A year into Memorandum Order 32: Violence in Samar and Leyte intensifies

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Melvin Cabe, a 35-year-old farmer from San Miguel, Las Navas in Northern Samar, was hunting fowl in the woods for dinner. He was with his stepsons aged 16 and 19 years old. It was nearing eight o’clock in the evening, and they have not eaten yet. Melvin’s wife and their other children were waiting for them at home. 

As the three walked deeper into the woods, the teens heard gunshots and immediately ducked for cover. After a few seconds, they saw their stepfather lying on the ground riddled with gunshots. 

A military helicopter came a few moments later to fetch Melvin’s body. His stepsons immediately ran home, crying. One was wounded with a shot in the leg. 

Her voice breaking, Melvin’s mother Bienvenida shared that after his son was shot in the woods, the family sought the help of village leaders. “Ang ginawa ng mga sundalo, pinatay yung anak ko at pinost sa Facebook at sinabing terorista daw,” she said in her local language.  

They found Melvin under the authority of Philippine Army’s 20th Infantry Battalion (IB) and requested to retrieve the body. But the military only turned over Melvin’s body to the family four days after his death. 

Upon seeing her son, Bienvenida wept in anguish as Melvin was dressed differently from the night they last saw him. He now wore a kamisa de chino, and beside his body was a gun. According to Bienvenida, he was made to look like what the military accused him of — a member of the New People’s Army (NPA). 

Melvin’s case is not isolated. In the remote areas of Samar and Leyte, the killing of farmers is becoming more frequent, according to human rights groups. They point to the increased deployment of military battalions in rural communities since the enactment of Malacañang’s notorious Memorandum Order (MO) 32 in 2018.

A year into its implementation, hundreds of rural families continue to face the violence that MO 32 inflicts. According to Baby Senobia, spokesperson of Stand with Samar and Leyte Alliance, “Dahil sa MO 32, 167 na komunidad ang kinakampuhan ng mga sundalo sa ngayon, at 33 na indibidwal na ang pinatay. Sampu dito ay mga barangay councilor.”

The human rights situation has become so severe that a village leader in Samar was shot dead moments after he condemned the rising violations in Las Navas, Northern Samar. Apolinario ‘Pining’ Lebico was about to file a resolution seeking the pullout of 20th Infantry Battalion soldiers from their communities when he was killed, said his wife Precila.

“Gumawa siya ng isang resolution at pinapirma ang mga miyembro ng barangay tungkol sana sa pang-aabuso ng mga militar at i-petisyon na sana hindi na maulit,” Precila shared.

According to her, before the incident, her husband was intimidated and harassed for his active involvement in human rights cases in their community. In his many years in public service, Precila said Pining was an honest man who always showed concern for his constituents.

After the incident, 20th IB soldiers brought Lebico to the military camp together with his son-in-law, Jeremy Capoquian. According to Precila, soldiers threatened Jeremy not to speak about what really happened.

Food blockade

Senobia shared that while MO 32 sow terror in Samar and Leyte, the livelihood of peasant families continues to suffer.

Thousands of coconut farmers, for instance, are reeling over the abrupt fall in copra prices — the worst drop in prices that people in Las Navas have experienced. Right now, copra is being sold for only Php5 per kilo.

With their community still reeling from the damages wrought by Typhoon Yolanda from several years ago, farmers now face mounting difficulties, Bienvenida said. “Di kami makapagtanim ng palay dahil sa El Niño tapos mas mahal na ang bigas, umaabot na sa Php100 kada gatang,” she said. In fact, even though Eastern Visayas is known for producing coconut, abaca, and rice, farmers suffer from low farmgate prices. 

Increasing the presence of the military and police in these communities does not address the real crisis that communities are facing, said Senobia. “Lahat ng bahagi ng Eastern Visayas, may presensya ng military…mga biktima kami ng Bagyong Yolanda, hindi pa kami nakakabangon tapos itong MO 32, yun ang pinakanagpalugmok sa kahirapan ng ating mga kababayan.”

According to Bienvenida, soldiers block farmers and farmworkers in Las Navas from working in their farms after 4 p.m. The military does this regularly, she shared. When farmers object, the army threatens them. “Sabi nila, kung hindi kami susunod mayroong mangyayari sa amin na masama,” Bienvenida quipped in her native language. Everyone must also be out of the streets by 10:00 in the evening.

Senobia added that the increased military presence in their communities does not only slow down their work but also bars them from buying goods in bulk from the town center. 

She said, “Hanggang sa sampung kilo lang ng bigas ang puwedeng bilhin dahil ang iba daw, ibibigay namin sa NPA.” When farmers and families buy their goods, including rice and other root crops from the town center, they need to spend at least a couple of hundred pesos just for transportation. To save, buying in bulk is the most convenient way. 

This food blockade, as justified by the military, is to supposedly stop the community members in providing food and supporting the members of the NPA.  Soldiers also reportedly surround entire communities in “hamlet” operations and guard the main entrances to barangays. 

All these sow terror in the villages while inflicting worse consequences on their livelihood, said Senobia.

Call for Justice 

Bienvenida and Precila both lost their family members through what they dub as a deadly memorandum.

A year after President Rodrigo Duterte issued MO 32, Samar and Leyte continue to witness bloody streets and hear stories of good men dying. 

“Itigil na sana nila ang kanilang mga operasyon para makapaghanapbuhay naman kaming mga magsasaka… hindi nila dapat pagdudahan kaming mga ordinaryong magsasaka na mga NPA,” Bienvenida hopes.

As the police and military continue to inflict terror in the communities, Bienvendia and Precila join the call of thousands of residents of Eastern Visayas — instead of the killings and violence brought about by MO 32, what they urgently need is genuine and urgent support for their livelihood and welfare.

Report by Romae Chanice Marquez

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