MANILA - The killing of 14 individuals in Negros Oriental might be connected to the government's moves against communist rebels and land ownership issues in the region, a leader of a farmers' group said Wednesday.
Negros region remains the "hacienda capital of the Philippines," with much of the land owned and controlled by "hacienderos" decades after the presidential decree and agrarian reform law that ordered the redistribution of lands to independent farmers, said Danilo Ramos, chairperson of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP).
"Tingin namin, may kaugnayan sa lupa at pagtatanggol ng magsasaka kaugnay ng karapatan sa lupa ang nangyari sa 14 na na-massacre," he told ANC's Early Edition.
(We think the massacre of 14 people is related to land and the fight of farmers for land rights.)
Ramos said their group also believes it could be linked to law enforcers' "counter-insurgency" measures. The fatalities, he said, are not members of the New People's Army and are officers of their regional contingent.
He said President Rodrigo Duterte issued Memorandum Order No. 32 calling for the deployment of additional police and military forces in Samar, Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, and the Bicol Region.
But the police operations that left the 14 individuals dead were"just part of the law enforcement function" of the Philippine National Police, said spokesman Bernard Banac when asked if it was an offshoot of Duterte's order.
Banac said the operations were covered by search warrants issued by local courts on suspicion that the subjects were involved in previous cases of ambushes and were hiding contraband.
"Iyung isinagawa ng ating PNP roon ay bahagi lamang ng ating tungkulin. Regardless ng affiliation ng suspects ay magsasaka, sila ba ay New People’s Army, kahit elected officials, kahit pulis, walang exempted kapag mayroong paglabag sa batas," he said in the same interview.
There was no intention to kill and the perception of critics that it was a massacre was far from the truth, said Banac.
"Hindi ganito ang nangyari sa police operation. Magkakahiwalay 'yung mga lugar na 'yun at nagkaroon ng mga pag-aresto at maayos ang lahat, tinrato ng maayos at nasa booking procedures sila ngayon. Well, kinalulungkot natin na mayroong nangyaring namatay," he said.
(This is not what happened in the police operation. It happened in different places and there were arrests, all done well, treated well, and they are undergoing booking procedures. We are saddened that there were deaths.)
The PNP's Internal Affairs Service is currently investigating the matter, and Police General Oscar Albayalde has relieved the heads of police of Negros Oriental province and 3 towns to ensure impartiality.
For Ramos, the sacking of these police officers was not enough.
"Dapat magkaroon ng independent investigation at kailangang managot ang nag-mastermind at nagpatupad," he said.
(There should be an independent investigation and the mastermind and culprits should be made accountable.)