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PEACETALK: The Masbate landmining incident three years hence: “One country, two systems” of justice (3)

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Third of four parts

Later in the same day of the Masbate landmining incident of 6 June 2021, government forces launched hot pursuit operations against the ambushing NPA unit of Eddie Rosero @ Ka Star and briefly encountered part of it in a firefight in barangay Mapiña, Masbate City. No casualties on both sides, “but government troops recovered eight pieces 8mm round bar as Bomb Enhancement, one improvised blasting machine, more or less 70 meters firing wire,” among others. And then, just two days later, on June 8, three NPA rebels believed to be part of the said ambushing NPA unit were killed by pursuing government forces in another encounter in the same barangay Anas, Masbate City where the Masbate landmining incident earlier occurred. Government troops also recovered a number of assault rifles and “bomb parts in a nipa hut at the boundary of barangays Anas and Bolo.” Such encounters, including tactical offensives by the NPA, have since continued intermittently in various parts of Masbate province.

On April 18, 2022, one of the named accused members of the ambushing NPA unit, Rolly Hermina, was captured in a manhunt operation based on an arrest warrant issued by RTC Masbate City, and thus came under the court’s jurisdiction. A few other named accused ambushing NPA unit members were similarly arrested in the course of the continuing local communist armed conflict.

Around the last two weeks of March 2023, starting March 20, there were

armed hostilities between the NPA and the Philippine Army (PA) / Philippine National Police (PNP) involving the use of explosive weapons near several countryside public elementary and secondary schools that traumatized and adversely affected such schooling in the seven municipalities of Dimasalang, Placer, Cawayan, Esperanza, Cataingan, Uson and Pio V. Corpuz. This made national headlines. News reports indicate at least 55,199 students, 2,815 teachers and 140 schools constrained to shift their classes from in-person to modular distance learning to ensure their safety from the crossfire and cross-explosions.

On May 9, 2023, Dindo Monsanto @ Boy was arrested in a collaborative effort of the PA and the PNP in Malabon City. Monsanto was said to be the then commanding officer (CO) of the Regional Operations Command (ROC) of the BRPC, in other words, commander of the NPA-Bicol Romulo Jallores Command (RJC), and also said to be a member of the Central Committee (CC) of the CPP. His “counterpart,” the PA 9th Infantry Division (9ID) and Joint Task Force Bicolandia (JTFB) commander MGen Adonis Bajao described him further as “the mastermind behind major terroristic attacks in Bicol,” including the Masbate landmining incident of 6 June 2021. It will be recalled that his name Dindo Monsanto @ “Buddy” appeared as one of the six new respondents (including Jose Maria Sison and Rogelio Suson, added to the original 24 accused in the first five non-terrorism cases) in three new Terrorism complaints by the MCPS, but the charges against all six new respondents as well as two original accused were dismissed at the preliminary investigation level of the MCPO before it filed just one Terrorism case, the last of six various cases, with the RTC Masbate City.

And then on August 19, 2023, the principal accused in the Masbate landmining incident cases, Eddie Rosero @ “Ka Star,” was himself killed with three others in the mountainous area of barangay Jagnaan, San Jacinto, Ticao island, north of mainland Masbate. 9ID spokesperson Maj Frank Roldan said that “Justice has finally been served to the Absalon family and to the rest of the members of the communities who fell prey to the abuses caused by Communist Terrorist Group (CTG) members. The perpetrators behind the tragic killing of football player Kieth Absalon and his cousin Nolven have answered to (sic) the consequences of their actions.” That may be so, but one must also ask about the quality, the kind or the desirability of “justice” that is delivered through military operations by one or the other side, by both sides. What is clear is that the judicial quest for justice as far as Rosero is concerned has come to the end of that road because, with his death during the pendency of his cases, these are deemed dismissed as to him. Victims and complainants in such cases would normally not be happy about that kind of escape from court justice. Not of small consolation though to Kieth’s family is his life-size statue as a footballer near the entrance of the Masbate Provincial Athletic Grounds, Masbate City to mark the first anniversary of his death as unveiled on 6 June 2022. 

On the other hand, on August 22, 2023, the NPA-Masbate Jose Rapsing Command (JRC) issued a “Red Salute” statement of “highest honor” to Eddie Rosero whom “the Masbateño masses knew as Ka Star/ Art/ Picolo. For the masses, he was the great hero of the Masbateño people… He was one of the most highly regarded Red commanders of the revolutionary movement in the province… Because of his skill in advancing the armed struggle, he was elected as a regular member of the provincial committee (of the CPP).” With regards to the local communist armed conflict, it seems like almost two worlds (not just countries), in terms not only of justice systems but also of pantheons of heroes, martyrs and victims. At the same time, the JRC condemned the “massacre” of the “three civilian women” in the proximity of Rosero – who were “indiscriminately killed by the military despite their clear civilian status.” One might also point out or ask (how) about the “clear civilian status” of the victims Kieth and Nolven Absalon in the Masbate landmining incident.

In the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) Report of 19 April 2024 on the local communist armed conflict titled “Calming the Long War in the Philippine Countryside,” it notes that “The number of incidents in Masbate has traditionally been disproportionate to its small size. The island has been one of the most politically contested provinces in the Philippines.” The Report’s overall assessment is as follows:

While the government has weakened the rebels politically and militarily over recent years, the movement remains afloat. Conflict continues in parts of the Philippines, while in December 2023 the CPP issued a statement encouraging its members to redouble the struggle despite the challenges it faces….

While the government has weakened the rebels politically and militarily over recent years, the movement remains afloat. Conflict continues in parts of the Philippines, while in December 2023 the CPP issued a statement encouraging its members to redouble the struggle despite the challenges it faces….

The Maoist insurgency in the Philippines is at its lowest ebb in decades. But it has not been vanquished, and the armed conflict remains both a challenge for the state and a threat to public safety in pockets across the country. The government’s military successes in the last few years have lent it confidence in its capacity to end the rebellion once and for all. But Manila may be underestimating the rebels’ resilience; moreover, the political, social, and economic grievances that have driven the rebel cause over decades could stoke last-ditch resistance among parts of the guerrilla force or new manifestations of violence.

  • CPP-NPA-NDFP Investigation?

It will be recalled that two days after the Masbate landmining incident of 6 June 2021, or on June 8, CPP chief information officer Marco Valbuena admitted it as “errors in the military action mounted by an NPA unit… The entire CPP and NPA take full responsibility for the tragedy. There is no justification for the aggravation this has caused the Absalon family… We are aware that an investigation is already being carried out by the Party’s Bicol Regional Committee and Masbate Provincial Committee of the Party and the higher commands of the NPA to identify the errors and weaknesses that led to this tragedy.” Earlier that same day (June 8), NPA Bicol Regional Operational Command (Romulo Jallores Command) spokesperson Raymundo Buenfuerza issued a statement saying, among others, that “The Romulo Jallores Command and the Jose Rapsing Command (NPA-Masbate) will ensure the immediate just solution of the error committed by the NPA-Bicol.”

However, three days later, on June 11, the NDFP through no less than its Chief International Representative Luis Jalandoni and its Negotiating Panel Interim Chairperson Julieta de Lima issued the statement “NDFP expresses condolences to the Absalon family, asserts its authority and duty to investigate the case.” This included the following significant passage relevant to this NDFP assertion, that appears however to push back or back track from the above-said initial statements of the CPP and of NPA-Bicol:

It is correct for the people and all other entities to expect the investigation of the Masbate incident within the NPA command structure and within frameworks of the CPP, NDFP and the People’s Democratic Government.

Under the responsibility and direction of the NDFP and within the legal system of the People’s Democratic Government, the investigation must be started and completed within the NPA command structure to fully and completely establish the facts and prepare any appropriate charges before any procedure to prosecute and try the case before the military court of the NPA or people’s court.

The NDFP will make sure that certain questions are answered by a thoroughgoing investigation. The questions include the following: 1) If true, which NPA unit and personnel are involved?; 2) Is there no case of the enemy committing the crime and falsely ascribing it to the NPA?; and 3) Is there no local feud involved?

There should be no rush to judgment, presumption or insinuation to the effect that the entire revolutionary movement and entire revolutionary forces are guilty of a criminal offense, negligence or error for which certain individuals may be liable on the basis of a full and complete investigation. Crimes or errors of individuals cannot be taken against the whole organization or movement.

About three years hence today, there has been no publicly issued report or statement on the status and results of that NDFP announced “investigation of the Masbate incident within the NPA command structure and within frameworks of the CPP, NDFP and the People’s Democratic Government.” It is reasonable and even safe to conclude that such a CPP-NPA-NDFP investigation has not been completed “to fully and completely establish the facts and prepare any appropriate charges before any procedure to prosecute and try the case before the military court of the NPA or people’s court.” In other words, the NDFP and CPP announced “investigation” has turned out to be not serious or sincere but looks to have been just for propaganda. There could be “delays and limitations due to intensified military and police operations,” but three years is more than sufficient time to adjust and complete an investigation even in wartime. What happened to the promised “immediate just solution of the error committed by the NPA-Bicol”?

The particular investigating organ/s of the CPP-NPA-NDFP need really just investigate the ambushing NPA unit. Contrary to the above-quoted Jalandoni-De Lima statement’s “certain questions” 2) and 3), it should have been soon enough apparent that there was “no case of enemy committing the crime” and “no local feud involved” – as definitely no military and/or police enemy (as may have returned fire) and definitely no feuding local clans were at the scene of the Masbate landmining incident. To even raise these as “certain questions [to be surely] answered by a thoroughgoing investigation” – even after the NPA-Masbate command had already clearly admitted the occurring “weakness and error” in the “military action” of the involved local NPA unit – looks like a fatuous and pathetic attempt to deflect attention and responsibility from the NPA or its involved unit. Because an NPA unit was undeniably involved, the only above-quoted Jalandoni-De Lima “certain question” that is pertinent is “1) …which NPA unit and personnel are involved?” 

The police investigation, based on intelligence and rebel returnee information, identified the NPA unit to be a platoon led by Eddie Rosero @ “Ka Star” under Larangan 1 (Guerrilla Front 1, northern Masbate), KP 4 (Komiteng Probinsya or Provincial Committee 4 for Masbate), BRPC (Bicol Regional Party Committee). It also identified Rosero and 17 other unit members – by full name, alias, and last known place of residence – who went “down the hill” after the landmine explosion towards its fallen victims. The NPA-Masbate command would be in the best position to identify its own involved NPA unit and personnel for its own investigation purposes. It would be interesting to compare its findings as to NPA unit and personnel involved with the NPA unit and personnel identified by the police investigation, presumably with the help of military intelligence.

As for the key merits or facts of the Masbate landmining incident, it is really no longer whether or not the ambushing NPA unit used banned anti-personnel landmines under the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, meaning those which are victim-activated or contact-detonated. As it is, the MCPS “Investigation Report on Explosion and Shooting Incident” found that “pieces of evidence [including the explosive remnants recovered from the scene of the crime (SOCO) by the PNP Masbate Provincial EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and Canine Unit] clearly established that the armed group of CPP/NPA operating in Masbate City, willfully attacked the innocent victims by means of controlled Improvised Explosive Device (IED-Landmines), followed by series of gunshots.” A controlled or command-detonated anti-personnel landmine is not a banned anti-personnel landmine. But directing it against civilians is of course prohibited as they are not legitimate military targets.

The NPA-Bicol and NPA-Masbate commands criticized themselves for this “failed demolition action” which “unintentionally” and “wrongfully” damaged civilian life and safety, and “unhesitatingly accepted” the occurring “weakness and error” in the said “military action.” A sincere and honest NPA-Bicol and NPA-Masbate investigation should be able to reveal why the targeted bikers were not priorly ascertained, such as by the ambushing NPA unit’s own “spotters,” to be not legitimate military targets but civilians or non-combatants, as a precaution with sufficient lead time before the two anti-personnel landmines were detonated against them. The bikers were familiar members of the Masbate Bikers Club and wearing athletic attire, with Keith Absalon wearing a prominent “FEU” marking on its heart portion. None of them were bearing firearms like rifles as may have been slung on their shoulders. Was there a failure of NPA intelligence, including for the purpose of complying with IHL required precautions in attack?

But even with the failure to timely ascertain that the targeted bikers were not legitimate military targets but civilians or non-combatants, there appears to have been an even graver error and violation by the ambushing NPA unit. After the three Absalon family bikers fell due to the landmine explosion, the eventual survivor then 14-year-old Chrysvine saw that both his father Nolven and uncle Kieth were “still alive after the blast,” according to the earlier cited CHR Resolutions. Two such explosive blasts were followed by gunfire from a hill beside the road that must have come from the ambushing NPA unit which detonated the landmines. At least a dozen members of that unit then went “down the hill” towards the fallen Kieth and Nolven. Two other eyewitnesses to this, a habal-habal driver and a construction worker, say they then saw two members of the unit each separately finish off Kieth and Nolven with assault rifle gunshots at close range. Of particular note in the Masbate City Health Office Postmortem Findings are the “Gunshot wound… on the right eye” of Kieth and the “Gaping wound on the left occipital area of the head… with brain tissues exposed” of Nolven. As earlier quoted from the CHR Resolutions for the separate cases there of Kieth and Nolven, “Had it not [been] for the series of gunshots fired by the respondents, he could have been rescued and given timely medical attention that could have saved his [life].” It is safe to say that the causes of their deaths were the just quoted fatal gunshot wounds to the head, rather than the landmine blasts which caused shrapnel wounds in less vital parts of their bodies and were survivable. Still, the CHR Resolutions, as earlier quoted, said “The two (2) IED blasts and seventy-nine (79) fired cartridges recovered in the scene of the explosions were proof of disproportionate force tossed to victims who could not afford to counter the attack.”

The available forensic and medico-legal as well as testimonial evidence tends to show that the ambushing NPA unit killed Kieth and Nolven Absalon while they were persons hors de combat (out of combat), defenseless because of wounds and not committing any hostile act. In the first place, Kieth and Nolven were non-combatants. This should have been apparent to the NPA unit members even before they went “down the hill” after the initial landmine blasts and gunfire directed at the three Absalon family bikers, and more so after at least two unit members approached the fallen Kieth and Nolven at close range and then finished them off. Could they not readily see that the two were still alive and had no guns, much less firing at them? To finish them off in those circumstances is a war crime – whether under RA 9851, Sec. 4(b)(1) [NOT the charged Sec. 4(c)(25)(iv)], or under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Art. 8(2)(c)(i) which is referred to as the “War crime of murder.” Of course, it is also Murder under the RPC, Art. 248. Unlike Rebellion (RPC, Art. 134), a War Crime does not absorb Murder, at least not yet by statutory amendment or jurisprudence. The right thing to do under IHL would have been for the ambushing NPA unit to instead without delay provide medical care to Kieth and Nolven as persons hors de combat, as the NPA often claim provide to wounded soldiers they come across after a successful ambush. A sincere and honest NPA-Bicol and NPA-Masbate investigation should be able to reveal why the fallen, still alive and unhostile Kieth and Nolven were still finished off by the ambushing NPA unit or its two members who “appear to be the most guilty.”

Precisely, the NDFP had promised three years ago “a full and complete investigation” as “the basis” for holding “liable” or “guilty of a criminal offense, negligence or error” only “certain individuals,” not “the whole organization or movement.” We have to ask again, whatever happened to that? The apparent failure of “revolutionary justice” undoubtedly reflects now on “the whole organization or movement.”

Tomorrow: Questions on Revolutionary Justice

(SOLIMAN M. SANTOS JR. is a retired RTC Judge of Naga City, Camarines Sur, serving in the judiciary there from 2010 to 2022.  He has an A.B. in History cum laude from U.P. in 1975, a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Nueva Caceres (UNC) in Naga City in 1982, and a Master of Laws from the University of Melbourne in 2000.  He is a long-time human rights and international humanitarian lawyer;  legislative consultant and legal scholar;  peace advocate, researcher and writer;  and author of a number of books, including on the Moro and Communist fronts of war and peace.  Among his authored books are The Moro Islamic Challenge: Constitutional Rethinking for the Mindanao Peace Process published by UP Press in 2001;  Judicial Activist: The Work of a Judge in the RTC of Naga City published by Central Books in 2023;  and his latest, Tigaon 1969: Untold Stories of the CPP-NPA, KM and SDK published by Ateneo Press in 2023.)

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