga town, nine civilians were reported by Tacloban human rights groups and people’s organizations to have been tortured and massacred by soldiers of the 19th Infantry Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Oscar Lactao, dubbed the “Palparan of Leyte”. The AFP reported the incident as an “encounter with the NPA”.

Human rights groups decried that eight of the victims were shot in the head, at close range, and that there was evidence of torture as shown by scald burns found on the victims’ bodies. Among the dead were Eugenio Tazan, 54-year-old peasant leader of the San Isidro Small Farmers Association, and 24-year-old Rowena Superior of the Bagalungon Small Farmers Association, who was three months pregnant.  Four others killed were minors with ages ranging from 13 to 17.

In another infamous case in Palo, Leyte on Nov 21, 2005, a group of farmers resting by a make-shift warehouse before they start work on their plots were viciously attacked by elements of the 19th IB. Hurling five grenades and firing continuously for 30 minutes, the soldiers killed seven farmers, including a pregnant woman, and wounded several others.  Not satisfied, the soldiers hit the survivors with rifle butts, forcing them to confess they were armed and members of the NPA. Failing to extract confessions, the soldiers brought in a sack of old rifles and claimed these belonged to the farmers, in the same fashion that the 16th IB PA planted firearms and explosives as evidence against the Morong 43 early this year.

As in most cases of human rights violations in the rural areas, the planners and perpetrators of the Kananga and Palo massacres remain unpunished despite numerous evidence and testimonies.  The victims being ordinary folk have been consigned to oblivion, just another statistic in the government’s counter-insurgency drive, as “rebels” who had been properly “neutralized” or as “collateral damage”.

Apparently, this is what the AFP wants to happen in the case of Co and the two other victims, forest guard Sofronio Cortez, and farmer Julius Borromeo, who were acting as Co’s assistants.  But since the military cannot impugn the character of Co nor raise questions about the legitimacy of his group’s presence in the virgin forest surrounding the EDC geothermal facility, their claim is that the victims were killed in the supposed crossfire between clashing soldiers and rebels.

Unfortunately for the AFP, such claims are being belied by the two survivors of the massacre.  “I only heard a continued burst of gunfire. There was no answering gunfire. None. That was what I heard…,” said Policarpio Balute, a member of the Tongonan Farmers Association who served as Co’s guide.

According to Niño Gibe as recounted by Co’s wife, “(Gibe) said that when my husband tried to get up from the ground, another burst of gunfire hit him in the back.” “After the second volley of gunfire, Niño said he held up his hand as sign of surrender and shouted, ‘Tama na, tama na’ (Stop it), and the gunfire suddenly stopped,” the wife said.

Compare these eyewitness accounts to that of Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of the 19th IB who, in a press conference held in Tacloban, claimed that before the shooting started, his soldiers saw a person wearing black and holding an M-16 rifle, prompting them to assume a combat formation.  Denying earlier reports that he said a soldier fired the first shot, Tutaan now says, “There was a volume of fire. The bullets ricocheted to different directions.”

Tutaan added that since early November, the 19th IB was on “heightened alert and always on a combat mode” because of intelligence reports that NPA members were planning to attack the EDC complex. He claimed that it was the EDC that had tipped them off on the presence of the NPA yet he also claimed they were uninformed that there were EDC employees in the area.

CENCOM Commanding General Ralph Villanueva betrayed the AFP’s mindset and default mode of shifting the blame to the NPAs, if not to the victims themselves, when he said that investigations are being conducted to determine whether the bullets that killed Co and his companions came from the soldiers’ rifles or from the NPAs.  Assuming without granting that the bullets did not come from 19th IB firearms, how could he tell that these came from the NPA minus ballistic tests on such rifles?

Meanwhile the family of Co has raised pointed questions about the AFP’s version of what took place. They want to know why Co was allowed to enter the area if rebel presence had been reported there.  And if the military was in such close coordination with the EDC with regard to their ongoing operations, why was Co not forewarned about imminent danger to his group of being “caught in a cross fire”?

Most poignantly, Co’s wife, Glenda asks in disbelief, “Nangyayari pa rin ang ganito kahit na sa ilalim ni Pnoy, bakit?” (“This is still happening under Pnoy’s administration, why?”)

The climate of impunity that pervades the entire AFP and other state security forces evidently emboldens them to continue perpetrating atrocities against perceived or even imagined “enemies”.  Surely, the impunity with which the 19th IB had perpetrated several massacres and gotten away with them is behind this most recent tragedy.

The AFP has of late been attempting to refurbish its tarnished image with grand claims of upholding human rights.

A day after the killings, General Ricardo David Jr, AFP chief, proudly announced that the AFP was setting up human rights offices in all three major services – the army, navy and air force – and would designate HR officers down to the battalion level.  The aim was purportedly “to demonstrate the AFP’s resolve and enhance its campaign in ensuring observance of human rights, international humanitarian law and the rule of law.”

However, an objective appraisal of these welcome words of institutional commitment to human rights in light of the AFP’s most recent actuations and track record leads to the inevitable conclusion that this latest pronouncement is nothing more than a public relations move.

It is in line with the so-called security sector reform being flaunted by Malacañang, whose aim is not really to reform the military, police and other state security forces but to clean up and improve their public image and make them more acceptable and credible.

How President Aquino, AFP Commander-in-Chief, will deal with this indiscriminate and wanton slaughter of a brilliant scientist and his assistants will again test his willingness and capacity to uphold human rights over and above the military’s protestations of innocence. (19-20 November 2010)

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