Surit-surit and other stories: Mindanao on the eve of EDSA

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/23 February) — As the bus approached a village in Salay, a town in the eastern side of Misamis Oriental, it slowed down to a stop beside a military checkpoint that leaned against a craggy slope. A soldier clambered aboard and shouted, “Tanang lalaki naug” (All males go down). He then inspected the passengers’ baggage presumably in search of firearms. Below the other soldiers frisked the males and randomly asked for cedula (residence certificate) and other identification documents.

It was mid-1984, and being held in a checkpoint was a fact of life for commuters anywhere in Mindanao. But in that instance the soldiers seemed to do it not just for compliance or out of habit; they looked agitated, the safety locks of their M16s released. “Na-ambush daw ilang mga kauban ganinang sayo sa buntag,” (Their comrades were ambushed early this morning) a fellow passenger said in near whisper, making a quick glance behind him as he spoke. “Mao diay,” (So that’s why) I quipped back, trying to sound casual.

There was no need to ask who the attackers were. In those times, in Mindanao’s Christian-dominated provinces, the military only had to contend with the New People’s Army, armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Feeding on government neglect and lingering social injustices like oppressive landlord-tenant relations the CPP-NPA succeeded in putting under its political influence hundreds of rural villages in the island and in expanding its guerrilla force. By the early 1980s, the NPA had formed company-sized units in many provinces enabling it to attack targets like municipal halls and police stations, at times coming and going without firing a single shot.

Predictably, the Marcos dictatorship responded with additional military force, sending battalion after battalion of soldiers that by the mid-1980s, roughly two-thirds of his 200,000-strong armed forces were stationed in Mindanao.

However, the increased military presence in Mindanao failed to contain the growth of the armed movement. On the contrary, the repressive atmosphere only drove more people to the rebel side. It was often said that by committing abuses like illegal arrests, torture, “salvaging” (extrajudicial executions), and forced evacuations of entire communities, the military became the best recruiter for the NPA.

In a fact-finding mission to Salay, an elderly fisherman waxed poignantly poetic: “Ang lawod sa Salay lubnganan,” (The sea of Salay is a graveyard) an allusion to the many corpses of victims that were reportedly thrown into the sea and never recovered. While in Butuan City, the 54th Company of the defunct Philippine Constabulary, notorious for manhandling and allegedly salvaging civilians that crossed their path, came to be known as the “Peste 4th Company”.

It was in Mindanao too, in a village in Laac, Davao del Norte, that the military first imposed the counterinsurgency measure called “hamletting”, which was patterned after a tactic used by the Americans in Vietnam.

Hamletting, as applied in Laac and later in other areas too, means controlling the movement and activities of the people in an entire village to prevent them from establishing contacts with and extending support to the NPA. Dubbed “population and resource control”, it may include imposing a curfew, shortening the hours spent by farmers in their farms, and preventing residents from going beyond a prescribed distance from the village. In extreme situations, the military would issue a “no man’s land” declaration, i.e. people would be ordered to abandon a particular area and those who defied the order would become fair game to the soldiers.

At about the same time, the military implemented another “population and resource control” method in the barangays of Claveria, the only non-coastal town of Misamis Oriental and a rebel stronghold then. Through checkpoints they controlled the amount of food supplies purchased in the lowlands that people may bring in each week. The quantity would depend on the number of family members. The military said it was meant to ensure that no excess food supplies went to the NPA. Even the quantity of matches was controlled as these could be converted into ammunition for a homemade shotgun called pugakhang or surit-surit which upland dwellers use in hunting deer and wild boar.

So rampant indeed were human rights violations in Mindanao that the region came to be called “The Bleeding Land”. Based on statistics churned out by human rights organizations the frequency of abuses committed in Mindanao surpassed those in the Visayas and Luzon combined.

Meanwhile, the aboveground protest movement in the cities had gained momentum, aided in no small way not just by the regime’s abuses but also by the politicization of a large segment of the intelligentsia after the murder of popular opposition leader Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. Cause-oriented groups nominally led by professionals had multiplied overnight after Aquino’s death across the country, and the Left in Mindanao benefited from that political windfall. Aside from winning over many lawyers, physicians, academics and even church people, it managed to forge a “tactical alliance” with some local anti-Marcos politicians, an attempt at a “united front” which did not really materialize.

Emboldened by the growing resentment against the martial law regime and the awakening of the middle class, the Left intensified its political offensive in the major cities of Mindanao by staging simultaneous labor strikes, student mobilizations and ambitious island-wide mass actions. In early 1984, the Coalition of Organizations for the Realization of Democracy, the precursor of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or Bayan, held long marches called Lakbayan to dramatize its opposition to the elections for the rubber-stamp Batasang Pambansa. Arguing that participating in the elections would only serve to legitimize the Marcos government, the group called on the people to boycott the exercise. Thousands of mostly peasant marchers from the provinces turned up in the streets of the cities of Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Pagadian, Butuan, Ozamiz and other areas.

Months after, between August 1984 and mid-1985, the Left ventured into another first in the history of the protest movement: welgang bayan (people’s strike) in key cities of Mindanao. It aimed to paralyze transport and freeze business activities for at least one day “to rock the economic foundations of the US-Marcos dictatorship,” an anonymous document apparently coming from underground sources said. But only Davao and Cagayan de Oro actually achieved relative success. Welgistas in the other areas were only able to sustain their barricades for a few hours against anti-riot police. In Davao, the protesters were so aggressive that even bicycles were not allowed to pass through roadblocks.

But the government would soon respond in a gruesome manner. Prominent protest leaders fell victims to murders which remain unsolved until now – human rights lawyers Romraflo Taojo, Crisostomo Cailing and Zorro Aguilar; labor leader Alexander Orcullo; peasant leader Jose Fabro who led the opposition against the food blockade in Claveria, Misamis Oriental; and others whose names may have slipped into oblivion. Even figures like Italian missionary Tullio Favali, who was mistaken for another priest, was killed by members of the pseudo-religious group Ilaga, which the military tapped in the fight against the Moro and communist rebel groups. Zamboanga City’s legendary mayor Cesar Climaco also did not escape government wrath. He had vowed never to have a haircut unless Marcos was gone; he did not live long enough for a chance to go see a barber again.

At about the same time that repression heightened, the armed movement had started to flirt with the idea of complementing the Maoist strategy of ‘encircling the cities from the countryside” with fomenting urban insurrection to hasten victory. Davao became the laboratory of the insurrectionist tack which saw the district of Agdao littered almost daily with bodies of either soldiers or NPA partisans – or both.

In the countryside the movement also focused on building up its fighting capability. A Party cadre said the NPA was forming Main Regional Guerrilla Units to increase the level of engagement against government troops. “Walay laing trabaho ang MRGU gawas sa pagpangitag kombate,” (The MRGU has no other task but to seek combat) he enthused while talking to this writer over a few bottles of beer in a restaurant in Cagayan de Oro.

So confident was the movement that some cadres predicted that in a few years time they could attain victory in Mindanao assuming no major changes happened in the political landscape. But something happened along the way. Paranoia caused by a string of losses in the field drove the movement in Mindanao into a macabre ritual of self-immolation by eating its own sons and daughters, in a dark episode called Kampanyang Ahos, a campaign against suspected deep penetration agents that led to the deaths of dozens of cadres and activists. Two high-ranking cadres in Butuan were eventually executed for ordering the executions of comrades whose guilt was never established.

It was around the last quarter of 1985 that Ahos took place. The dictator held presidential elections in January 1986, which turned out to be his last act of official fraud. Before the next month had ended, two million Filipinos massed on a street in Manila called EDSA and in public places in Mindanao, signaling the end of an era and bringing hopes that a bright future lay ahead for the country. In their sanctuaries and bases the rebels wore pensive looks, uncertain of what the future held for them.

That was 25 years ago. The future has passed.

(This piece was first published in the February issue of OUR Mindanao, the monthly publication of the Mindanao News and Information Cooperative Center. H. Marcos C. Mordeno was a freelance journalist during Martial Law.)