Peasant leaders, environmental campaigners and student activists in the Philippines are being murdered by mysterious death squads who appear to have close links to the army.
By Thomas Bell, South East Asia Correspondent
January 19 2009
Since President Gloria Arroyo came to power in 2001, campaigners say over 900 people have been extra-judicially executed and 200 more have “disappeared”.
A United Nations report in 2007 blamed the army for most of the killings, but no action has been taken and the unexplained murders continue.
One of the most dangerous areas is the Compostela Valley, on the southern island of Mindanao. It is a place of great natural beauty as well as rural poverty which is home to several foreign owned gold mines and a long-standing communist insurgency. In the final few weeks of 2008, five apparently peaceful, law-abiding men were mysteriously shot dead in the area.
The first victim was Danilo Qualbar, a 48-year-old activist for the Left-wing People First party, who was shot on November 6. Human rights researchers said there was no autopsy and no investigation – the police did not even interview the victim’s family.
According to Mr Qualbar’s widow, a group of soldiers called out “that one” as her husband passed through a military checkpoint a week before his murder.
The next victim was 4 days later when Rolando Antolihao, 39 – a banana plantation worker and People First party member – was shot dead in front of his wife and 2-year-old daughter. There was a small army post 50 metres away but according to reports the soldiers on duty did respond to the shooting.
In the following weeks two more activists were shot.
Finally, two days before Christmas Fernando Sarmiento, a 39-year-old environmentalist who argued that a local gold mine was damaging the interests of local people, was killed by assassins fitting the same description.
Mr Sarmiento’s friends said he was arrested by the army in July and accused of being a communist guerrilla.
Witnesses noted that the killers in the Compostela Valley usually arrived on a red Honda motorcycle and used a .45 pistol. At the top of the list of suspects are soldiers from local army camps, but there has been no official investigation into the shootings, or whether the deaths are even in any way connected.
Human rights campaigners claim that the killings are part of an offensive launched by President Arroyo in an attempt to defeat Maoist guerrillas called the New People’s Army (NPA) by 2010.
Although they deny the murders, senior army officers claim that legal parties such People First and other activist groups which most of the victims belong to are fronts for the communists.
Instead, the army frequently claims, the deaths are a result of feuds and purges within the communist party.
According to Lt Col Ernesto Torres, an army spokesman the “security forces are convenient scapegoats” for the killings and he claims allegations against the army are made by “groups who want to bring down the government and replace it with their own brand of government”.
Yet, according to Alan Davies, director of the Philippine Human Rights Project, “No agency, either international or local, is trying to properly investigate and map these killings to see how they are linked”.
One woman who knows the pain this official silence causes is Erlinda Cadapan. Her daughter Sherlyn was a 29-year-old university student campaigning for peasant rights when she was abducted along with a friend by suspected soldiers in 2006.
A witness, who claims he met the two women in army custody, has testified that he saw them raped and tortured by soldiers and that soldiers told him they were later killed.
Mrs Cadapan has written to President Arroyo but received no response.
In September a court ruled that, if they were still alive, the women must be released.
“That makes me really angry because in spite of the ruling no one from the government is willing to help me. They are trying to protect the armed forces,” said Mrs Cadapan.
“There is some rumour that my daughter is still alive so we are hoping and praying fro that,” she said. “But still they deny everything.”
President Arroyo has remained mostly silent on the 900 killings and 200 “disappearances” on her watch, the army denies any role and no-one has ever been prosecuted.