Killing season in the Philippines By Herbert Docena
MANILA - Political activist Cathy Alcantara was gunned down by unidentified
assailants last December 5, outside the resort where she had helped to organize
a conference on farmers' rights.
Two months later, the lifeless body of her activist friend, 19-year-old Audie
Lucero, was found in a remote rice field. Lucero was last seen surrounded by
police officers and soldiers in a hospital lobby, inexplicably crying.
Annaliza Abanador-Gandia, another left-leaning activist, had frequently marched
with the two victims, often at the forefront of demonstrations calling for
various sorts of political change, including the ouster of President Gloria
Macapagal-Arroyo, an end to US military exercises in the Philippines, and
overhaul of the World Trade Organization's free-trade policies.
On May 18, it was Abanador-Gandia's turn to die. It's unclear
exactly what happened, because she was alone inside her shop that night. Her
body was found slumped on a table, eight bullets through her face, chest and
stomach. The gunpowder found on her face indicated that she had been shot at
All three victims were active organizers of the Movement for National Democracy
(KPD), a left-leaning umbrella grouping of trade unions, farmers' and
fishermen's organizations, and women's and youth groups, that has seen two more
of its members shot and killed in provincial areas this year.
They are the latest victims in a creeping and escalating killing spree of
left-leaning political activists in the Philippines. Over the past two months,
at least 18 activists have been murdered by unidentified assailants in various
areas of the country - an average of two killings per week. At no other time in
the KPD's nearly 10-year history have so many of their members been
The KPD is just one of many left-leaning groups now under shadowy assault.
UNORKA (Ugnayan ng mga Nagsasariling Lokal na Organisasyon sa Kanayunan, or
National Coordination of Autonomous Local Rural People's Organizations), a
farmers' group that is part of the "Fight of the Masses" coalition, is now
pushing for a "transitional revolutionary government" to replace Arroyo. So
far, no fewer than 13 of UNORKA's leaders have been killed. The group's
national secretary general was shot dead on April 24.
Task Force Mapalad (TFM), another peasants' group that has been pushing for
land reform in Visayas and Mindanao, has seen at least eight of its
farmer-leaders killed since 2001, the last one felled in May 2005. Lani Factor,
the group's campaign coordinator, refers to the escalating violence against
activists as the Philippines' "killing season".
The majority of the victims belong to the Bayan Muna group, which has
representation in parliament and which since 2001 counts as many as 95 of its
local leaders inexplicably killed. Robert de Castro, the group's secretary
general, was quoted saying in the local press that local leaders "are being
killed like chickens ... They are dropping dead like flies." 
Keeping track of the onslaught has not been easy. Human-rights organizations as
a rule only count those cases that are reported to them, and each maintains
separate lists. According to a running tally by the Philippine Daily Inquirer
newspaper, the latest killings bring the total number of activists slain since
Arroyo seized power in 2001 to 224. The human-rights group Karapatan estimates
that figure much higher, at 601. Nearly all of the cases remain unresolved. An
additional 140 activists are considered "disappeared" and remain missing. 
And the number is growing by the week.
Trouble in the provinces
Fallen activist Abanador-Gandia's province falls under the command of
Major-General Jovito Palparan, the most controversial military official in the
Philippines. Widely dubbed "the executioner" by his critics, Palparan stands
perpetrating a rash of killings and disappearances of leftist activists during
his previous postings in Samar and Mindoro provinces.
He has consistently denied the charges, saying on record, "I can smile and
laugh about it." At the same time, he has also gone on record to say that the
extrajudicial killings are "helping" the armed forces of the Philippines get
rid of those who instigate people to fight against the government.  To him,
the deaths of activists are just "small sacrifices" in the military's
anti-insurgency campaign. 
"We've got to hate the movement," Palparan said in a recent interview with
Newsbreak magazine. "We've got to have that fighting stand." 
Palparan's provocative statements have caused a lightning rod of criticism. But
increasingly, his is not a lone voice in the wilderness. His military superiors
have a quiet way of expressing their agreement with Palaparan's tactics:
through promotion. Palparan is elevating through the military's ranks and was
recently bestowed the Distinguished Service Star medal for his "eminently
meritorious and valuable service".
Government executive secretary Eduardo Ermita, himself a former military
official, has hailed Palparan as a "good officer", saying his detractors
automatically blame him for violent incidents without corroborating evidence.
Yet Palparan's fighting mood reflects a growing edginess in the military. "The
enemy that we confronted more than three decades ago is the same enemy that we
are confronting today, only more scheming and obviously much more dangerous,"
wrote Lieutenant-General Romeo Dominguez in his recent book Trinity of War: The
Grand Design of the CPP/NPA/NDF (Communist Party of the Philippines/New
People's Army/National Democratic Front).
Published by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the book has become one
of the military's "know your enemy" guidebooks, as indicated in a recent
military Powerpoint presentation produced by the AFP top brass and circulated
among soldiers. The volume discusses how the leftist movement has evolved since
the late 1940s, how the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) took over its
mantle beginning in the 1960s, and how it has morphed and splintered along
ideological and tactical lines since the 1980s.
Complete with tables and flow charts, the book includes a comprehensive list of
what it calls the "communist terrorists' legal sectoral front organizations" -
down to the provincial level - including the names and top leaders of those
groups that have broken away from the CPP's mainstream or that have only
emerged in recent years.
Despite all the attention given to the Abu Sayyaf rebel movement in past years,
"the single greatest threat to the Philippine state continues to come from the
CPP/NPA", concludes Zachary Abuza, an expert with the congressionally funded US
Institute of Peace, who has studied the various leftist and Moro secessionist
groups fighting against the government in the Philippines. 
This threat has not been lost on the military and right-wing politicians, who
have grown increasingly alarmed by the left's resurgence. The strength of the
NPA was estimated at about 25,000 fighters during the martial-law period in the
1970s, dwindled to about 8,000 in the 1990s, and is reportedly on the upswing
In recent months, the NPA has launched a series of military offensives across
the country. Apart from the NPA, a number of smaller left-wing armed groups
operate in remote provincial areas.
The Philippines' right has also been spooked by the left's recent success in
democratic elections. When the formal institutions of democracy were restored
after the 1986 "people power" uprising, the left was split between those who
still saw the armed struggle as primary and those who wanted to contest power
through electoral processes. The CPP initially boycotted the general elections
that paved the way for Corazon Aquino's presidency.
While carrying on with what it calls the "protracted people's war", the CPP
eventually decided to participate after the introduction of the party-list
system, a measure that reserved a portion of seats in Congress to
under-represented and marginalized sectors of society. Other leftist groups
have abandoned armed struggle altogether, choosing to focus on elections and
public campaigns to bring about political change.
In the last elections, left-leaning candidates won 11 of the 24 party-list
seats filled. Though this proportion represents little more than 5% of the
total national vote, the left's visibility in public debates has been
disproportionately high compared with their actual number of parliamentary
seats. On the streets, where in the Philippines political battles are
frequently waged, only the broad left has been able consistently to mobilize
people, albeit on a limited scale.
Military official Palparan has promised to "completely clear his area of
responsibility of rebels before he retires in September this year".  It is a
vow endorsed by the country's top civilian defense official, Avelino Cruz, who
has also said that the "communist insurgency" can be defeated in "six to 10
Cruz is confident that this goal could be attained through the ambitious
Philippine Defense Reform Program, a comprehensive plan to modernize and
upgrade the capacity of the armed forces to conduct "internal security
Intensifying its long-running involvement in the Philippines'
counter-insurgency campaign, the United States jointly designed the Philippine
Defense Reform Program with the Philippine military and is funding half of its
$370 million budget. Washington has designated the CPP/NPA and the Alex
Boncayao Brigade, a group that broke away from the NPA, as "foreign terrorist
But while the military has always considered the armed leftist groups to be a
major military threat, and offensives and counter-offensives were launched way
before Arroyo took office, there has recently been one significant shift in the
mindset of key military officials: an increasing refusal to distinguish between
armed and unarmed leftists, between those who are in the underground guerrilla
movement and those who are in the open legal struggle. The boundary, at least
in the eyes of certain military and civilian officials, simply does not exist.
This attitude is best summed up by Palparan's stock reply whenever he's
reminded that the activists who are killed are unarmed and participate in legal
mass organizations: "They're legal but they're doing illegal activities." 
The decision to decriminalize the communists in 1994 was a bad idea, says
Palparan, adding that he would be "happy" to have it restored. The Trinity of
War stresses - in bold typeface - that, while the CPP still considers
parliamentary struggles secondary to the armed struggle, both struggles are
"complementary, interrelated, and interactive".
Meanwhile, Palparan has said that his anti-insurgency campaign "had not yet
gone full blast".
This outlook is shared by the civilian leadership. "We encourage communism as
well as socialism as a party just like those in Europe," said presidential
chief of staff Michael Defensor. "What we do not want is when they preach armed
According to National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, "What we are fighting
today is no longer the classic guerrilla warfare. They have infiltrated and
entered our democratic process." He has railed against how the left's elected
parliamentarians are taking advantage of their office to advance the
revolution. He has constantly complained about how Bayan Muna members
"moonlight" as NPA fighters and how they are, to paraphrase Palparan,
straddling both sides of what the government defines to be legal and illegal
'We hate communists'
It's obviously a charge that those who have been killed will not have the
opportunity to contest. Most of the victims belonged to legal leftist or
left-leaning organizations enumerated in the AFP's list of alleged "front"
organizations. As a recent Amnesty International report puts it, "Increased
killing in particular provinces were reportedly linked to the public labeling
of leftist groups as NPA front organizations by local AFP commanders."
Prior to activist Abanador-Gandia's killing, for instance, police and military
officials in Bataan had ominously told KPD members, "We already know who you
are. We know who's really behind you. We know all of you."
Other activists belong to organizations that are locked in bitter land disputes
with powerful landlords who, aided by the state's tacit consent or lack of
political will, have historically used thugs to eliminate peasants pushing for
land reform. With their lands now subject to expropriation, these landlords,
said TFM campaign coordinator Factor, have been acting like "mad, rabid dogs
Most of the killings are concentrated in areas of increased militarization and
intensified counter-insurgency operations. In Palparan's Central Luzon, more
than 50 leftists have been killed, or nearly a quarter of the total 224
killings compiled by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. In that region, the
military has embedded itself in 10-man detachments in various villages,
conducting door-to-door interrogations and nightly patrols.
They have even taken to organizing anti-communist workshops and mobilizing
protest rallies in support of the military. Participants of these rallies say
they were told to make placards saying, "We hate communists." Negros, where a
number of the killings are concentrated, is another province where the military
has launched what the region's military chief, Lieutenant-General Samuel
Bagasin has described as "decisive operations".
The victims are apparently not chosen at random. Almost all of those that have
been executed are known leaders or organizers who actively worked on the ground
and recruited new members into their organizations. The operations are in most
cases surgical and well targeted. And while provincial and municipal-level
organizers were being picked off, national leaders are also being persecuted.
Facing rebellion charges, at least one congressman from Anakpawis remains in
detention, while five others camped out in Congress for two months to elude
arrest. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales has told them to "go back to the
mountains where they belong",  an allusion to where the CPP has
historically pitched its base camps.
Activist Factor suspects that the calculated elimination of the upper echelons
of his organization is an attempt to terrorize members and scare off potential
recruits in the hope of slowly debilitating the movement. One local columnist
has called it a "kill one, scare 100" tactic.  That the activists are not
being killed en masse, but rather at a slow-motion rate of one every other day,
seems calculated to maximize the chilling effect while also minimizing public
In a number of cases, witnesses have pointed directly to uniformed soldiers,
policemen, or known paramilitary or vigilante groups as the assailants. In many
other cases, the victims were shot dead by a pair of motorcycle-riding masked
Observers point out that this manner of killing is reminiscent of the period in
the late 1980s when, at the height of the "total war" waged by the Aquino
government against the left, masked motorcycle-riding men also shot and killed
activists across the country. According to the human-rights group Task Force
Detainees of the Philippines, up to 585 were killed during that orgy of
Proud human-rights record
Now, the government publicly views the widespread killing of activists as just
a sad coincidence. There is no set pattern and the killings are unrelated,
officials contend. Accusations against state security officials are routinely
A police spokesman has claimed that if there's any pattern at all, it's just
part of the normal crime-rate cycle. "Sometimes it falls, sometimes it goes
up," Philippine National Police spokesman Samuel Pagdilao was quoted as saying
about the spate of activist killings. 
State officials have repeatedly insisted that there's no state-sanctioned
crackdown on activists. "We have nothing to hide about, and we are proud of our
human-rights record," press secretary Ignacio Bunye recently said. Earlier,
Arroyo called accusations of human-rights violations "an insult" to the
Other high-ranking officials have claimed that if anyone is to blame, it's the
activists themselves. According to this view, the revolution is once again
devouring its own children - just as it did in the 1980s when, in an operation
that has since been acknowledged by the CPP leadership, at least 2,000 party
members were ordered killed as suspected government infiltrators.
But those on the left no longer aligned with the CPP and who have been openly
critical of its anti-infiltration campaign have come out to dismiss this charge
as both opportunistic and ludicrous. Robert Francis Garcia, secretary general
of the Peace Advocates for Truth, Healing and Justice, an organization of
survivors, relatives and friends of victims of the CPP's past internal purge,
believes that the government is "capitalizing on the issue to hammer down the
Garcia points out that the manner by which the CPP's infamous purge was carried
out then bears little resemblance to how activists are being killed nowadays.
Then, Garcia recalls, suspected infiltrators were arrested, detained and
interrogated by party agents - they were not executed summarily in public as is
Even an officially constituted police task force has recently identified
soldiers and paramilitary forces as suspects in at least some of the killings.
 The normally timid Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent
constitutional body, has stated that the "pattern of complaints that come to us
show members of the armed forces and the PNP [Philippine National Police] as
suspects". Assuming that the government is not behind the many unresolved
killings, the commission points out that it still has a duty to solve and
Unfortunately, for many of the cases, there are no smoking guns, and the
masterminds are not in the habit of giving receipts to their hired assassins.
But even a cursory survey of the killings over recent months makes it difficult
to avoid the conclusion that there is an ongoing systematic and deliberate
mission to terrorize - if not exterminate - the left being carried out by those
who have both the motive and means to do so.
Even if one assumes that a portion of the killings could be explained away as
the result of personal grudges or of turf wars among different armed leftist
factions, the vast majority of the cases paint an alarming pattern.
A poor record
Arroyo's administration is turning out to be the most repressive regime in the
Philippines since Ferdinand Marcos' corrupt authoritarian rule. According to
the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, about 3,400 people were killed and
more than 700 disappeared during Marcos' 14-year dictatorship.
According to Senator Manny Villar, citing figures provided by the CHR, Arroyo's
five-year term has already eclipsed all three previous presidents' combined
11-year tenure in terms of the number of people executed, tortured, or
This is not to say that all was well before Arroyo came to power. Previous
administrations also tallied their fair share of rights violations. But as Max
de Mesa, the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates chair and longtime
human-rights activist, points out, the total number of cases of rights
violations under Arroyo should not be compared as separate from those of her
Arroyo's government, he says, is still obliged to resolve those past violations
- something her government has so far wholly failed to do. As such, the totals
under the previous regimes should be added to that under Arroyo, he contends.
At the beginning of Arroyo's term, most of the victims were Muslim civilians,
who were often rounded up and detained in droves, caught up in the government's
US-backed "war on terror". In one particularly shocking episode, caught live on
national television in March last year, the country's highest-ranking security
officials, with apparent approval from the president, supervised the storming
of a prison after suspected Abu Sayyaf leaders being held there mounted an
Despite being unarmed and secured against a wall, 26 detainees were shot dead.
Human-rights groups called the incident a "massacre" and the CHR has since
endorsed their recommendation to file murder charges against the officials.
In heavily militarized Sulu in the southern Philippines, where the military has
been pursuing the Abu Sayyaf group, there have been numerous allegations of
serious human-rights violations by the armed forces, including the February
2005 massacre of a family, which finally provoked the Moro National Liberation
Front to recommence attacking government forces.
Disappearances, beheadings, and summary executions have once again become the
norm in the area. But the government's documented abuses have not been given
the same attention as the atrocities committed by the Abu Sayyaf.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the government's failure to protect and
guarantee civil liberties has been the unbridled killing of journalists.
Freedom of the press has never come at a higher price for at least 42
journalists who have been killed since Arroyo took power - or about half of the
estimated 79 killed since 1986. This record prompted the US-based Committee to
Protect Journalists to rank the Philippines in 2005 as the "most murderous"
country for journalists in the world next to Iraq. Some have contested that
label, saying the country is in a league of its own; Iraq, after all, is a war
While local bosses and criminal elements, and not state agents, are likely to
be behind many of the journalists' killings, the government's tepid response
shows its inability - or unwillingness - to protect the press.
Instead of working to bring the killers to justice, Secretary of Justice Raul
Gonzales has recently suggested that media practitioners should arm themselves
in self-defense. He also implied that the killings may have nothing to do with
press freedom. "There are media men killed in drinking sprees or because of a
woman," Gonzalez recently said.
While human-rights violations have steadily mounted, the situation has taken a
sharp turn for the worse after Arroyo, facing widespread calls for her ouster
from across the political spectrum, began to use more brazenly coercive
measures to retain her grip on power. For instance, she has banned public
demonstrations and authorized the use of force to disperse them. She has gagged
public officials from testifying in congressional hearings.
Finally, on February 24, she declared a "state of national emergency". This was
interpreted by police and military officials as carte blanche to conduct
arrests without warrants and to raid and intimidate media entities. While the
"state of emergency" was quickly lifted - and was recently declared
unconstitutional by the Supreme Court - human-rights violations have not
stopped; rather, they have spiked.
Last week, five leaders of the Union of the Masses for Democracy and Justice
(UMDJ), a group identified with imprisoned former president Joseph Estrada,
were abducted in broad daylight - not in the countryside but in the capital
Manila - and were missing for about two days. Pressed whether the military had
arrested the UMDJ leaders, executive secretary Eduardo Ermita denied the
allegations and emphatically repeated the government's standard line, "They are
automatically pointing at the administration as the culprit, which is unfair."
But only two hours later, a military spokesperson confirmed that the five were
indeed arrested and detained by intelligence agents. It was the same military
spokesperson who, just the day before, also disavowed any knowledge of the
five's whereabouts. Accused of being NPA infiltrators plotting to assassinate
the president and a number of cabinet members, the detainees were later
released because of "insufficient evidence".
Such cases illustrate that the state is conducting commando-style operations
against activists and casts doubts on its claims that it has not been involved
in unresolved killings and disappearances.
Thinking about a new revolution
In many ways, the recent wave of killings is a tragic reprise of previous
episodes in Philippine history. In 1946, leftist legislators were also expelled
from Congress and driven to the mountains. Death squads stalked the
Philippines' countryside in the early 1950s and late 1980s. Newspaper offices
were routinely padlocked by the government during periods of martial law.
State-sponsored disappearances gave birth to a generation of orphans and
The escalating repression taking place now in the Philippines is no
coincidence. Twenty years since the end of the dictatorship and three "people's
power" uprisings later, Philippine society is hugely polarized.
If the recent killing spree signifies anything, it's that the growing coercion
and the abandonment of democratic rights portend the fraying of the post-1986
political order, when the dictator Marcos was unceremoniously thrown from power
and democracy restored. What will replace those democratic hopes, more than at
any time in recent years, is a point of bitter political contention.
The political crisis triggered by charges of electoral fraud and corruption
against Arroyo have brought these divisions clearly out in the open. In one
camp are those who want to salvage and carry on with what academics like to
call "oligarchic democracy" or "low-intensity democracy", where ballots are
universally assured but food, jobs and housing are not.
On the other side of the debate are those who are struggling to move beyond
limited democracy and are working to change the system from both above and
underground. Over the past few months, these two sides have failed to oust
Arroyo and now face an impasse.
But as the intensifying militarization and repression signify, another camp has
moved to break the stalemate. Those who seek to roll back democracy and push
the country toward a more authoritarian, albeit nominally democratic, system
are again in the ascendant and clearly on the offensive.
For the ruling elites and conservatives from 1986, the formal institutions of
democracy - free and fair elections, a free press, the protection and promotion
of civil liberties - were then seen as the most effective way to maintain their
hold on power and wealth.
But as the Philippines' massive marginalized population has increasingly
employed these institutions to challenge the status quo, sections of the ruling
class and military appear to have come to the conclusion that democracy is a
double-edged sword. Low-intensity democracy is once again giving way to
low-intensity warfare in the Philippines, while being "underground" has taken
on its old meaning.
"Nothing has changed," said Lorena Paras, a former guerrilla fighter with the
NPA who surrendered to the government in 1997 and now tries to live a quiet
life at the foot of the Bataan Mountains. And yet for her, in reality so much
has changed: last September, she personally witnessed uniformed military men
drag away her husband, also a former NPA rebel.
His name has been added to the new list of the disappeared, and she, most
likely, to the list of new widows. Lorena says wistfully that her thoughts have
increasingly returned to the revolution she only recently left behind.
1. Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 15, 2006
2. Associated Press, May 30, 2006
3. Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 28, 2005
4. Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 2, 2005
5. Newsbreak, April 29, 2006
6. Zachary Abuza, "Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf", Strategic
Studies monograph, September 2005
7. Newsbreak website, May 31, 2006
8. Reuters, May 18, 2005
9. Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 21, 2004
10. Philippine Star, May 9, 2006
11. Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 26, 2006
12. Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 25, 2006
13. Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 16, 2006
Herbert Docena is with Focus on the Global South, a research and advocacy