HomeFeaturesSpecial Report: The civilian cost of military operations in Aurora

Special Report: The civilian cost of military operations in Aurora

A month after the reported indiscriminate firing in several communities in Aurora, civilians continue to suffer from the trauma and economic disruption caused by the focused military operations (FMOs) in the province.

Angelita Gordolan-Capinlac, a resident of Diaat, Maria Aurora, revealed during a recent fact-finding mission that they are still unable to work in the farmlands of Aurora since the soldiers are still in the area.

“Men have not been able to go back to the farm and our children are already starving, all because we are prohibited to continue our only livelihood in our farms in the mountains,” Capinlac said in Filipino.

Capinlac and her husband Eduardo Ortiz tried to stay afloat by asking for support from her family. Before the operations, they earned P10,000 ($171.20) every harvest season in a five-hectare coconut plantation owned by a local politician. This year, they were unable to harvest their crops. They usually harvest up to twice a year, giving them a maximum income of P20,000 ($342.41) per year.

In a statement, the Central Luzon chapter of Karapatan said that indiscriminate firing and military bombing were reported by the residents in the province, prompting them to lead the fact-finding mission.

Aurora situation

The province of Aurora has been declared to be in a state of internal peace and security by the Provincial Peace and Order Council (PPOC) this year. The National Intelligence Coordinating Agency-Central Luzon (NICA-3) attributed this declaration to the FMOs under the Peace, Law Enforcement, and Development Support in the province which started in 2021.

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FMOs are “combat operations complemented by a wide array of non-combat initiatives to shape the operational environment as well as to preempt the escalation or emergence of armed conflict,” according to the terms of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Armed encounters between the 91st Infantry Battalion-Philippine Army (IBPA) and the New People’s Army (NPA) were reported on May 20 and 21, 2024 in the barangays of Totoyan and Salay in Dipaculao, Aurora. Karapatan reported cases of indiscriminate firing, a violation of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as it affects civilian communities.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development’s (DSWD) situation report said that a total of 3,633 families or 12,814 individuals were affected in 14 barangays of Dipaculao and Maria Aurora, Aurora.

Read: A week after military bombing, Aurora residents suffer from trauma

The military’s 91st IBPA said that the encounter started at 6:40 a.m on May 20 in Toytoyan, Dipaculao, Aurora. Capinlac started hearing the firing by 6 p.m on the same day. This means that the pursuit operations of the military against the NPA reached Diaat by night of the same day (See Map for reference).

Map: Proximity of the area from Toytoyan (ground zero of the encounter – May 20, AM)
to Diaat (Capinlac’s residence – May 20, PM)

There were consecutive encounters on May 21 in Barangay Salay, Dipaculao, Aurora, and another pursuit on May 28 in Barangay Bazal, Maria Aurora. The 91st IBPA used helicopters, as confirmed by witnesses. While the military dismissed any news about civilian casualties, the independent fact-finding team documented the following cases from the residents:

  • Hamletting in Barangay Diaat, Maria Aurora, Aurora: Hamletting is the practice of clearing an area of an alleged rebel presence and controlling the concentration of the population to gain strict military control.

    Diaat residents reportedly had very limited mobility and they were prohibited from going to their farmlands, resulting in hunger and livelihood losses for affected civilians. About 25 farm workers who are making brooms are allegedly affected by the prohibition.
  • Destruction of property in sitio Bulayde and barangay. Toytoyan, both situated in Dipaculao, Aurora: In separate instances, household roofs were damaged and a seven-year-old cow was slain. There was no compensation for the dead cow as of this writing but the roofs were reportedly fixed by the soldiers.

    According to the International Humanitarian Law, civilians and civilian properties should not be targeted by military operations, and should always be protected. In addition to this, a resident from barangay Salay, Dipaculao, Aurora also retrieved three unlabeled bullets as big as a palm from their farming site.
  • Forced evacuation in barangay Puangi, Dipaculao, Aurora: Some residents were threatened by a barangay official that if they did not evacuate from the area, the local government would not be responsible for any damages that would transpire in the area and they would not receive any socio-economic relief.

In the accounts, the residents were also fearful of retaliation from the military. Some of them were told not to get interviews from the media, nor report the damages in civilian structures. They also immediately cleared the remains of bullets on the roofs and in the farming sites, according to the residents.

Aside from these reports, the local government of Maria Aurora suspended classes and work at all levels at the time of heightened military clashes. “Children were worried and asking why they cannot go back to schools, their teacher said there are ongoing conflicts,” Capinlac said.

“Before, they were happy to follow the sound of helicopters. But now, the children are fearing it,” Capinlac added.

Karapatan reported that the military used two T129 ATAK helicopters which were optimized for attack, armed reconnaissance, precision strike, and deep strike missions.

Economic conditions

Rhea*, a peasant worker based in Diaat, relies on making brooms for income. One stick of broom costs P10 and every month, she can make around 100 sticks. She recounted that the military prohibited entry to the lands where she was working for two weeks.

“We suffer big losses in making brooms. After the two-week period of prohibition, we were allowed to go to the lands, but only [for] a limited time from 6 a.m., to 12 noon,” Rhea said in Filipino.

As the prohibition resulted in economic losses for the residents, poverty worsened. Rhea said that she wishes for the government to provide them with livelihood opportunities. “Making brooms is our sole livelihood. We have ‘mild’ earnings. We try to budget the little amount we receive from it.”

While Rhea was not allowed to go to the uplands to make brooms, she and other broom makers try to survive with the relief aid provided by DSWD and the local government. In detail, the relief package consisted of 5 kilos of rice, six packs of coffee, and canned goods, which Rhea tried to muddle through in a week.

In the regional-wide assessment of the DSWD in 2023, Aurora was among the provinces with the highest number of poor Indigenous people households, the highest number of poor households at 47 percent, and the highest percentage of poor households that do not have access to electricity (seven percent).

In addition to this, government data showed that about 5,000 families in Aurora were also affected by the recent El Niño, particularly its agriculture sector this year.

Arnold Gallardo, spokesperson of the regional peasant group Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luzon (AMGL), said that the farmers in the upland area experienced the most severe impacts of El Niño. He also highlighted that the dire conditions of the farmers have exacerbated due to the military operations in the province.

“We have experiences wherein animals and humans were hit by bullets. Their crops were not only the sole casualties of the focused military operations, but also had rippling effects on the morale of the residents, causing fear among the communities,” Gallardo said in Filipino.

“The military has been deploying detachments and establishing camps in the areas saturated by civilians,” Gallardo said, adding that the military should follow the IHL.

A look at the humanitarian violations

The IHL governs the laws of armed conflict between the state and non-state parties, highlighting the need for both parties to respect and protect civilians and prevent civilian casualties. The Philippines should follow the IHL as the state’s commitment to the international community through the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its Additional Protocols which serve as the main guideline and framework for the rules of war.

Through the fact-finding team in Aurora, the following potential violations of IHL were identified:

  • Article 13 of the Geneva’s Convention states that “the civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations.”
  • Article 14 mandates the protection of civilian objects, particularly those indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas, crops, livestock, drinking water installation, supplies, and irrigation.
  • Article 17 prohibits the displacement of civilian populations related to conflict. “Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition.”

While unidentified troops are still encamped in the area, the 91st IBPA has been organizing “peace forums” in the barangays of Maria Aurora and Dipaculao, to reportedly “save the masses from persuasions” of the NPA.

“The lectures served as eye-openers for the residents as the government troops revealed the CTG schemes on infiltrating the masses in their barangays. The concept is to increase awareness among them of the CTG’s deceptive recruitment scheme in their villages,” Lt. Col. Aries A. Quino said, acting commander officer of the 91st IBPA.

CTG (communist-terrorist group) is the term coined by the military to undermine the political objectives of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA.

Capinlac said that the so-called peace initiative of the military is harassing them. In fact, her husband was one of the victims of fake surrenders in the province in October 2020.

Capinlac personally handed the document to the fact-finding team, which stated that Ortiz and 23 others were CPP-NPA surrenderees who were withdrawing their support. The document was signed by barangay officials from Maria Aurora and military officers from the 91st IBPA.

This is not an isolated incident in Aurora. In the Bicol region, a special report by Bulatlat revealed that civilians were being harassed, forced, or being registered unknowingly as NPA surrenderees.

Read: Revealing the lies behind fake surrenders in Bicol

In the same peace forums, the military also distributed Enhance Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP) which supposedly “provides complete package of assistance to former rebels.” According to the government’s E-CLIP, each “rebel returnee” should receive P50,000 ($852.38) in livelihood assistance and P15,000 ($255.71) immediate assistance. However, the military has been previously accused of using the E-CLIP program for corruption and land-grabbing, accused by human rights groups.

Read: Dumagat paramilitary detained, accused of being NPA

“They are not surrenderers. My husband is a registered voter in our barangay and he was recently hospitalized due to his illnesses,” said Capinlac.

“If they want to conduct operations, they should do it with respect to our human rights, and not to the extent that children, elderly, and the sick are affected by it.” Capinlac said. “They are wasting their bullets in some areas. They are ruling our farming sites, when their enemy is not there.”

“We are calling on the government to stop these military operations… The residents are not armed,” Gallardo said. 

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