Systematic killings of peace advocates

By Joel Pablo Salud

Aug. 10, a few minutes past midnight. 

Novaliches, Quezon City was largely asleep. Metro Manila had been placed under modified enhanced community quarantine due to the spike in the number of infected. 

Those who tested positive of Covid-19 had recently breached the 100,000th mark. People were strongly advised to stay indoors.

Inside his rented apartment, Randall Echanis, 72, was seized by still unidentified men and stabbed multiple times and later shot. Reports say a neighbour who was inside the house was also murdered.

Randy, as he was fondly called by friends and colleagues, was no run-of-the-mill senior citizen. He was a well-loved peasant activist and a peace consultant for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). 

Demanding justice for ‘Ka Randy’. (Photo: Anakpawis Partylist Facebook)

At the time of his brutal murder, the former lawmaker who sat as the representative of the peasant group, Anakpawis, was undergoing treatment for hypertension. During the raid, Echanis was unarmed.

No random occurrence

Many believe Echanis’ murder wasn’t some random occurrence. It is allegedly part of what is believed to be a systematic attempt by the Duterte administration to crush voices of dissent.

He wasn’t the first to fall. In the province of Nueva Vizcaya, another NDFP peace consultant, Randy Malayao, was killed in 2018 by yet unidentified men. He was bound for Isabela when the gunmen entered the bus at the town of Aritao and shot Malayao while he was sleeping.

Earlier, in 2006, another NDFP peace adviser, Sotero Llamas, was gunned down in Albay by three unidentified gunmen at the height of peace negotiations with the government.

Governments across several administrations had treated Echanis and other peasant and peace advocates with hostility. One report said he was one of several people whom the State had branded as “terrorists”. 

“Along with others, his name was eventually removed from the list which initially included then UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz,” according to an Inquirer report.

The report added that “The peasant activist [Echanis] was arrested and detained three times during the administrations of former presidents Ferdinand Marcos, Corazon Aquino, and Gloria Arroyo.”

Echanis’ advocacy for peace and the land rights of farmers had led him to conduct nationwide campaigns in the name of agrarian reforms. He was the incumbent deputy secretary general of peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and was largely influential in the drafting of the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill in 2007.

In the 2016-2017 peace initiatives with the Duterte administration, Echanis headed the discussions on social and economic restructuring needed for lasting reforms. 

Police as primary suspects

With the Duterte’s administration’s habit of red-baiting activists and tagging them as “terrorists,” many hold the police as primary suspects in the killing of Echanis.

Former legislator and Anakpawis representative Ariel Casilao denounced the killing of Echanis as a “declaratory act that national leaders of legal-democratic movement are now targeted to be killed by the (President Rodrigo Duterte regime).”

“The entire civil society, human rights advocates, and freedom fighters must totally denounce this criminal act,” he further said.

Butch Olano, section director of Amnesty International Philippines, joined in condemning the killing. “Public safety and respect for human life and human rights has been cast aside since the beginning of [the Duterte] administration. This legacy of death must end now.”

Others were quick to point out that as a peace negotiator, Echanis was supposedly under the protection of 1995 Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees. This assures the negotiating panel of immunity from arrest and detention complete with other safety guarantees.

It is all too apparent that the Anti-Terrorism Act is being used to provide “formal legal cover” to justify state-sanctioned atrocities against peace advocates, activists and dissidents, said NDFP legal consultant Edre Olalia. 

A cover-up?

The suspicion that police officers were behind the murder of Echanis is not without merit. After the killing, the officers seized Echanis’ remains from a funeral home where the body had been brought by members of the family.

The authorities justified the confiscation of the body by saying that it needed to ascertain the identity of the cadaver through DNA testing. This was altogether odd because family and friends have affirmed beforehand the identity of Echanis.

Hence, family members feared that a cover-up might be in the works. For context, earlier reports have indicated that Echanis’ body bore not only stab wounds but torture marks. 

Moreover, Echanis’ medical certificate said that the immediate cause of death are “gunshot wounds” in the “left parietal area” with “no other significant conditions contributing to death”. This belies initial claims by the police that Echanis was a victim of random violence in the area.

Erlinda Lacaba-Echanis, the wife of the slain peace advocate, said in a statement, “This adds insult to our injury. It is both inhuman and unjust for the remains of my husband to be held under police custody and deprive us of having a proper and private mourning.”

The group Anakpawis further refuted repeated claims by the police that Echanis “voluntarily opened his door or knew his killers”.  

“But the crime scene says otherwise,” the group said. “Contrary to police claim, the perpetrators forced their entry into Echanis’ rented apartment. It was a clear murder and we highly believe state forces were behind it following their hostaging of his remains and twisted stories.”

In conducting their own investigation, Anakpawis’ team found a “broken door knob and strike plate,” indicating entry via brute force. Anakpawis called this a “brazen attempt by the police at a cover-up.”

Blessed are the peacemakers

The murder of Echanis and the continuing war on drugs have brought to light the administration’s taste for violence—unlawful, brutal, with scarcely any respect to due process.

In countries like ours where peace initiatives are almost always doomed to fail, and peace advocates are judged as terrorists meriting death, it’s almost impossible to imagine what the future may hold.

Regardless of the raging pandemic, the assassinations persist well-nigh every day. Loss of public money, too, is at an all-time high with hundreds of billions of resources and donations earmarked for health lost to corruption. The PhilHealth scandal may just be one of several instances of high-scale theft that are happening under our noses at the time of Covid-19.

Having recently pegged the highest unemployment figure in the region—7.3 million in April alone—to say nothing of this administration’s militarized response to the problem of Covid-19, the country’s chances at fostering peace has reached an all-time low.

Is brutality necessary in the fight against the pandemic? The people are becoming restless. And with good reason.

Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction and is a member of the  Philippine Center for International PEN, Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle.