Philippine Army Finds Rebel ‘Killing Fields’ : Purge of Communists on Mindanao Indicated; Military Cites Discovery in Propaganda War
Rose Jalagat no longer uses her real name--not since that day in June when the Philippine military found her husband’s burned remains beneath a muddy rice field in the far outskirts of this embattled town, in a place they now call the “Killing Fields.”
For more than a year, Rose Jalagat had been a committed foot soldier and nurse in the Communist New People’s Army, she says. As she tells it, her 26-year-old husband, Roland, was an assassin, a member of an elite rebel liquidation squad known as the Sparrows.
The couple met last year while fighting in the mountains of northern Mindanao, a key battle zone in the insurgents’ 17-year armed rebellion against the Philippine government. They fell in love. Together, they quietly came down from the mountains, leaving the battle zone. On Sept. 15, they were married in a simple mountainside chapel near here.
The next day, Roland Jalagat disappeared without a trace.
“One of our comrades knocked on the door and said they needed my husband,” Rose Jalagat recalled in an interview last week. The next time she saw her husband, he had been dead for several months. His remains lay beside more than 25 other decaying corpses in one of the remote pastures that the armed forces has loudly--and triumphantly--labeled the “Killing Fields” of the New People’s Army.
Since then, the military has trumpeted the discovery of three more mass graves in the same area. It claims that in all, the sites contain the tortured and burned remains of more than 100 people slain by the rebels. It says the victims were suspected of being military informants and infiltrators--agents that the military has code-named Zombies.
However, the exact number of victims is unclear. The military uses figures supplied to it by informants and says heavy rains have prevented soldiers from uncovering and examining the human remains to figure out just how many bodies there are.
Still, the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, declared last week that the mass graves are “a very clear indication of the pattern that was established in Cambodia now being applied here in the Philippines.”
Since the recovery of her husband’s body, Rose Jalagat has been in hiding at a military camp near here. She works as a waitress at the camp’s golf club, and she quietly tells anyone who asks that her name is Jane, just Jane. She has become a victim of a war she wants only to forget, a target for one side and a valuable round of ammunition for the other.
In their comparison of the Opol mass grave to the American film, “The Killing Fields,” which recounted the murder of more than 1 million Cambodians by Pol Pot’s Communist Khmer Rouge regime, the armed forces are firing a major salvo in a deepening propaganda war against the Philippine Communists.
The military has timed its string of disclosures about the “Killing Fields” of Mindanao to coincide with the beginning of peace talks between Communist leaders and representatives of President Corazon Aquino’s government in Manila.
Propaganda Gain for Military
The discovery of the grave sites was a propaganda bonanza for the military. The area, which is within the town of Opol’s jurisdictional boundaries but actually more than 25 miles south of the town itself, can be reached only by helicopter or by a five-hour hike in the jungle. The military would never have known of the graves if two rebels had not surrendered and confessed under questioning that they had helped to bury the bodies and, in some cases, to kill the victims.
After the former rebels led intelligence officers to the site, the military pointedly publicized their grisly testimony about the victims’ being clubbed to death to torture them and save ammunition.
Military officials presented autopsy reports documenting dozens of broken bones in the victims, and they distributed to the press gruesome photographs of incinerated corpses, piled beside the first set of graves opened in the Opol fields.
Maps Are Provided
To ensure the widest possible publicity, Gen. Ramos himself flew to the fields last month with the national defense press corps. The military gave reporters detailed maps decorated with a hammer and sickle and the words, “Killing Fields,” and presented blackboards listing the names of 28 corpses under the heading, “Victims of New People’s Army Atrocities.”
“With the talks on, there’s no question these killing fields are great publicity for Gen. Ramos in the propaganda war,” said a skeptical Vicente Emano, acting governor of Misamis Oriental province where the graves were uncovered.
Emano, a liberal who has met with local leaders of the New People’s Army in recent months and forged a regional cease-fire, said the Communist leaders did admit to killing some of those found in the fields. The rest, he quoted them as saying, were victims of military death squads.
“I doubt the NPA here are anything like the Khmer Rouge,” Emano said, echoing the views of many Roman Catholic priests based in the region. Emano and other critics of the military say the armed forces are deliberately inflating the number of bodies found.
New Propaganda Efforts
Such reponses from the rebels and from political and religious leaders the military views as Communist sympathizers have inspired the military to further propaganda efforts.
Restrained from taking to the field for offensive operations during the talks, the military and rightist hard-liners in the Aquino government have, in recent weeks, launched a barrage of words at leftist elements within the government itself.
As the national cease-fire talks moved into their second week last Monday, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile publicly named “card-carrying” Communists who he claimed have infiltrated several of Aquino’s government ministries.
On Thursday, Enrile intensified his rhetoric. Referring to the Communist rebels, he told a luncheon audience at the Manila Polo Club, “Their ultimate and irreducible goal is power, the grab for the state and political power of the land. They are infiltrating every sector of our society. . . . “
Efforts to Placate Military
Enrile’s charges were not made merely to sway a confused public on the Communist issue. They were seen by many military analysts as an attempt to placate increasingly restive elements within the military’s top ranks, who believe that the rebels are using the cease-fire negotiations only to gain time for unmolested regrouping and recruitment of new members, hoping meanwhile that Aquino’s popularity will wane.
For its part, Aquino’s government is gambling that the peace talks will have the opposite effect. The talks, her advisers say, are partially intended as propaganda--to prove the sincerity of her desire for domestic peace and to keep her campaign promise last January to work for a national cease-fire.
The president’s top civilian advisers also hope that the temporary lull in hostilities will allow disgruntled rebels who want to give up the fight, people such as Rose and Roland Jalagat, to surrender without retribution.
And they are optimistic that the talks will give Aquino’s economic recovery program a chance to take hold. Such a recovery, Aquino has said, is the only long-term solution to a rebellion that has left thousands of Filipinos dead.
In the short term, however, the talk of peace seems merely to have given way to posturing and propaganda that has renewed, even deepened, suspicions between the military and the rebels.
Whether the claims about “Killing Fields,” Zombies or death squads are accurate is elusive at best. In the words of former Mindanao assemblyman Homobono Adaza, “No one can really attest to the facts.”
But the search for truth behind the allegations provides a stark picture of how deep the mistrust has become between the military and the rebels and how great the toll of 17 years of guerrilla war has been in the countryside.
The war between the 200,000-man armed forces and the estimated 17,500 Communist guerrillas has grown in recent years to include all 74 of the nation’s provinces, but there are few better regions in which to analyze the current stalemate than the province of Misamis Oriental.
Half a Dozen Massacres
Propaganda aside, in the past year alone there have been no fewer than half a dozen widely publicized and extensively documented massacres of civilians by both the military and the rebels.
The region is also home to fanatic religious death squads that believe killing “godless Communists” is a divine mission.
And the fighting has forcibly redistributed large sections of the region’s population. Thousands of families, terrorized by the fighting, have abandoned their remote farms for the relative safety of roadside shanties in the towns.
In the town of El Salvador, which is adjacent to Opol, more than 1,000 families have fled to makeshift roadside shacks since the New People’s Army last year ambushed and killed 30 men, women and children.
The victims were believed to have been members of a religious cult called Tadtad--local dialect for “chop-chop.” In the months before the ambush, even El Salvador’s fervently anti-Communist mayor said the Tadtad captured Communist guerrillas and used machetes to chop them to pieces. The group’s action had the full sanction of the military, he charged.
Key Roads Cut Off
The guerrilla war has also cut off key rural roads that the farmers need to bring their produce to markets. In Opol, recently appointed Mayor Oliver Actub said intensive military operations and Communist retaliation have severed all the major arteries from the town to the remote, fertile fields where the farmers live.
“My biggest problem is the roads,” Actub said. “Even if the fighting stops, the roads have deteriorated badly. It requires millions of pesos to reopen those provincial roads, and all the national government could afford to give me is 83,000 pesos ($4,150). Imagine, how do I open a half dozen roads with 83,000 pesos?”
The war has also decimated the budget of the local military. One colonel in the regional headquarters near Opol conceded last week that his military camp already is in debt for 2,000 gallons of helicopter fuel, and local commanders are reluctant to use their helicopters on patrols because the local supplier may refuse to refuel them.
The battles also have taken their toll on the insurgents.
Admits to Killings
One top Communist rebel commander, a woman who calls herself “Commander Miriam,” conceded to reporters visiting a rebel camp near Opol earlier this month that her group had, indeed, killed many--but not all--of the victims found in the Opol mass graves.
They were executions, she said, of military agents who had infiltrated the rebels’ ranks. She added that a continuing purge included Communist Party members who were planning to abandon the armed struggle for an easier life in the villages and towns.
“We have a new government, a very popular one right now, and I think it has put a stop to the movement’s recruiting momentum,” Gov. Emano said. “It would be very difficult now, I would think, to convince people to join their movement.”
Yet, despite all the carnage in Misamis Oriental, the province has been the scene of the most progressive and hopeful initiatives to end the war since the Aquino government seized power last February from President Ferdinand E. Marcos, whose oppressive, corrupt 20-year rule was long seen to be the insurgent’s primary recruiting tool.
Emano led the peace efforts three months ago by trekking 10 hours into the mountains to forge a three-month cease-fire with the rebels. When that agreement expired Aug. 8, he returned and hammered out a three-month extension.
“The agreement will hold if the military wants it to hold,” said Emano, a tough, stocky career politician who gained national fame by using a baseball bat to discipline criminals in the northern Mindanao town where he was mayor for nearly a decade.
“The trouble right now is the military. I just don’t think they’re willing to give peace a chance,” Emano said.
Privately, several senior military officers in the provincial capital of Cagayan de Oro, who were not invited to take part in Emano’s peace mission in the mountains, claimed that Emano cannot be trusted because they suspect he, himself, is a Communist.
The officers also charged that Aquino’s minister of local governments, Aquilino Pimentel, who appointed Emano to his post in March, is a Communist.
Charges Rankle Governor
Such charges rankle the 43-year-old governor. Emano proudly pointed to the fact that his family has ownership interest in two of the region’s largest banks. A former Marcos supporter who defected to the opposition before Aquino came to power, he declared: “I’m not a Communist, and I’ll never be a Communist. I am only trying to give peace a chance.”
The governor conceded that his cousin was among the rebel leaders who agreed to the cease-fire in the mountains, but he said: “There are no relatives and no friends in the New People’s Army. There is only an ideology. They don’t recognize relationships.”