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The Soldiers Have Come to Town

A banner by a war evacuees camp urges the end of war, MAguindanao 2008

I did hear it right over the airwaves six months ago. The baker’s assistant and the fruit vendor across the street have confirmed they also heard: military troops were to be deployed into the heart of this friendly and peaceful city of Cagayan de Oro, from August 2013 to April 2014.

But, no, the townsfolk did not build the honky-tonk and the videoke bars nor the stalls selling funky souvenirs. For unlike in other host cities, these uniformed women and men were not foreign troops (read: American) on an R & R furlough under the Visiting Forces Agreement. The soldiers were our very own, from the barracks at Camp Evangelista, and belonged to the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The troops -- nine combatants for each village -- set up detachments for half a year in six villages within the city’s commercial and industrial centers.

In the absence of running battles in this City of Golden Friendship, what impulse brought the troops to go bivouacking in the midst of our neighborhoods?

Had the armed Far Left, a.k.a. the Reds, burrowed deep into this urban jungle and need flushing out so as to contain an imminent ideological contagion? Or, was there A-1 information that the Moro National Liberation Front will also attempt to seize this city as they have tried in Zamboanga City?

My skepticism revolved around its possible consequences. Won’t sudden deployment have made the city and its populace unwilling targets of attack from the armed dissidents against the state, unwittingly bringing the countryside war to the city? For if the soldiers have arrived, would the rebels not be far behind? But wait, should it not be the other way around?

True, the clashes between the government troops and the rebels in Misamis Oriental’s towns have come increasingly closer. In January last year, the rebels raided a pineapple plantation owned by a multinational corporation in Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon, an hour or so from here. In May last year, Ruth Guingona, the 78-year-old matriarch of Gingoog City, survived an ambush staged by the communist rebels that killed her two aides. In June, there was a series of clashes between communist rebels and the government forces in Claveria town, about 45 kilometers away. But skirmishes like these had flared up now and then in those places for the past three decades and never had the rebels entered the city gates in droves in the past 20 years.

Despite the proximity of these clashes, there is no indication that the rebels are now capable of engaging in urban guerilla warfare. The 40 remote rural villages of the city bordering the island’s remaining forests are the most likely sites to become rebel strongholds, not the city’s industrial and financial centers.

A report in a city daily quoted the army spokesperson that the project is “an offshoot of a terroristic act,” the bombing at a mall restaurant on July 26th last year that killed eight and wounded almost 50. Another report showed that the project had the imprimatur of the local government as well as the city’s peace, security and development council.The approval lent an ironic light to previous local government’s effort to de-militarize portions of the province of Misamis Oriental in 2009, only to introduce militarism right in the city.

Indeed, what were the terms of this “people-centered” engagement? What about the constitutional tenet of civilian supremacy over martial rule? Were the citizens forewarned and was their consent asked before the campaign began? I did not hear a single chirp from the moderate nor the militant activists and human-rights defenders in the first few weeks of the campaign. But later, underground leaders issued predictable denouncements . A leader of GABRIELA, the country’s militant women’s organization, and who lives in one of the six target communities later complained of harassment and surveillance. Other militant leaders described the project as (a form of) urban militarization.

Dubbed as Bayanihan Alert for Peace and Development, the deployment was “part of the reformed Operation Plan Bayanihan, the military’s Internal Peace and Security Plan, a new counter-insurgency strategy, being implemented by the Benigno Aquino administration from 2011-2016.’’

The Oplan emphasizes human security and development, assured the army spokesman over the radio in late August last year. He further said that this (project) will not take away tasks assigned to the civilian police. They are soldiers of peace, according to the spokesperson, “an augmentation of forces in the community, channeling development and providing feedback from the field.” He continued, “They will be involved inkokabildo (conversations) with the grassroots and later in dayalogo (dialogues) with other stakeholders.”

While it might appear to anti-military critics as camouflaged intelligence-gathering and mapping instead of community immersion, the project could have prefigured, nay, even reconfigured, the possible fortified, “non-traditional role” of the armed forces, even outside conflict and post-conflict areas, even straying into the civilian area of law enforcement.

It could have offered an opportunity for the military’s redemption after years of tarnished reputation by allegations of human rights violations, particularly in having a hand in the disappearance and killings of militant activists.

How did this concern for community development translate into the deployed soldiers’ everyday regimen? In the hinterlands, when the fighting lulled, the soldiers helped communities build clinics, waterworks, sanitary toilets, irrigation canals and school buildings. How did the soldiers-citizenry dialogues elevate the defense of human rights? And how does this deployment bring forth the nurturance of the International Humanitarian Law, rule of law and due process?

More importantly, it is vital to mention here that the Philippines is a signatory of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 . The international statute recognizes and ensures the protection of women’s human rights and empower women to participate actively and meaningfully in the areas of peacebuilding, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction. As a signatory, the country is the first in Asia to complete a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, setting in motion the operationalization of UNSCR 1325 (and 1820, a related statute) from 2010 to 2016.

Among the five-year Action Plan’s strategies is the integration of a gender perspective and agenda in policies and programs on peace and human rights. I understand that the military and police sectors have been tasked to include the strategies of the action plan in all its programs. The plan further calls for the involvement of women community members as stakeholders. What was/were the role(s) of women, as stakeholders, implementers and beneficiaries, in Bayanihan Alert? Were there efforts to ensure the integration of the Action Plan on UNSCR1325 into the day-to-day activities of the soldiers with the community?

Until these questions are addressed, from a gender perspective, Bayanihan Alert for Peace and other military-initiated endeavors outside conflict zones and post-conflict areas might as well be as ambitious as they are insidiously ambiguous.

This Opion-Editorial piece is part of the assignments for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Soldiers pause by the roadside to prepare their meal before dark, Maguindanao 2008
Soldiers set aside their guns to prepare a meal
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