GUIHULNGAN City in Negros Oriental, is a place that makes it to the news only when something extremely bad happens. Like when four-year-old Althea FhemBarbon was accidentally killed by the police in an anti-drug operation in September 2016. Or when in May 2015 Barangay Tacpao became the scene of a gruesome double murder with arson.
However, the July 21 ambush by the communist New People’s Army of a Guihulngan City councilor and the responding police force, that cost the lives of one civilian and six policemen, including the chief of police himself, outdid the previous incidents in brutality and loss of lives. This was an unprovoked and treacherous act of the NPA that served no other purpose to the perpetrators than to parade their firepower and their utter lack of respect for human life.
Looking back to early 2016, the NPA stubbornly remained a significant threat in Guihulngan City when the rest of the Visayas (excluding Samar) had either no more rebels or negligible numbers only. Somehow, the NPA had become part of the history and tradition of the city, with some relatives of NPA rebels taking pride in family ties. For some NPA members, the life of an outlaw is a way of life which they don’t want to part with. Also, old folks haven’t forgotten the abuses committed by the army decades ago. Despite the passage of years, there is still hatred in some hearts.
Another factor is the lack of government services. Beyond the main highway, Guihulngan City’s roads are mostly in very poor condition. Transportation of persons and goods to and from villages that are not located along these few good roads, is difficult and expensive. Only the most dedicated of government officials will brave the bad roads often enough to give meaningful service to the remote communities. School teachers spend much of their salaries on costly habal-habal rides to and from school—and during the rainy season, the deep mud makes it impossible for even motorcycles to pass.
There are schools whose classrooms were severely damaged by the 6.2-magnitude earthquake on February 6, 2012, schools that haven’t been provided new buildings. Construction, like everything else, is hampered by the absence of passable roads.Of course, Guihulngan City is not unique when it comes to this problem. It’s ironic that we are talking about connecting the Visayan islands with gigantic bridges, while so many rural communities lack farm-to-market roads.
Differences between the provincial government—headed by Gov. Roel Degamo—and Guihulngan City Mayor Carlo Jorge Joan “Guido” Reyes is reportedly one reason why Guihulngan City is not getting its share of government projects. While the NPA in Guihulngan City is mostly considered bandits even by the local folks, lack of government services to remote areas is really a convenient excuse for the NPA’s presence. The NPA thrives in the inaccessible hinterlands.
Years ago, a candidate for mayor promised the NPA to have all army detachments pulled out if he was elected. He did win and the army was forced to leave the rebel-infested areas to their own devices, soldiers told me. Eventually, the barangays requested the return of the troops. The current mayor is, fortunately, more appreciative of the army. However, last August 2016, the Philippine Army’s 11th Infantry Battalion which had its headquarters in Guihulngan City, was redeployed to Zamboanga City as part of the national government’s war on the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu and Basilan. Since then, army troops have been few and scattered in Negros. This, and the seven-month ceasefire that ended in February, gave the NPA theopportunity to recover. If 60 rebels is an accurate count of the number of rebels involved in the July 21 ambush, then indeed the NPA in Guihulngan City has gained strength.
I have been to Marawi City, Ampatuan, Mt. Diwata and other places made ‘famous’ by war, insurgency and violent conflict, but it was in Guihulngan City that I experienced an ambush. On May 7, 2015, I was on my way back to the highway after attending the graduation of members of the Tacpao Farmers Association, who had just completed training in organic corn production, when suspected members of the NPA fired upon our convoy. The target seems to have been the commanding officer of the 11th Infantry Battalion. It was a so-called far ambush, probably done to harass rather than to kill, and nobody was hurt. I had to run down a slope and lie flat on the ground for about 30 minutes until troop reinforcements arrived and the attackers were forced to flee. Afterwards, one of the officers greeted me a happy birthday.
True, escaping death is like being born again. Supt. Arpon, his team and the civilians who were waylaid in Barangay Magsaysay, were not so fortunate. They walked into the NPA’s well-prepared, murderous trap.