The transfer, last week, of some almost two thousand evacuees who have been occupying the Lianga municipal gymnasium to the Diocese Pastoral Center in Tandag, the provincial capital of Surigao del Sur, some 89 kilometers north of Lianga must have caused this town's officials to heave a huge sigh of relief. The evacuees, who were from several mountain villages in the hinterlands of Lianga and its sister municipality of San Agustin, have cited the unwelcome and destabilizing entry of government troops and armed paramilitary forces in their communities as the reason for leaving their homes.
In the more than three weeks that they have occupied the municipal gym, the Lianga town government has been in quandary as to how to feed, shelter and provide for the basic needs of the evacuees, most of them women and children. The move to Tandag has apparently taken care of that dilemma and, in view of the fast approaching annual commemoration of the town fiesta on August 15, a quick and timely solution to what was fast becoming a desperate humanitarian crisis far beyond the capability of this town to handle.
As the problem of taking care of the evacuees passed from the hands of Lianga's municipal officials to the Catholic diocese of Tandag (which operates the pastoral center), the propaganda war between local military forces and non-governmental organizations said to be speaking for the displaced mountain villagers has escalated. The Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP) and Ecumenical Mission for Peace and Development (EMPD), both church based NGO's have called upon government troops belonging to the 58th Infantry Battalion under Lt. Col. Benjamin Pedralvez Jr. to leave the affected villages. Both organizations have claimed that the presence of soldiers in these villages has "disrupted the lives and livelihoods" of the indigenous peoples living in these remote settlements straddling the municipal boundaries of Lianga and San Agustin.
A top EMJP official has accused the military of instituting a food blockade in the villages and forcibly recruiting local residents to join a military-led para-military group, the so called Task Force Gantangan, that has been organized primarily to fight insurgent guerrillas belonging to the communist New People's Army. All of these including past instances of alleged military abuses and human rights violations, the official said is creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that has led to the mass evacuation of villagers to Lianga last month.
The 58th Infantry Battalion, on the other hand, has denied conducting offensive military operations in the affected mountain villages. All it has been doing, military spokesmen have said, is provide security escorts for a team conducting community development studies and research in the mountain areas. They deny harassing village residents and have not urged them to leave their homes. In fact, Lt, Col. Pedralvez has said that the military is open to a dialogue with the evacuees with the aim of motivating them to return to their villages and thereafter normalizing the security situation in the affected areas.
The military has also accused some non-governmental organizations specifically the Alternative Learning Center of Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) Inc. which operates a tribal school in one of the villages as responsible for urging local residents to flee their homes by supposedly spreading false rumors that government forces may bomb their communities because of the presence of suspected NPA cadres in the local population. It has also alleged that ALCADEV has not been operating the tribal school in accordance with the approved Department of Education curriculum and that it does not operate under the DepEd's authority.
What then is the real score here?
Starting in the 1970's until the early 1990's when the strength and influence of the local guerrilla fronts of the New People's Army operating in Surigao del Sur was at their height, many mountain barangays and villages especially in the remote and forested areas of Lianga were, to a large part, cut off from the main population centers and remained for decades part of the rural mass base of the communist revolutionary movement. The legal and constitutional authority in these communities virtually ceased to exist and was replaced by de facto revolutionary governments which administered to the needs of the residents.
The decline in the fortunes of the local revolutionary movement in the past decade or so has led to persistent attempts by the government through its armed forces to return these "rebel controlled and influenced" villages to government control. The fact that these villages and settlements are located in areas rich in mineral and timber resources has also been an additional incentive too powerful for the government to resist.
That the so called "indigenous peoples" or mountain folk living in these isolated communities have reason to be suspicious of the presence of government troops close to their homes can be justified in view of their many years of exposure to NPA propaganda and documented instances of military human rights abuses in the past. One cannot simply erase decades of political and cultural indoctrination and conditioning in just a couple of years and the NPA and their front organizations and propaganda units would be foolish not to use their mass base support to frustrate the government and its attempts to seize control of areas that have been under their influence for some time now.
If the government and its security forces are at a disadvantage in the on-going propaganda battle, then it behooves them to rethink their strategies for winning the counterinsurgency war locally in the long term. Much has been said and very little actually done about the need to win the "hearts and minds" of the rural folk and the residents of the remote mountain communities, who because of the lack of proper education, non-existent economic opportunities and decades of government neglect, are more predisposed to lend support and be sympathetic to to a revolutionary movement whose ideology may have become widely discredited all over the world in recent times but unfortunately retains its appeal in the remote, rural corners of this country.
It is apparent that in the case of the evacuees now staying at the DPC in Tandag that the military in particular and the government in general are getting the raw end of the deal in a propaganda war that both are not particularly well equipped or prepared to fight much less win, at least, in the short run. But then the government at both the national and local levels has always persisted in dealing myopically with the problem of insurgency from the purely military or national security perspective. If it and its military forces are being constantly clobbered propaganda wise in the counterinsurgency war then it is certainly no one's fault but its own.
In the case of the NPA and the revolutionary movement, it may be making media points in portraying local military forces as the instigators of the mass evacuation that has displaced almost two thousand people from their homes and communities. But their callous use of innocent civilians, women and children in particular, and subjecting them to the rigors and hazards of a mass evacuation for no other reason than to make propaganda points or gain a temporary tactical advantage does not speak well of what is supposed to be a movement dedicated to fighting for social justice and the general welfare of the urban poor and the indigenous peoples. The strategy could also ultimately backfire on them in the long run. The chicken who sticks out its neck too far out often loses its head in the process.
In short, its the old cat and mouse, Tom and Jerry kind of situation. How all this is going to play out in the end remains to be seen.