Duterte identifies party-list groups as ‘legal fronts of the communists’
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday night lashed out at activist party-list groups, accusing them of acting as “legal fronts” of the half-a-century communist insurgency.
Duterte vented his ire on these groups during his weekly update on quarantine restrictions — and in the wake of the outrage on social media prompted by a photograph of Army soldiers posing with the body of Jevilyn Cullamat, a rebel killed in a recent encounter and daughter of a party list lawmaker.
Jevilyn, 22, was killed when a 12-man Army Special Forces team clashed for about 45 minutes with New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in the mountains of Marihatag town, Surigao del Sur province, on Nov. 28. According to a military report, she was a medic for the rebels.
The Army’s 3rd Special Forces “Arrowhead” Battalion on Sunday afternoon sent out information on Jevilyn’s death. Attached with the press release were three photos, including one of members of the Army unit, whose faces were blurred, posing with the rebel’s body and the firearms they seized from the NPA rebels.
But the unit later advised the media to refrain from making the photo public.
The slain rebel’s mother, Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat, condemned the desecration of her daughter’s body, calling as “vultures” the soldiers who made a trophy out of her bloodied corpse.
Amid the reaction to the photograph, Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesperson, “vehemently denied” that Jevilyn’s body was used as a war trophy.
“The matter is already being investigated. And the one who caused that faces sanctions,” he said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana himself said: “We will study how we can preserve the dignity (of the dead) and the privacy of the families. They (slain enemy fighters) have families. They just did not materialize out of nowhere.”
But Duterte’s remarks in his televised address to the nation on Monday night were in contrast to those of his defense officials.
“These legal fronts of the communists, all of them, Makabayan, Bayan — they are all legal fronts. Gabriela,” he said in Filipino and English.
“We are not red-tagging you, we are identifying you as members in a grand conspiracy comprising all the legal fronts that they have organized, headed by the NDF (National Democratic Front) and the New People’s Army, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).”
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines is very correct. You are being identified as members of the communist so we know. That’s the truth,” the President also said.
He also vented his ire, in particular, on Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, saying, among other things, “When I see you on TV, it’s like I see dog [poop].”
Zarate earlier said his group was bracing for the military’s intensified Red-tagging of the six progressive lawmakers by using Jevilyn’s death as propaganda.
“Jevilyn’s death is a stark reminder instead to government that people continue to embrace armed struggle because of the continuous failure to address the root causes of the rebellion in our country,” he said.
He added: “Landlessness, joblessness, massive poverty, oppression, injustice and exploitation are the many reasons that fuel the armed conflict. These cannot be solved by more human rights violations, including McCarthyist witchhunting. These social issues can be addressed by the peace negotiations that we have been advocating to be resumed.”
Makabayan said the involvement of Cullamat’s daughter in the communist insurgency was not a basis to continue Red-tagging progressive lawmakers.
In a statement, Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite countered Lorenzana’s claim that Jevilyn’s death proved the Makabayan bloc’s link to the NPA as “nothing but a straw man meant to divert from the real issues at hand.”
“Instead of asking legitimate and duly elected lawmakers in Congress whether we are linked to the CPP-NPA-NDF or not, why not ask why our countrymen continue to join the NPA? Let us address the root of armed conflict instead of forcing us to participate in a national circus of baseless and dangerous accusations,” Gaite said.
He noted that Jevilyn “chose differently” from her mother but her choice is “as legitimate as any lumad like her who, after seeing the horrors of military abuse in the countryside and the oppression of her people, saw no other alternative but to wage armed struggle with the NPA.”
Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay called on the public to accord respect to the Cullamat family “for them to properly grieve for Jevilyn” and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) to “stop using this tragedy to weave another one of your lies.”
Cullamat said she respected Jevilyn’s choice to join the armed struggle because of the injustices committed against the “lumad” (indigenous people) she had witnessed.
Arevalo earlier explained that “the photo was taken for reporting and documentation purposes that is required after every encounter.”
“It was not meant to scoff at the dead or demean the remains whose identity [was] not known to the soldiers. And to be able to identify her, soldiers had to carry the dead body for half a day of hike from the site of the encounter where she was left behind by her NPA comrades to the lowland,” he said in a statement.
He expressed condolences with the Cullamat family and called on the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA to put an end to their insurgency to stop the killings. “If they continue their armed struggle, it would mean endless deaths for youth enticed to join the NPA,” he said.
Lorenzana said that while he agreed with the concerns over the photograph, the death of a daughter of the Bayan Muna lawmaker in an armed encounter also proved that there was basis in linking members of the Makabayan bloc to the CPP-NPA and “the armed struggle.”
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on Monday said it would investigate Jevilyn’s death.
“It is a cause for concern when representatives of the government treat the death of another Filipino as victory. Time and again, we have condemned armed conflict because, in the end, nobody really wins, especially when it leads to ruined lives and communities,” said CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia.
But De Guia stopped short of calling it a war crime, saying she trusted that all involved parties “adhered to international humanitarian law in limiting the effects of armed conflict.”
—With reports from Julie M. Aurelio and Leila B. Salaverria
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