Upon arriving in Lianga after being absent for over two weeks, the first questions I asked my contacts here all concerned the status of the military offensive in the hinterlands of Diatagon, a large, populous barangay or village just nine or so kilometers north of my town. In the weeks before I left, the government operations against New People's Army rebels were going full blast inspite of the then approaching Yuletide season and evacuees from the mountain barangays were streaming into temporary evacuation centers in Diatagon and in two other villages belonging to the nearby municipality of San Agustin.
The Philippine government's unilateral declaration of a cessation of offensive operations against communist insurgents nationwide in deference to the Christmas and New Year festivities has clearly been instrumental in the lowering of tensions in the areas affected by the conflict. Most if not all of the evacuees have returned to their homes as government troops have stood down and assumed their habitual defensive positions in the military encampments and population centers.
The big question in everyone's mind here in Lianga is what is going to happen as the period of the holiday truce expires. Is there going to be a resumption of hostilities which could lead once again to the problems sired by the pre-Yuletide offensive or has the military offensive been effectively halted and stopped for the immediate future?
The feedback I have been getting from various sources is ambivalent at best. There are those who say that a resumption of the military operations is inevitable because there are economic interests close to the political leadership eager to seize control of the timber and mineral rich areas currently under the sway and influence of the rebel insurgents. They also say that the military is also keen to avenge the casualties it has suffered in the initial phase of the offensive and is blaming local human rights groups and left-leaning organizations for waging a very effective propaganda campaign in the local and national media in support of the NPA that has cast government soldiers unfairly as the villains in the conflict.
But many also claim that the military and the government does not have the resources and the political will to push through and complete the destruction of the heavy rebel influence in the area. They cite the example of the military offensive in the nearby Andap valley in 2005 which was stalled and halted prematurely after about a month or so of intensive military operations which resulted in heavy casualties for both the government and the rebels.
The air of uncertainty that hangs over the remote mountain villages of Diatagon is something its people and the residents of the Lianga area can definitely do without. It is positively not doing the local economy good or contributing to the development of what is already one of the most depressed and backward areas in the whole country.
The ball is now, therefore, in the government's hands. What's next? What now then?