In the popular and crowded bargains section of the Baguio city market, Romy Sanchez was buying gifts for his family when a single bullet in the head left him dead. As he fell forward, his blood spilling on the heap of clothes he had bought, the killer merged with the crowd. Not one among the stunned spectators could single out the assassin.
Several hours later, the Revolutionary Proletarian Army (RPA), a breakaway group of the New People's Army (NPA), issued a statement claiming responsibility for the incident. The Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) - a watchdog for government abuses in the region - alleges that the RPA serves as armed goons for many politicians in the country as well as the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Sanchez, a resident of Cabaroan, San Fernando, was the regional coordinator of the Bayan Muna, an NGO, and was a CHRA volunteer. He worked among the Ilocos peasants and was also a radio jockey. On March 9, 2005, when he was shot, Sanchez had arrived in Baguio City to attend a meeting with CHRA.
For Sanchez's widow and her five children, life has been harder since his death. A year has passed but the family continues to grieve. "My children miss their father. I have lost a lot. Romy was a very good person,' says Elvira Sanchez, close to tears. The eldest of the children is 13 while the youngest is only three.
Elvira is not alone in her plight.
Human rights activist Jose Pepe Manegdeg III from Pagudpod, Ilocos Norte, was killed on the night of November 28, 2005 along the national highway at Barangay San Nicolas, Ilocos Sur. He was on his way to Manila to fetch his wife, who was arriving from Hong Kong. Manegdeg was the Regional Coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Ilocos and Cordillera. He died at age 37, leaving behind his wife and their two very young daughters.
The day after Manegdeg was killed, Albert Terredano was murdered by unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle in Bangued, Abra, only a few meters from the Department of Agrarian Reform, where he worked. Terredano worked on issues related to the rights and welfare of peasants in Abra. He was the secretary-general of the Abra Human Rights Organization. He is survived by a wife and two children.
A common thread runs through the three killings - all three men were critical of President Gloria Arroyo's policies.
According to Beverly Longid, Vice-Chairperson of the CHRA, there have been 200 political killings since President Arroyo took over in 2001. None of the cases have been solved. Sanchez's killer remains at large. Manegdeg's and Terredano's cases are under investigation but with no developments or leads. More recently, in May 2006, Bayan Muna Coordinator Elena 'Baby' Mendiola and her husband Ric Balauag, Coordinator of Bayan Muna (Echague) were shot dead by unidentified men in Echague, Isabel.
The CHRA believes the killings are part of the dreaded 'Oplan Bantay Laya' of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, a five-year strategy of the government to destroy armed groups like the Abu Sayyaf and the New People's Army. The mandate, allege human rights' activists, seems to include silencing leaders of organizations opposing President Arroyo's administration and those that are branded as 'left-leaning'.
The president, according to Longid, has named Cordillera People's Alliance (CPA), Bayan Muna and other progressive groups as "enemies of the state", lumping these together with terrorist organizations. Perhaps, this was a reason why the government issued no condemnation of the killings. "For how shall we construe her [Arroyo's] silence over these killings, if not as tolerance or even encouragement?" reads the joint statement issued by Bayan Muna and Cordillera.
Members of various peoples' organizations have accused the government of intense surveillance and harassment of their leaders and members. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has also written to the government about the perceived surveillance. Some 150 international organizations also wrote letters of concern to the president and government officials, while over 300 international organizations affixed their signature to CPA's open letter of concern.
The barrage of letters seems to have had some effect. This March, the Philippine National Police Chief, Arturo Lomibao, has instructed the Baguio police to investigate the matter. But is he merely going through the motions? Only time can tell.