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COLUMN ONE : Rights Still a Victim in Philippines : Killings of suspected opponents and other abuses by government forces continue along with guerrilla abductions and massacres in the war with Communist rebels.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soldiers had bullied her before, so Ruby Sioco wasn’t especially scared when three heavily armed members of the local militia stopped and roughly searched her in this hamlet of bamboo huts one recent morning.

Nor did she worry when the leader, a man known as The Cat, ordered his men to hold her until he found her companions, three members of a leftist union’s cultural group, farther down the dirt trail. They were campaigning for a human rights rally, she explained.

But moments later, she heard three sharp bursts of gunfire.

“The Cat came back and said, ‘Your three friends are dead,’ ” Sioco, 22, said. “When he said that, I could not even cry. I was too afraid.

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“Then he told me, ‘Go, run, escape!’ But I don’t run. Because if I run, they will shoot me, too.”

The Nov. 22 execution-style deaths of the three young union members at this remote sugar cane plantation on Negros Island are only the latest in what critics say is a grim series of brutal human rights abuses--including murder, torture and rape--in the Philippines’ mostly forgotten war against Communist rebels.

While President Corazon Aquino’s government has strict policies opposing such abuses in its counterinsurgency campaign, Amnesty International reports at least 40 “extra-judicial executions” of real or suspected opponents by government forces in the first eight months of 1990.

That, at least, is an improvement. Last year, the London-based group reported more than 200 extra-judicial deaths and dozens of “disappearances” of human rights activists, church workers, trade unionists, journalists and other civilians. Local human rights groups cite even higher figures, although verification is often impossible in the ever-violent, ever-murky world of Philippine politics.

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Whatever the numbers, even top government officials concede that few if any members of the military, militia or police have been convicted of a serious human rights violation since Aquino came to power in 1986 promising an end to such abuses.

“As far as I know, yes, we have not secured any convictions,” said Franklin M. Drilon, Aquino’s secretary of justice and head of the presidential human rights committee. “But it’s not because of lack of will.

“Our difficulty is we are only prosecutors, and we can only prosecute on the basis of evidence,” he said. “In many instances, either we cannot find witnesses or the witnesses are reluctant to testify.”

That’s not surprising. “We’ve had enough cases where witnesses tell a story and then they are killed,” explained a Manila-based Western official whose group deals with international humanitarian law. “In most cases, nothing happens. No one is arrested, no one is prosecuted.”

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Even when cases are filed, “they die a slow death,” charged Francisco B. Cruz, a leader of FLAG, a network of lawyers who provide free legal aid to political prisoners and families of victims. “It’s all show,” he said.

Aquino’s human rights record has tarnished her image in Washington, the United Nations and elsewhere, and it is a continuing source of discontent in a number of rural Philippine provinces. In some areas, the abuses have further fueled the 21-year-old insurgency by the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the banned Communist Party of the Philippines.

“Human rights is one of our primary concerns,” said Gen. Renato de Villa, armed forces chief of staff. “We’re aware, very, very much aware that if the people are not with us, we cannot win this war.”

International human rights groups and diplomats agree with De Villa’s assertion that military and militia abuses decreased in the last two years, while abuses by NPA guerrillas--including summary executions, torture, hostage-taking and harassment--have not.

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Early last year, for example, NPA guerrillas massacred 37 members of the anti-Communist Itoman religious sect in Digos, Davao del Sur, beheading some victims. And last week, two suspected NPA gunmen burst into an Ateneo University classroom in Manila and shot to death two labor leaders holding a human rights seminar, the latest of more than 80 NPA assassinations in Manila this year.

On the government side, military officials insist they file charges when warranted, but they blame other allegations on a leftist propaganda campaign to discredit the military. And, indeed, many abuses are difficult to characterize in a violent, feudal culture that features bloodthirsty religious cults, armed vigilantes, private armies and bandit gangs, as well as a bitter guerrilla war that leaves an estimated 1,000 people dead each year.

The problem is compounded because the military has labeled scores of trade unions and social activist groups, including human rights organizations, as “fronts” for Communists, effectively declaring them open targets. And military officials invariably contend that dead civilians were killed in cross-fires or encounters with the NPA.

“It is much worse now compared to the time of (deposed dictator Ferdinand E.) Marcos,” said Joe Depiedra, 32, head of ARADO, a coalition of 22 legal leftist groups espousing agrarian reform. “Before, the military never bombed rural areas. We never had massacres. We never had these vigilantes. Now it is a regular thing.”

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Negros, the fourth largest island in the Philippines, may be the worst-case example.

Negros is called “Sugarlandia” because it is home to thousands of sprawling sugar cane plantations run by a wealthy elite and worked by landless peasants. Despite a $500-million industry and enough profits to pack baccarat tables nightly in a glitzy downtown casino, barely half the haciendas pay even the legal minimum wage: $2.20 a day.

Since the work is seasonal, tens of thousands of families survive day to day, in debt all their lives. Children as young as 8 work in the tall cane fields. Hunger is so bad in July and August, when the cane has been cut and the mills are quiet, that the season is called the tiempo muerto-- death time.

“I have eight children, but they do not go to school,” said Marcedita Dayo, 51, a third-generation cane worker in a dirt-floor thatch hut on Hacienda de la Rama, owned by a wealthy Manila-based landlord. “I can’t afford it. What we earn is barely enough for rice.”

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As elsewhere, Aquino’s promises of land reform were mostly empty. About 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) were given to farmers, but the government hasn’t broken up major plantations or acquired tens of thousands of hectares that planters offered to sell.

“It’s very slow,” admits vice governor Rafael L. Coscolluela. “There are even voluntary offers that have not been touched.”

War, however, has touched much of Negros Island. An estimated 900 NPA guerrillas have killed dozens of planters, soldiers and civilians. The military has responded with Vietnam-style offensives that have entailed evacuating tens of thousands of peasants while soldiers turned suspect villages into free-fire zones.

In April, 1989, for example, the army’s “Operation Thunderbolt” in southern Negros forced about 30,000 so-called “internal refugees” into poorly planned evacuation centers. With cramped quarters, inadequate sanitation and bad water, at least 200 already malnourished children died from measles and diarrhea.

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In recent weeks, the military has used howitzers and helicopter gunships to assault an alleged NPA stronghold in the north of Negros, forcing about 2,000 farmers and their families into dusty schools, crowded churches and an open-air cockfighting pit in Minapasok town.

“Operation Habagat Alpha” has been accompanied by a surge in violence by fierce, anti-Communist religious cults that often work closely with the military. The groups are named for their red, white and green headbands and are feared for reports that they behead their victims and drink the blood.

“The army is using these fanatic groups in the counterinsurgency war,” said Vivian Vargas, head of the Negros Relief and Rehabilitation Center, a non-governmental group that helps the refugees. “So far, we haven’t heard of beheadings in the north. Only death by torture. And skinnings.”

But villagers say most abuses are by members of the militia.

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The Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Units, called CAFGUs, were created by Aquino in 1987 to replace Marcos’ infamous Civilian Home Defense Force. In theory, the new militia was recruited, trained and supervised by regular soldiers and subject to military discipline.

In practice, the CAFGUs often include members of Marcos’ abusive militia and work with local vigilante groups. Villagers complain that the CAFGUs steal pigs and chickens, drunkenly harass women at checkpoints and threaten to name them as NPA sympathizers if they resist.

On Negros, sugar planters and wealthy landlords openly finance the CAFGUs, contributing nearly $2 million a year to train, outfit and pay local units.

“These CAFGUs are used by the rich landowners to protect the haciendas,” said retired Bishop Antonio Fortich, a human rights advocate whose office was hit by an unsolved grenade attack several years ago. “But they commit atrocities and there is no control.”

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It was a privately supported CAFGU squad that approached Ruby Sioco and her three companions at Hacienda Azcuna on Thanksgiving morning.

Thin and wiry, Sioco is a women’s group organizer. Her companions--Aguinaldo Marfil, 19, Ferdinand Pelaro, 18, and Reynaldo de la Fuente, 24--were singers and actors in Teatro Obrero, a leftist political theater group from the National Federation of Sugar Workers.

The military considers the 85,000-member NFSW union a “front” for the NPA. About 43 union members and workers have been killed in the last four years, nearly twice the number under Marcos’ 20-year reign, said Serge B. Cherniguin, union vice president.

“Once you join the union, unfortunately you don’t get better housing or better pay,” he said. “You can lose your job, or even be accused of communism and just be killed.”

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Teatro Obrero, or Workers’ Theater, puts on political skits, songs and workshops in haciendas and hamlets, said director Alejandro Deoma. Two years ago, police raided the group’s office and staff house in downtown Bacolod, capital of the province.

“They confiscated what they said was ‘voluminous subversive materials,’ meaning our guitars, our sound system, the organ, batteries, our drums, microphones and scripts,” Deoma said with a laugh. “They kept the organ, microphone and an amplifier.

“Now it is more serious,” he added. “We have always faced arrest and even torture. But this is the first time our members have been killed. Now we are the enemy. Now we can feel the danger. It is all around.”

Autopsy reports show that the three Teatro Obrero members were shot several times each at close range, two in the head. One villager said they were forced to kneel and take off their shirts before they were shot.

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“The CAFGU says they ran away, but if they are running, why were all the bodies side-by-side?” he asked.

After the shooting, the CAFGU squad’s commander, Special Forces Tech. Sgt. G. Puede, was called to the scene. In a brief interview at his barracks in Mambucal, Puede said his men were investigating reports that the NPA was collecting illegal taxes on the hacienda.

“My man engaged the enemy,” said Puede. “They were armed with a revolver and a hand grenade.”

He refused to discuss the case further.

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Villagers insist they saw no gun or grenade. And Puede apparently never mentioned the weapons to his superior officer, Army 1st Lt. Cirilito E. Sobejana, who arrived later to investigate.

In the end, no action was taken. Sioco hides with friends in Bacolod. The Cat continues on duty. No charges were filed.

At Hacienda Azcuna, a winter breeze rustles the endless stalks of cane, like fat sizzling on a broiler. Water buffalo wallow in muddy ponds, submerged except for horns, eyes and noses. Barefoot children chew cane to stave off hunger. Their parents use machetes to cut the cane, then load it on their backs, just as generations before them. Dark heavy clouds fill the sky.

“What can we do?” asked Nulina Estrella, 54, who cuts cane with her husband, two children and father. “Men come in uniforms. I don’t know if they are military or NPA. We are just the victims in the middle.”

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