Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shades Of Grey

One early morning during the last week of January this year, a farmer intent only on a leisurely inspection tour of a parcel of coconut land perched on a hill behind the village church in Barangay Salvacion in San Agustin town some nineteen kilometers north of Lianga got more than what he bargained for. He instead unwittingly stumbled into a group of armed men in motley fatigue uniforms who apparently had decided to set up a temporary bivouac on that high ground overlooking the barangay.

The intruders quickly ascertained that the poor farmer did not pose threat to them and promptly sent him away but not after warning him to keep his mouth shut about their presence and the location of their camp. Scared half to death, the guy scampered down the hill as fast as his wobbly legs could carry him.

Several days later in Barangay Britania just three kilometers south of Salvacion, rumors started spreading about another group of strangers also in full combat gear this time on a motorized boat which had supposedly landed just north of the main village site. Where that group eventually went was not clear. Britania, of course, is the main jump-off point for tourists eager to visit the already famous Britania Islands which lies just a short distance from that village's shoreline.

This part of the country is still considered a hotbed of the decades old communist insurgency movement and the locals here have long and bitter memories of the dangers of being caught in the deadly crossfire of periodic clashes between the Philippine government and the New People's Army. So the sightings of armed groups moving within the peripheries of their immediate communities caused no small degree of trepidation and even panic.

Also alarming were stories of members or supposed representatives of these unidentified intruders going around local villages and settlements and allegedly "soliciting" cash and food supplies from small stores, businesses and even, in some cases, from ordinary homes. These persistent reports remained however unverified to date.

I was told by people in both Salvacion and Britania that Philippine Army units and police forces based in San Agustin were immediately notified of the presence of these armed groups but apparently no real action in response was taken by government security forces. Local leaders were merely advised to downplay the reports and to tell their people to keep calm and go about their normal lives.

In the days following the initial sightings of these armed groups, many of the questions that were being raised as to their true identity and the real purpose of their presence in the San Agustin area have yet to be fully answered. Even the few uncertain facts and information that have emerged about them have raised more additional questions that no one either in the local government or in the military or police forces here is willing to discuss openly.

What is known is that on January 28, Surigao del Sur Governor Johnny Pimentel had discussed with high ranking Philippine Army officers in Tandag City the reports of "unidentified armed groups" being sighted in the "hinterland barangays" of not only San Agustin but also Barobo town and Bislig City in the province's second district. With the governor at that time were Maj. Gen. Oscar Lactao, the commanding general of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, Lactao's subordinate brigade and battalion commanders from the 401st Brigade and Police Senior Supt. Narciso Verdadero, the acting police provincial director for the province.

Maj. Gen. Lactao was in Tandag to pay a courtesy call on Gov. Pimentel and attend a meeting of the Joint Peace and Security Coordinating Committee chaired by the latter. In the course of the meeting, Vice-Governor Manuel Alameda who is from San Agustin and whose sister, Libertad, is the municipal mayor there supplied additional details about the incursion of these armed groups. Mayor Felixberto Urbiztondo of Barobo and a representative of Mayor Librado Navarro of Bislig City who were also present then chimed in and cited similar cases of groups of unidentified armed men being detected entering their areas.

In the press conference following the meeting, Maj. Gen. Lactao supposedly issued assurances that the "matter has already been discussed" by him together with the Gov. Pimentel, Vice-Gov. Alameda, P/SSupt. Verdadero and Col. Alexander Macario, the newly installed commander of the 401st Brigade. Macario and Verdadero, according to Lactao, had already been "tasked by the governor to look into the matter and report back in three days" although the"plan of action" that Macario and Verdadero will have to remain "a secret."

Community leaders both in Salvacion and Bretania have allegedly pieced together from information gathered from various sources that the armed intruders most probably belonged to paramilitary forces under the leadership of Datu Calpit Egua, a maverick Manobo chieftain based in Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur. Egua is said to be engaged in small scale gold mining activities in some areas in both Agusan del Sur and Surigao del Sur. He reportedly commands a private army of more than sixty Bagani or tribal warriors who, many human rights groups in Mindanao have alleged, are armed and supported by the military and are used by government forces in the counter-insurgency war against the communist New People's Army in the Caraga region.

The term Manobo refers to a diverse ethnic grouping scattered mostly in the provinces of Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, the Davao provinces, Bukidnon and North and South Cotabato. Predominantly an upland culture occupying the mountain highlands, they are said to be one of the largest if not the largest ethnic group in the country.

Datu Calpit, as he is widely known, has been targeted several times in the past by the NPA and its political leadership who have described him as a "powerful warlord" who has been responsible for extrajudicial killings and other heinous crimes like rape and torture against the very same indigenous peoples he belongs to. Maria Malaya, the spokesperson of the National Democratic Front for northeastern Mindanao, has accused him of using his armed followers to seize control if not outright ownership of many gold mining sites especially those located in the so called "ancestral domains" of the tribal communities. In July of 2014, leftist insurgents conducted a punitive raid on the datu's compound in Sta. Irene, Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur. Calpit was wounded and four of his men were killed but the NPA lost twelve of their own in the apparently bungled attack.

The training, arming and use of bagani or tribal warriors from the indigenous peoples and cultural minorities for use in the counter-insurgency war is, of course, is a tactic used not only by the Philippine armed forces but also by the communist insurgents themselves. The bagani have intimate knowledge of their native terrain and are considered to be fierce and fearless fighters which make them very effective as territorial forces in an unconventional guerrilla type of conflict. But they have also been accused of committing human rights abuses including the killing of innocent civilians and non-combatants,

The rather lukewarm response of the government military and police forces to what many of the local people here would have considered as a serious security threat in the entry of these rather unexpected armed visitors does bring credence to the theory that these combat ready interlopers were indeed "non-hostile" or even "friendly" forces and thus were not to be considered as a serious danger to the communities they were "visiting." As to what their actual purpose or mission was to be in the areas they were found to be present, of course, is the question that remains unanswered.

To date, there has been no additional news of more sightings of unidentified men in the Salvacion and Britania area but that does not mean that they are no longer in the vicinity of these villages. Much of the mountainous areas surrounding these barangays are quite remote and unpopulated and certainly no one is actively trying to look for them or pinpoint their exact whereabouts at present.

There were reliable reports that about a week after they were sighted, the entire group reportedly left the Salvacion area on-board a large, non-military truck but their next or final destination is unknown. Yet there is a lingering sense of great unease among the population there. Many of them have to contend with the nagging suspicion that the end to the story of their mysterious visitors has yet to be really told.

What has also become evident to residents here is that they may have once again been touched by that one unsavory and shadowy aspect of the decades old " asymmetrical" war between the Philippine government and the communist insurgency - the use by warring forces of non-official, proxy or third party forces in their efforts to weaken if not destroy each other.

In this murky, protracted and secretive war that is so typical of what many military scholars and historians consider the fourth evolution of classic warfare, the battle lines shift and constantly change. At times, the distinctions between opposing sides and between combatants and non-combatants are unclear, determining who are permanent friends and temporary allies as opposed to who are the true enemies an often baffling and dangerous task. It is a bewildering conflict where, most often, few things are in clear black and white - just overlapping and confusing shades of grey.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome work.Just wanted to drop a comment and say I am new to your blog and really like what I am reading.Thanks for the share