The past few months have been rather violent here on Negros, with a number of bloody encounters occurring between the New People’s Army and the Philippines armed forces. A few weeks back, things went from bad to worse with the targeted shootings of a number of politicians up in the central part of the province. The NPA has also been active up and around Santa Catalina on the western side of the island and Bindoyand Manjuyod to the east, which is only a few hours north of Dumaguete City. This past summer, fourteen farmers and activists were killed on March 31st for allegedly resisting arrest in those areas. Five months earlier in Sagay City, a further nine farmers who were members of the Philippines National Federation of Sugarcane Workers were killed. This past year, in fact, has been a fury of violent activity, with farmers, politicians, police and soldiers all being killed in the ongoing fighting.
Numerous foreigners have been messaging the latest body counts to me as they are being released by the media outlets and/or Facebook. They are concerned about the escalating violence, but being men of manly meins, they haven’t yet fessed up to being scared. Fear isn’t a bad thing, actually – and it provides an excellent impetuous for continued survival. Part of that whole “Darwinian Evolution” thing, methinks. Some foreigners are leaving and some are talking of the same. A few (mostly Americans) have mentioned not being able to have firearms in the Philippines and are feeling a bit defenseless. There has been much talk of martial law being declared on Negros, but President Duterte has strongly denied that he would do so.
After having looking into things a bit, I can personally state that I am not overly concerned about the current state of affairs. I will, however, think twice before journeying out through the interior of Negros where conflicts between the NPA and government forces seem to be ongoing. Just last year, for example, a tourist was wounded during a firefight up in Sipalay. So, I guess that counts as a travel advisory of sorts.
Beyond the dead and the digital prayers being offered up on Facebook to an end of the hostilities, the violence begs the question, why? Why is this happening and how can it be stopped?
WOE TO LIVE ON SUGAR MOUNTAIN
Following a bit of research, it seems that much of the problem on Negros island (AKA Sugar Island) seems to revolve around sugar plantation owners and their workers. Specifically and to that point, it has to do with farmers ‘squatting’ in the sugar cane fields during the post- harvest ‘dead season’ (tiempo muerte) and planting crops and the plantation owner’s resulting rage at them for doing so. As for the shootings, they seem to be coming from armed ‘security forces’ that target the squatting farmers and the New People’s Army who seem to target politicians, police and soldiers in retaliation. The problems on Negros between the plantation owners and workers have been going on for decades, with many saying that unfair labor practices have kept the island locked into a feudal system that is rife for reform. One of the groups pushing for such reform is the New People’s Army.
The NPA is the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Originally based on Maoist doctrine, is was formed in March of 1969 with the goal of overthrowing the government. The founder of the NPA, Jose Maria Sison, lives in exile in the Netherlands along with ally Luis Jalandi who serves as the director of the political wing. At last count, the NPA had about 10,000 active militia, down from 25,000 at its height in the 1980’s. The NPA usually operates in mountainous rural areas but also has a number of urban cells that target and eliminate politicians, judges, police, soldiers and informants. The group has long decried the presence of US military forces in the Philippines and has attacked and killed US servicemen. Reports in 1992 and late 2001 indicated that the NPA was specifically targeting US military engaged in joint training exercises. They also took credit for the assassination of U.S. Army Colonel James “Nick” Rowe in 1989, the creator of the American military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) course. The NPA supports itself by collecting ‘revolutionary taxes’ from businesses and cooperative politicians. They have long had a holding in the central mountain areas of Negros Oriental and have been supportive of agrarian reform in increasing quality of life for plantation workers.
The governments of both the Philippines and the United States consider both the CPP and the NPA as terrorist groups.
Negros is rather infamous for the feudal system being run across many of its massive sugar plantations. Minimum wage for agricultural workers on Negros is supposed to be 244 pesos ($5 USD) but many workers complain of having to accept 100 pesos a day just to be able to feed their families. And that 100 pesos in in the harvest season – following harvest, wages are even lower. Enforcement of the minimum wage law has long been stymied by predatory pakyawan/contract agreements, a practice that President Duterte has vowed to eradicate across the nation.
In desperation, the workers seek to survive through bungkalan, planting cash crops on the plantation owners land in between season. The workers see this as central to their survival while the wealthy plantation owners see it as a property violation. Tensions mount, escalate, and then people start dying. Such incidents between laborers and landholders result in incidents such as the Sagay massacre.
The President of the Philippines is still in the process of land reform. Thousands of hectares have been given out to poor farmers across the nation but a good amount still has yet to be distributed. As of six months ago, for example, 125,000 hectares had yet to be distributed on Negros. Steps are also being taken to liberalize sugar production, which the government contends will benefit both the workers and the plantation owners. This progress, however is balanced against the threat of ongoing hostilities, with President Duterte ordering squatting farmers arrested – by extreme force, if necessary.