Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bad Publicity

"It is a sad reality in this world," a Lianga oldtimer told me years ago, "that the only time the name of this town gets in the news is when something bad happens here." That prescient observation was made in 1999 when rebel forces belonging to the communist New People's Army released custody of captured Army soldier, S/Sgt. Alipio Lozada, to government negotiatiors led by Sen. Loren Legarda in the hinterlands of Barangay Diatagon north of the town.

At that time, Lianga residents were tickled pink to hear news anchors on national television struggling to pronounce the name of their town correctly (leeyang-ga and not leeya-nga) while video footage of the prisoner release was shown. It did not matter to the locals then at that time that that piece of news somehow unfairly painted their place as a hotbed of insurgency and, therefore, an unsafe place to live in and much less an ideal tourism destination to visit.

Last Tuesday afternoon, five Army soldiers were killed and two others wounded when a landmine exploded while their truck was passing by Sitio Bantolinao in Barangay Ganayon just five kilometers north of Lianga. The landmine attack was part of an ambush staged, according to military sources, by NPA rebels under the Sentro de Grabidad Platun 7 led by one Ka Ado and Ka Dodoy. The rebels then carted away five firearms, ammunition, a laptop, cellular phones and personal belongings of the soldiers.

Lianga, for that day again at least, was in the news once more and for the wrong reasons again. It pains me to admit it but my old friend seems to have been proven right again. In this place which is paradise for many including myself, the serpent of war continues to rear its ugly head and bedevil all efforts by the local folk to forge ahead into the future after all the chaos and uncertainty of the turbulent 1980's and early 1990's when the insurgency war was at its feverish height.

Of course, one can say that the ambush incident is merely one in a continuing series of rebel attacks against government forces stationed in the eastern and northern regions of Mindanao that have recently grabbed the news headlines. Similar rebel actions against government soldiers have taken place just two days earlier in Baganga, Davao Oriental and in two separate incidents in New Bataan and Maco towns in the nearby Compostela province in November.

The reason for this upsurge in rebel activity has been a cause of speculation for many here after the seeming lull in the insurgency war that took place in the late 1990's and the early years of the new century.

There are many who say that the attacks have become, more and more, the inevitable consequence of government military forces moving into what rebel groups consider to be their long established strongholds and zones of influence in the remote and forested areas of the countryside which are being targeted by government and private industry for large scale mining, logging and other industrial activity.

Thus, they say, the insurgency war, at least in the local context, has become less ideological in rationale and motivation but has developed into a struggle for control of territory and vital natural resources although still fueled, to a large part, by the grinding poverty, social inequity, ignorance and government ineptitude in the rural areas.

Be that as it may, day to day living in Lianga has returned to normalcy after last Tuesday's incident. At the scene of the ambuscade, there is little sign of the carnage that took place. But the looming signs of the protracted, continuing war are glaringly present even for the casual observer.

The throbbing, thumping sounds of helicopter gunships passing overhead, the roar of Army trucks and armored personnel carriers speeding through the town streets even late at night and the sight of columns of camouflaged troops in full battle gear trudging through the dusty, country roads. All that are sobering signs that not all is perfectly well in this paradise by the sea.

The Ganayon ambush, is in many ways, an isolated incident, a small flash point in a whole smoldering forest that can either mean absolutely nothing or be the harbinger of more incendiary times. How it will play out in the end remains to be seen.

What is clear is that Lianga has gotten another bad rap again. And this time it cannot console itself, as in the past, with the delusion that any publicity it gets, whether good or bad, is better than no publicity at all. The news of the ambush and the linking of the town's name to that of that unfortunate incident is definitely not the kind of publicity it really wants or so desperately needs.

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