By ANNE MARXE D. UMIL
Covering the Abra elections, I felt both excitement and anxiety because the violence surrounding local politics there has been regular fare for the news since last year. But surprisingly, the anticipated violence did not happen. Political analysts and election observers said that it was unusual that the voting in Abra last May 10 was generally peaceful. However, not all is well in Abra, despite its seemingly peaceful facade.
Upon arriving in Abra, the air was heavy with tension making it difficult to breathe. By 5:00 p.m. of May 9, stores were already closed, and public transport could hardly be found, with only a few brave nay desperate souls plying their usual routes.
Abra is considered as one of the most critical election hotspots and was placed under the Comelec’s control because of its history of election-related violence. During the 2007 elections, 16 percent of the cases of election-related violence nationwide occurred in the said province. The warring clans – the Valeras, the Lunas and the Bersamins – their private armed groups, and the intensified militarization in remote areas of the province are said to be the causes of fear among the people of Abra.
Military and Police Everywhere
Even before the voting started, fully-armed soldiers and police officers could be seen everywhere. In the provincial capitol building, soldiers were walking around carrying M-16 rifles and a lot of ammunition. The Comelec Regional Office was heavily guarded by policemen also carrying M-16 rifles.
When a team of foreign election observers from the People’s International Observers’ Mission (PIOM) visited the house of Congresswoman Cecilia Seares-Luna, their driver, who they hired from the locals, was threatened and harassed by the guards of Luna. The next day, the driver did not show up anymore leaving the team with no driver.
Everywhere the team of foreign election observers went, they were followed by soldiers and policemen who constantly took their pictures. The people they interviewed said the province looked peaceful during daytime but wait till the night comes. True enough, Bangued, the capital of Abra was a ghost town at night.
By the night of May 10 election day, aside from the media and foreign observers, only those who had something to do with the elections such as poll watchers and members of the Board of Election Inspectors dared walk the streets of Bangued. Doors were locked and residents turned off the lights in their houses. No one was willing to drive the team of foreign observers to the canvassing area.
Suddenly the delegation from the PIOM saw three men in civilian clothes carrying envelopes trying to enter the provincial capitol building. As if on cue, the whole of Bangued was enveloped in darkness as a power outage occurred. Soldiers rushed to the provincial capitol building. After a few moments, the soldiers and their armed personnel carrier, which was stationed at the town plaza were suddenly gone.
According to the PIOM’s local host, something must have happened on the night when the election results should have been transmitted to the capitol.
Worsening Peace and Order
“The PNP Task Force Abra, which was organized in 2001 to go after private armed groups, has been augmented by forces from the Cordillera Regional Mobile Group and the PNP’s elite Special Action Force,” Diego Wadagan said in a May 3 statement. Wadagan is the spokesperson of the Agustin Begnalen command of the New People’s Army.
According to Wadagan, 800 additional troops were deployed in Abra in response to the election-related violence, “highlighted by the involvement of key political figures in the province such as the Luna clan.”
He also said the heavy presence of the police and the military in the province has not improved the peace and order situation in Abra. Military and police officials, Wadagan said, tolerate and support the warlords in the province. They even commit crimes and disturbances in communities, Wadagan added.
“In most incidents of election-related violence, PNP personnel were either involved or were in the vicinity of the scene of the crime but did not act or respond to calls for help. Local police are scared to go against the powerful clans,” said Wadagan.
However, even before the military troops were augmented and the election-related violence intensified, the people were already living under a climate of fear.
In the course of military operations directed at crushing the insurgency, the 503rd Brigade’s 41st and 50th Infantry Battalion have been committing human rights violations. Wadagan said the 503rd brigade employ terror tactics such as indiscriminate bombing, artillery, shelling and strafing. Locals were harassed and accused of being members of the NPA or its supporters; some were tortured and hurt in the process.
Wadagan said virtual martial law exists in the province, especially in Malibcong, where a second team of PIOM delegates went. He said curfews are in effect. Freedom of movement is also curtailed and peasants are required to obtain permits to be able to tend to their farms and their work animals. They also have to acquire permits to visit the capital city Bangued. Cell phone calls and common community gatherings and activities are also being monitored.
He also said that community leaders or anyone who questions the activities and intentions of the AFP are harassed, photographed and regularly “invited for questioning” or are “visited” in their homes anytime by soldiers.
He also said soldiers are circulating pictures of individuals who they accuse of having links to the revolutionary movement to force them to ‘surrender’ or become targets of attack.
Marcelo Cawasan a member of Kastan, a Cordiellera People’s Alliance chapter in Abra and Irine Timbresa of Abra Human Rights Advocates, both local activists, were branded as enemies of the state and are included in a slide show presentation prepared by the AFP entitled Knowing the Enemy.
“Ironically, the PNP and the 503rd Brigade are heralded as the peacekeepers of Abra when it is they who are in cahoots with private armed groups being ran by power-hungry warlord-politicians. These so-called law enforcers and peacekeepers are actually law-breakers and criminals working hand in glove with corrupt politicians and destructive large-scale mining firms,” Wadagan concluded. (Bulatlat.com)