By Devin Watkins
Philippine authorities carried out a joint military and police operation on 30 December in the city of Tapaz, which lies on the island of Panay in Capiz province.
Authorities were seeking the arrest of what they deemed “high-value personalities” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army, over alleged possession of explosives and firearms.
They claim nine members of the group resisted arrest and opened fire on law enforcement officers before police shot and killed them. Another 18 people were taken into custody in the operation.
Those killed were leaders of the Tumandok indigenous communities.
Eyewitnesses, however, dispute the official version of the events, and say the men were unarmed and offered no resistance.
In response, Cardinal Jose Advincula of Capiz, along with seven other Catholic Bishops from nearby dioceses, issued a pastoral letter calling for an independent investigation.
In the letter dated 15 January, the Bishops supported claims that the victims were unjustly killed.
“The families counterclaimed that the victims did not resist arrest,” they wrote. “The firearms and explosives were planted. The victims were murdered.”
Criticizing a local dam project
Rights groups in the Philippines say the government often alleges that indigenous leaders fighting for the rights of tribal people are members of the Communist Party.
The indigenous leaders had recently voiced opposition to the construction of a large dam, which would impact the community’s ancestral lands.
Cardinal Advincula and the other Bishops said the killings were meant to whip up fear among indigenous communities.
At least 500 people fled their homes in the wake of the violence.
“This atrocity has created a climate of fear and uncertainty among residents in Tumandok communities,” the Bishops said. “Fear has forced many to seek safety elsewhere.”
Protect human rights
The recent violence is part of a long-running trend of extrajudicial killings, which has seen many social leaders killed by police on questionable grounds.
In this vein, the Bishops of the Western Visayas urged security forces to strictly observe ethical standards and rules-of-engagement when they serve warrants.
They also suggest police wear body cameras to protect civilians from any type of abuse.