Rising violence, fear in Samar ahead of polls

SAMAR, Philippines – A climate of fear is taking hold in Samar.

In Calbayog City, over the last few months, there were stories of killings of ordinary civilians and some village officials, and the more recent killing of two village chiefs, Edgar Belleza of Carayman and Rio Lebario of Dagum, and councilor Dionesio Lungsod.

“Everyone has this uncomfortable feeling, a sense of being threatened,” said Gina Dean Ragudo, a resident of Calbayog City, and Bantay Bayanihan Leyte Convenor.

Violence is not a new phenomenon in Samar, especially when the political season is approaching. The Philippines will hold national and local elections on May 9, 2016.

According to Ragudo the escalating violence left residents in “a perpetual state of fear,” and made it impossible to go about their daily lives.

“We don’t know the actual cause of the enragement of these people. There are many rumors but we cannot know,” added Ragudo, who is also co-chair of the Samar Island Press Club.

Another resident of Calbayog, who requested anonymity, described regular scenes in the city at night. In order to avoid violence, residents begin closing shops early, and do anything possible to avoid being on the streets late at night.

Suspects of the violence are identified to be members of private armed groups, known as PAGs. Influential and prominent local politicians in Samar allegedly maintain and use these groups to rig polls.

PAGs are accused of harassing innocent civilians, and some identified leaders of rival political parties. In some cases, they subject people to acts of brutality.

Ragudo said that even journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians and the ordinary people in Samar fear for their lives. Some prefer to flee due to fear of political violence and intimidation.

Reportedly, PAGs in Samar kill many, displace a lot of families living in remote villages, and ravage the economy of the province, now one of the country's poorest. (READ: Samar's long wait for salvation

Samareños are getting poorer, victims of rampant corruption. Even its agriculture, the economy's mainstay, is struggling.

Local officials in Samar were reportedly unable to provide security, good roads, health, education, water and even a reliable power supply to some areas, especially in remote villages.  

Frustration drives many to join so-called “self-help” organizations, some of which are hostile to the state.

'Should we militarize Samar?'

Eastern Visayas Police Director Asher Dolina ordered his men to arrest the perpetrators, and emphasized crime prevention.

There are a lot of areas in Calbayog where the police and army patrol the streets. Despite the deployment of police and the presence of the army, the threat of killings is still present in Calbayog City, and in some other parts of Samar, and does not lower criminal activity.

Ragudo believes that unless issues of mismanagement and systemic corruption are addressed, the problem will persist.

“[The] local government must strengthen all its justice institutions and reestablish law enforcement credibility to provide legal certainty and also an assurance to ordinary people that they are protected,” Ragudo said.

Calbayog residents are religious, and the Catholic Church has a strong influence on the city.  Yet Ragudo believes that faith will have a marginal impact on the situation at best.

Bishop Isabelo Abarquez of the Diocese of Calbayog has condemned the series of killings, and called on authorities to conduct a thorough and speedy investigation to bring those responsible to justice. (READ: Bishops to Aquino: Stop Samar killings before polls)

Ragudo urged civil society groups advocating peace to hold a rally.

“This rally is a call for action by the community for the local officials, spiritual leaders, residents and law enforcement [officers] to meet and demand action, and send a strong message to all concerned to stop the wave of violence,’ Ragudo said.

“We have to be involved. It is our responsibility to make that call, and to stand up and do what is right,” she said.

Continued commitment to human rights, said Ragudo, will reinforce Samar stability and security. – Rappler.com