The Left Purges and their implications to Human Rights

, by GARCIA, “Bobby”

Speech delivered by Robert Francis Garcia on 16 February 2003 at the Anne Frank Lecture Series, sponsored by the Royal Dutch Embassy, San Agustin Museum, Intramuros.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I stand here before you to speak about something that had been kept in silence and had only been talked about in whispers; something so uncomfortable and fraught with uncertainty and difficulty. It is a subject that had to wait for more than a decade before people can face up to it and, hopefully, do something about.

It had been more than 14 years since the tragedy happened. More than seven years since I wrote about it in an article on a magazine[1]. And more than one year since I came out with the book that described it in detail, which drove the CPP-NPA frighteningly mad all over again.

But finally, we now seem to be getting somewhere.

I am talking about the Oplan Missing Link, a bloody internal purge committed by the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army in 1988 against suspected spies, or deep-penetration agents. In our reckoning, 121 persons fell victim to this purge — 66 were executed and 55 survived. Everyone was interrogated and tortured. I was one of those who came out of it alive.

But Oplan Missing Link was just one of the many anti-infiltration purges done by the CPP-NPA in the 1980s. There was Oplan Kadena de Amor in Southern Tagalog (1982), Kampanyang Ahos in Mindanao (1985-86), and the nationwide campaign Olympia (1988-89). These apart from numerous reports of similar purges in Cagayan and the Visayas. It is sad that until now - more than a decade since then - we still do not know how many people lived and died under these atrocities other than saying they are more than a thousand.

How was I involved in all this?

My initiation into the world of the underground was not particularly unusual. Just like any other fresh high school graduate, I entered college wild-eyed and raring for new things to do and discover. That was 1983 — a period of rapid political ferment. Opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was killed and immediately I found myself in the center of radical political activity. I was still a freshman when I became an activist and later, revolutionary. From protests against leaking dormitory roofs and stinking toilets to tuition fee increases; down to rallies against oil price hikes, to issues of torture, massacre and desaparecidos, to militant rallies against the US-Marcos dictatorship. Part of my being a revolutionary was being a staunch defender of human rights - though it never occurred to me that the revolutionary movement I belonged to would itself be one of its major violators. In that time, whenever we heard or read bad things about communism, we automatically dismissed them as lies. Thus I learned to repel articles in Readers Digest and movies about the Gulag archipelago and the killing fields of Cambodia. I was told, and thus easily believed, that they were nothing but black propaganda.

As we all know, our struggle did not stop with Marcos - we also rebelled against the “US-Aquino regime.” Human rights violations continued - student leader Lean Alejandro and labor leader Ka Lando Olalia were killed then. I also remember it was 1987 when I was one of the organizers of a peasant rally gone awry, which came to be known as the Mendiola massacre. It was also 1987 when I first went to the hills for a brief taste of country life - an “exposure trip” to the guerrilla zone. The following year, 1988, I decided to live the life of a full-time guerrilla for good. Alas, 1988 was also the year when Oplan Missing Link happened. I do not know whether I came to it or it came to me.

The first few months in the mountains of Sierra Madre were really tough, especially for people like me who came from the so-called petit-bourgeoisie. I had to strain myself to learn the ways of the wild. But eventually I learned to adjust. And as I said in the book, I had my share of clashes and military encounters. I had seen and been to war, and realized how ugly it can be. I realized that being an NPA guerrilla is no easy business. Gunfire and the sight of wounds could drain you of your bearing, and no amount of it could make you immune to fear. I was raised in a catholic school for boys, and I assure you that did not help at all. But I was much younger then - all of 21 summers - oozing with revolutionary zeal, unquestioning allegiance to the cause, and a dose of quixotic fantasies about what it took to be a people’s warrior.

It was war out there, though we believed in our hearts that it was a just and humane war we were waging. We felt invincible then, and were strengthened by the thought that our revolution’s victory was just around the corner. A whole new world was slowly being created in front of us, with our own hands shaping it.

But something went wrong. Or perhaps there was something very wrong even at the beginning that was just waiting to assert itself. That was when paranoia came to the picture.

How did it begin?

Oplan Missing Link started sometime during the early middle of 1988. It began with the creation of Task Force Missing Link, which was the Party’s knee-jerk reaction to a failed military operation. “There must be spies among us,” was the mindset of the people who formed it. The Task Force was assigned with investigating possible enemy infiltration within the revolutionary movement. It initiated the arrest of a few suspected individuals who were then subjected to intense interrogation. When none came out of it, they began to use torture.

That was when the bodies started to roll. Under pain and terror, the first victims were literally forced to say what the interrogators wanted to hear. The suspects invented stories, and worse, were compelled to name other comrades. This created the domino effect - more torture bred more victims, and so forth. It became a vicious cycle that threatened to raze the entire Party machinery, including its top leadership.

It was at the tail end of the OPML when I, along with six other guerrillas, was swept into the whirlpool of violence. This was in November 1988. At that point, they seemed to have already developed a standard format for interrogation and torture. Looking back, everything seemed to be so mechanical.

Their very first question to me when I was arrested was “when.” When did I become a DPA? When I said I was not, they hit me. When they asked the question again, I said no again, so they hit me again. This went on and on until my face felt thick and swollen. This was the mild part of the interrogation - for they “just” slapped me repeatedly. But just when I thought it was over for the night, a burly jail guard punched me in the face and dislocated my jaw. My upper left jaw still feels weird, and occasionally hurts, up to this day.

The second day was yet another day of torture, but this time my interrogator used a club. He hit me on the shin and on the head, repeatedly until I almost said I killed Magellan. It was the standard mode of survival, as I learned from a co-detainee the night before - that is, to invent your story as a true deep-penetration agent, so that they would stop hurting you.

There were more sessions of this sort, for we were called to interrogation every now and then whenever they found inconsistencies in the testimonies. Of course there were a lot of inconsistencies - they were all invented! But that was our problem, not theirs, for we were the ones tortured when they were not satisfied.

One of the worst punishments we endured was the denial of food. We were fed just enough to keep us alive: no more than a teaspoonful of rice at mealtime, though sometimes none at all. The rain was partly a blessing, as we could drink from pools of collected water. All of us became all skin and bones in a matter of time. During idle moments, we dreamt of food, getting delirious with the mere thought of eating. We spared not a single grain of rice. Some begged the guards for their leftover fish tails and bones.

Compared to the others, the physical torture I received was lighter. The worst I got was a dislocated jaw, concussions on my head, and wounds where the chains rubbed on the skin. The others had to endure far worse, for various forms of cruelty were developed. The standard methods were mauling, slapping and the more imaginative “flag ceremony” where the victim was made to stand with her wrists tied together while she was hoisted up from the ground. This can last a few hours to a few days.

There were other forms of brutality. At times, they slit the captives’ skin with a knife or shaved off their eyebrows for fun. Sometimes, the victims’ legs were forced apart and the torturers sat on their thighs. Other times, the torturers seared the skin of their victims with a lamp.

They also experimented with various combinations of physical and psychological terror tactics. A colleague was beaten up and hung on a tree. She was then made to watch how they beat up other victims. Then she was made to listen to the taped voices of her children. It was difficult to believe, but sexual abuse also happened among some victims.

To our minds, the choices had been narrowed down to either owning up to the accusations against us or enduring the suffering until we died from it. Those who did not catch on to this or else refused to “cooperate” altogether were eventually killed. Even the act of execution was used to further terrorize the detainees, such as the one Ka Paulito narrated:

“I was brought to the execution site together with a handful of other detainees. At that time, my senses were almost deadened by the torture I had received. I could barely feel anything anymore. But what I saw brought me new shock and completely erased any hope I had that all this would turn out all right in the end.”One of our companions was brought in front of us. They then turned him around while we waited in suspense. Next thing we knew, the back of his head was hit with a large wooden club. He fell down, then shouted: “Wala akong kasalanan, mga kasama!” (Comrades, I’m innocent!). He repeated this line incessantly, as if in a chant. He was groggy but was still able to stand up. Again, he was hit on the same spot but he remained standing. With the third blow on his head, his skull cracked open, and he lay dead on the ground.

“I wasn’t able to utter a single word after that. It would have been more bearable a sight if they shot him or even stabbed him, but this was such a gruesome spectacle. At that point, all my defenses broke down and I decided to spin whatever story I could think of.”

I could go on and on and narrate the details. But I guess you now get the picture. The sheer brutality of the experience itself may have been one of the reasons why people refused to talk about it for a very long time.

Why Did it Happen?

I am not sure I have the correct answer to this. I know what happened - I was there - but I cannot say for sure why. When I wrote the book, I tried to come up with all sorts of explanations for something so unexplainable, using whatever theory and intellectual resources we have. I do not know if I found all the answers in theory.

Nevertheless, I tried. In the effort to understand, I looked at two major things: the psychology of violence, and the internal culture of the CPP-NPA.

1. Psychology of Violence. What I really found glaring was how easy it is for violence and atrocity to be infectious. It was a “contagion of evil,” and when I used the word evil, I was not referring to something supernatural or otherworldly. I was talking about abhorrent human deeds that are virtually impossible to imagine in normal times.

One of my most alarming realizations in the study was that even the most upright, decent, and normal people can be compelled to commit atrocious things if they are convinced of its correctness. According to Zimbardo, “Those who engage in evil deeds rarely, if ever, see them as such. For the evil-doer, there is always sufficient justification to make the deed appear not only reasonable but absolutely necessary.” (Zimbardo)

Somehow, during the purge, the act of chaining, hurting, and killing their fellow comrades seemed to be the most natural thing to do. What was further unsettling was that this kind of phenomenon was not altogether unique. It had happened continuously in the past. And it continues to happen in the present - all around us, we hear all sorts of justification for committing violence and murder.

2. The CPP-NPA Culture. I would not go into much detail about the organizational culture of the CPP-NPA. There was just one particular characteristic that stood out: its intolerance. It does not recognize other beliefs but its own. This intolerance becomes especially vicious when they finally treat you as their enemy.

.Coping Mechanisms During Detention.

.Rediscovering Lost Faith

.Sustaining Human Relations

.Making up Tales

.Mind Tricks

Traumatic Symptoms

.Fear

.Rage and Retribution

.Regret

.Displacement

.The Struggle for Normalcy

What do we do now?

The most important task on the table is to face the issue squarely. The issue had been buried for so long. The CPP-NPA, of course, would disagree. In their book, this is already a settled issue. They say they have already assessed it, the guilty people have already been expelled, the Party has rectified - Jose Mara Sison has already given the definitive word for it. Finished.

The Party is hard put to recognize other interpretations of the purge except their official one. I believe their official reaction to the book To Suffer thy Comrades came out last year at the Philippine Collegian, the student newsletter of the University of the Philippines. They put out an article titled “To Suffer in Silent Surrender”, from two fictitious writers named Della Ruiz Briones and Purita Delotario Roces. The initials of the authors are DRB and PDR, which interestingly are also the initials of Demokratikong Rebolusyon ng Bayan and People’s Democratic Revolution. Of course I understand their need to be creative.

It was supposed to be a review of the book. I found the review suggestive, for it began with a quote from Andrei Vishinsky:

“Don’t trouble to speak for history (.) History will itself record what will be interesting to history.”

Vyshinsky was the notorious Russian prosecutor during the farcical trials (1930s) of communist leaders falsely accused of conspiring against Lenin and Stalin. These leaders (Bukharin, et al) were tortured and forced to confess “sins” and many of them were sentenced to death.

Vyshinsky’s most famous words, in a public speech condemning these accused men, were: “I demand that dogs gone mad should be shot - every one of them!”

I would have dismissed this reference as nothing more than polemics at its worst, it’s just that our dear critics indeed have a propensity to shoot those they consider to be in the category of “mad dogs.”

(At this point, I would like to end my personal sharing and talk about our group).

Mechanisms for Redress

What we appeal for is a more decent way to approach this issue. We do not believe it is already a closed book because many things have yet to be done. We thus call upon government and human rights institutions to properly address this issue using internationally accepted mechanisms for truth telling and justice. There are already existing international protocols, tribunals and experiences in Truth Commissions to help us in this direction.

As civil society, we are also willing to do our part. Last year, we formed a group called PATH, or Peace Advocates for Truth, Justice and Healing. PATH is composed mainly of purge survivors, families of purge victims, peace and human rights NGOs, and concerned individuals who believe that crimes against humanity committed by the armed left deserve as much attention as human rights violations by the State.

In a press statement issued on February 9 by the CPP, they admitted that the OPML was an error and declared that the victims of the purge were “martyrs of the revolution.” It is high time the CPP publicly admitted to this error and issued apologies to the victims.

We at PATH believe, however, that the CPP-NPA needs to do more than this. Among the most urgent actions we demand from the CPP-NPA are the following:

Surface the bodies. Most of our comrades who were killed during the purges were pushed into mass graves - these, in different parts of the country. They all deserve a decent burial. If the CPP-NPA is truly sincere in admitting its errors, must now undertake all necessary measures to facilitate the location of these burial sites and to return the remains to their respective families.

Inform the families. Many families of those who perished in the purges are still unaware, to this day, of what happened to their loved ones. They deserve to know now, and there is absolutely no reason to delay this. We believe a full disclosure of what happened is called for, and not just pieces of information that the CPP-NPA feels politically expedient to release at the moment.

These are the two most immediate tasks that the CPP-NPA should commit to, if only to prove their remorse. The survivors and victims’ families should not be made to suffer any longer.

With the above urgent needs addressed, we at PATH believe that there are other tasks necessary to really bring proper closure to this tragedy:

Make a full accounting. In its most recent statement, the CPP said that there were 55 victims during the OPML - some of whom were executed. In our own accounting at PATH, 66 were killed during OPML and 55 survived. We are still in the process of completing the names.

600 to 900 were said to have died during the Kampanyang Ahos. We do not know the figures during the Olympia, nor the Kadena de Amor, nor in the purge that happened in Cagayan, and others yet unreported in various provinces of the country.

Our point is that the CPP-NPA should not just report vague references and general statistics and estimates. These individuals had names, faces, and lives. No matter how much it takes, we must identify them - one by one - and let them be recognized in history for the individual heroes that they were. We in PATH are committed to this.

* Push for an objective, impartial investigation. The purges involved death, torture, and illegal detention. It is imperative that these be investigated, no matter how much time has lapsed. We believe that justice will only be served if accountabilities are established.
and, finally:

* Undertake a process of healing. The deep traumas caused by this carnage left deep scars, which remain unhealed. We at PATH believe that the wounds may need to be reopened if they are to heal properly. Therapy requires truth, healing requires unburdening.

PATH is fully committed to the realization of a just and lasting peace in a society that shall no longer tolerate violence and atrocity, whoever commits them.

Violence Continues.

I’m glad that Mr. Boni Ilagan is here with us right now. I have always admired his work in the past. We in fact came from the same theatre organization in UP Los Baños - Teatro Umalohokan. I am proud to say that I have performed a major role in one of his important plays, titled Estados Unidos Bersus. I played the role of Major Douglas. That was 1988.

It’s been a long way since then. I’ll have to admit that it makes me really sad to read a recent article he wrote, which actually justified and defended a murder. That was February 2nd, in the pages of the biggest newspaper in the country - Bonifcacio Ilagan, a writer I admired, telling the whole world that it is perfectly reasonable to kill a person like Romulo Kintanar because he deserved it; at a time when his wife and children were still in the height of their grief and mourning. It is hard to imagine the callousness, from one who supposedly has the sensitive heart of an artist.

My point here is that the very same mindset that occurred during the purges seem to be the same ones that operate now. We now hear basically the same arguments and justifications: this person deserves to die because he is a gangster; because he was already tried in a people’s court; because he stole cash from the Party. Is this the vanguard Party of the proletariat, or the Mafia speaking?

Three days after the killing of Kintanar, Ka Roger came out to the press and admitted the killing, saying more “revolutionary traitors” would fall. Joema Sison said Kintanar deserved to die because he collaborated with the enemy, and has plotted to kill him.

Last year, when the CPP-NPA was labeled a terrorist, my automatic reaction was to disagree, vehemently. I believed they were not like the Abu Sayyaf, or the Al-Qaeda, and they did not as a matter of policy target civilians deliberately. But while they protest the tag, they seem to be hell-bent in proving to everyone in the world that they actually are. They bomb cel-sites and enforce revolutionary taxation. They demand payment for permits to campaign in their areas. They had to shoot a man who served them well in their heyday.

Are they terrorists or not? I do not know, but let me quote Noam Chomsky:

"My definition of terrorism is taken from the U.S. Code, which seems to me quite adequate. It comes down to the statement that terrorism is the calculated threat or use of violence with the aim of intimidating and provoking fear and damage in order to achieve political, religious, ideological and other goals, typically directed against civilian
populations."

Chomksky said further: “I’m kind of simple-minded. I believe in elementary moral truisms — namely, if something is a crime when it’s committed against us, it’s a crime when we commit it against others. If there is a simpler moral truism than that, I’d like to hear it. I think it makes sense to remind people of it.”

It was a reminder directed at the US government for waging this immoral war against Iraq; it may as well be a reminder for all other warmongers in our midst.

Just like the next person, I am totally against the US-sponsored war we are all facing presently, much as I decried the perpetrators of the September 11 attack and all other acts of aggression and violence. I am one with the world in crying for peace and negotiation.

Which is why I see hypocrisy in groups screaming peace and hurling expletives against war freaks, and in the same vein killing people in the name of their own war. What is the CPP-NPA saying? “War is bad, except ours.” Call me naïve, but I have seen the blood and the violence - I know it is not worth it.

But all this is just talk, for as Matthew Lamb said: “No theory can console the suffering; no mere concept can raise the dead.”

It is in moments like these that we have to be reminded of the legacy of Anne Frank. She lived in a time and place much worse than ours, but frighteningly very similar. Just like many of us, she was terrorized by people with guns; who believed that certain types of people need to be put in gas chambers to be burned. She also lived among people who thought they were right; who believed that murder can be reasonable and justified.

It is in moments like this when it is again important to hear her words, when she said: “It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.”

It is in moments like this that we need to take comfort in her thoughts, which despite everything, still affirms the humanity in all of us. She said:

“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

And finally:

“when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more”

It’s time we listened, for as always, a little child had much more wisdom than all the rest of us. Thank you and good day to everyone.


[1] I Magazine of PCIJ (Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism), 1995