August 9, 2019Bishop Gerardo Alminaza’s candid social media posts give a picture of the ups and downs of his days as shepherd to a besieged flock in San Carlos Diocese on the central Philippine island of Negros.
The prelate, who has just turned 60, wears a peacekeeper’s heavy mantle.
The four million residents of the country’s fourth-largest island are caught in the middle as President Rodrigo Duterte and communist guerrillas face off with each other.
Duterte ignored Bishop Alminaza’s call for a ceasefire amid a bloodletting that killed 21 civilians in less than two weeks last month.
Instead, the president threatened emergency rule “to replicate the atrocious acts done by communist rebels to the civilians,” though there remains no clear proof of rebel attacks against non-combatants.
Duterte also dangled a US$100,000 “dead or alive” reward for the killers of four police officers ambushed on July 18.
Bishop Alminaza meditated on the need for patience and poise in facing dark days. He offered quotes from inspirational Catholic authors.
From the late American bishop and theologian Fulton J. Sheen: “Patience is not the absence of action; rather, it is the power of right action — it waits on the right time to act, based on the right principles and executed on the right strategies.”
From the late Italian Catholic activist Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement that promotes the ideals of unity and universal brotherhood: “God allows moment of darkness, of agitation, and bitterness, so that we might know who we are and, conscious of our misery, and of our nothingness, we might throw ourselves back onto Him, with total trust only in Him.”
One more post states that a moment of patience can ward off disaster while the opposite may ruin lives.
A day after Duterte’s threat, Bishop Alminaza issued his strongest statement yet. He criticized the deployment of 300 crack policemen on the island and urged the president to “address the roots of armed conflict.”
“Martial law is neither the answer to centuries-old agrarian problems nor to decades of armed rebellion,” said the bishop.
His passionate defense of human rights and the dignity of life echo that of the late bishop, Antonio Fortich of Bacolod.
In the 1970s, Bishop Fortich had called Negros “a social volcano” because an economy based on a single plantation crop, sugar cane, had spawned obscene contrasts between the lives of a handful of families and hundreds of thousands of field hands and mill workers.
The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ ruthless response to workers’ struggles fueled rebellion and built a bastion for the communist underground.
Duterte has vowed to bring back those old scorched earth tactics.
President Corazon Aquino succeeded Marcos in 1986 after the peaceful “people power” revolt. She brought sugar land under agrarian reform. But she saddled the measure with loopholes benefiting landowners, including her wealthy clan.
Today, 98,000 hectares of agricultural land remain undistributed on Negros, which provides 45 percent of the country’s sugar produce.
Only 1,860 individuals own 34 percent of more than 424,000 hectares of sugar land. More than 53,000 workers own only 35 percent.
Many agrarian reform beneficiaries, bereft of government support systems, have ceded back control of land.
Many of the island’s 385,000 farm workers are employed for only six to nine months a year, often on a piecemeal basis, in some cases earning less than US$3 a day.
Bishop Alminaza has many reasons to pray for fortitude. In six months from September 2018 to March 2019, three massacres snuffed out the lives of 29 men from towns in his diocese, which spans the border towns of the island’s two provinces. All were sugar workers and small farmers. All were breadwinners, barely earning enough to feed their families.
They were either struggling for the right to own land they had tilled for decades or helping others to do the same.
In 10 days in July, 21 more men were gunned down in his diocese. The targets were now mostly from the “middle class”: a lawyer, educator siblings, village chiefs, a councilor, a former mayor, a father and his child.
Police and military units had tagged most as either communists or rebel supporters. Several were publicly threatened with death by vigilante groups.
Rights groups link the murder spree to Duterte’s Memorandum 22, signed in November 2018, to “suppress lawless violence” in the island’s two provinces.
The practical expression of Duterte’s order is conflating activism with terrorism. He has blamed communists for exploiting land unrest by instigating a farmers’ campaign to occupy undistributed land.
Despite these draconian measures, Duterte missed his mid-June 2019 deadline to crush the 50-year-old communist rebellion.
He is expected to step up the use of urban drug war tactics, with death squads providing proxy services in provincial centers as two army brigades conduct sweeps of suspected guerrilla zones.
But he now faces a New People’s Army (NPA) that has expanded enough to put up rural shadow governments.
Duterte, who used to taunt guerrillas about not being able to hold a single slice of Philippine territory, now says the left has formed “quasi governments” in the Negros countryside.
An NPA statement released on July 23 could explain the reason for Duterte’s ire. It hailed the completion on July 21 of an island conference of some 200 leaders of underground mass organizations from the peasants, the youth, women “and support groups from the ranks of the middle forces” — a phrase used to describe professionals and small business owners.
The rebel group said local guerrillas, a village defense unit and a people’s militia stood guard.
On the day rebels released the statement, the last series of attacks on civilians started with the ambush of lawyer Anthony Trinidad.
Following Duterte’s threat, the NPA pledged to fight for civilians and step up attacks against the military, police and death squads, suspected to be former rebels.
Bishop Alminaza warned the rebels and other groups against countering violence with violence.
“Our people have suffered more than enough. Let us stop the cycle of violence by going back to the negotiating table and pursue a just and lasting peace,” he said.
“Yes, we understand the animosities and anger between state forces and rebels. Both sides are burning with rage and desire for revenge.”
He warned that a “militarist approach of governance, or pessimism to the attainment of peace” would only worsen conflict and add to the burdens of the poor.