Southern Mindanao is NPA’s new ‘epicenter’

DAVAO City—The Philippine Army has trained its guns on the Southern Mindanao region, which it describes as the country’s new “epicenter” of communist insurgency.

Twelve of the 23 New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla fronts in Mindanao are based in the three Davao provinces and Compostela Valley, said data released by the 10th Infantry Division based here. These fronts have a combined force of 800 guerrillas.

NPA rebels from some of these fronts even operate in nearby Caraga region, which is made up of the two Agusan and two Surigao provinces; parts of Central Mindanao, specifically North Cotabato; and parts of Bukidnon in Northern Mindanao region, the Army data added.

Some of them may even have actually participated in the October 3 raid by the NPA on three mining companies in Claver, Surigao del Norte, a military source, who declined to be identified for lack of authority, said.

Major General Jorge Segovia, 10th ID commander, said because of the number of NPA fronts in Southern Mindanao, and their ability to cross the borders to other areas, the region has been considered a “national priority” in the military’s anticommunist campaign.

“Davao is a priority because it has the highest number of fronts of NPA and affected villages,” he said, without specifying the number of villages where the NPA operates.

Chief Superintendent Andres Caro, Southern Mindanao police chief, said that from January to July, there were 112 NPA attacks in various areas of the region.

Caro said these attacks showed that the NPA remains very active in the region.

Segovia, blamed by human rights groups for the illegal arrest and torture of the “Morong 43” health workers, said the Army aimed to clear the region of NPA rebels and that he was hoping his experience in the government’s anticommunist campaign in other areas such as Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon, or the Calabarzon area, and other provinces in Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon would help him carry out the plan of clearing the region of NPA rebels.

“I have cleared Cavite, Romblon and Marinduque. These are provinces that are now ready to be handed over to the local government. Our remedy in these areas has been successful, but there are other successful approaches used by other officials,” he said.

Segovia said for the Davao region, he was planning to strengthen the military’s peace and development outreach program (PDOP).

Under the PDOP concept, soldiers will not be going around villages to hunt rebels but to construct roads, drinking wells and schools buildings.

They also conduct medical and dental services.

“These are not supposed to be the function or responsibility of the soldiers but we are delivering all these in partnership with other agencies, not only from the government sector but also private entities,” Segovia said.

But human rights advocates were sounding the alarm against the military’s PDOP.

Lawyer Carlos Isagani Zarate of the rights group, Barug Katungod Mindanao, said the program would only spark conflict among residents of recipient communities.

He said those tagged as rebels were being isolated and could not avail of the services.

“These projects will only breed hatred and conflict among the members of the recipient communities. And planting conflict between and among the members of the community is really the objective of the program. It will make the business of quelling rebellion easier for the military,” Zarate said.

Shock and awe

Rigoberto Sanchez, spokesman of the NPA’s Merardo Arce Command, said PDOP was a misnomer and that the military continued its “massive troop and artillery deployments.”

“This is the government’s shock and awe method,” Sanchez said in an e-mailed statement.

“The intent is quite clear: use an overwhelming force against the NPA and instill fear in the minds of the revolutionary mass base through the PDTs,” he said.

Segovia said the Army’s formula for the PDOP was very simple: groups of soldiers called peace and development teams (PDTs) are sent to target communities to immerse with the people and win their hearts, and provide deliverable services.

Lieutenant Colonel Edgardo de Leon, operations chief of the 10th ID, said the peace teams, although they are at risk of being targeted by the NPA, are gaining grounds in the communities, where people no longer fear them and are starting to consider them as allies, if not friends.

“The word militarization is already a welcome word. It is beginning to mean something positive because for the people, when they see military men roaming around their communities, it means the entry of development projects,” De Leon said.

“However they mask it, their operations will still gear toward quelling rebellion, and, primarily, they will do this through the use of arms. And when soldiers immerse in the communities, violations of human rights follow,” Zarate said.

But Segovia said what was happening in the communities where PDTs are working was the contrast.

Outreach

Segovia said since PDOP was implemented in the region in August, at least 80 rebels had surrendered. He considered this “very encouraging.”

“Because of our outreach programs, many rebels are returning to the fold of the government. It is a service program based on the premise that we cannot have development unless there is a security problem,” he said, adding that the conduct of the outreach programs was “one major aspect of the goal to clear the communities (of the rebels).”

Segovia said if Southern Mindanao had been cleared of NPA rebels, economic development would automatically follow.

“Davao is the tourism, agriculture and investment hub of Mindanao. Who will get interested to invest in it if their businesses are not protected from the communist movement? The Army is here to protect them from being attacked … from the extortion activities of the NPA,” he said.
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