MANILA — These days, Boy Facunla is afraid to return home to the sun-drenched rice paddies of central Luzon, the region where he raised a family of eight and became active in local left-wing politics. Now, he spends his days hiding out in a cramped Manila office, fearing that a spate of unexpected murders in his community may one day turn on him.
"I haven't been home in two years. I'm the number one target in my area," he says in an interview held at the office of a farmers' union. "We think it's the military behind these killings."
Mr. Facunla is not alone in his suspicions. Since 2001, when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took office with the backing of the powerful military, hundreds of left-wing activists, unionists, farmers, human rights workers, and clergy have been slain, sparking accusations of a systematic, nationwide campaign to silence those who challenge the status quo.
A government commission headed by retired Supreme Court judge Jose Melo issued a long-awaited report Thursday that put the blame for much of the violence on the Philippine military. The damning report came one day after a visiting United Nations investigator said the military was in a "state of denial" about its involvement in the killings.
However, Philip Alston, a law professor at New York University and the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said that the "death squads" weren't state sanctioned.
"I do not believe that there's a policy at the top designed to direct these killings," he told a press conference at the end of a 10-day trip by the invitation of the Philippine government.
The Melo commission concurred, saying elements in the military had acted outside the law and called for an independent agency to investigate the security forces.
The military swung back at the commission, calling the report "strained, unfair, and a blank accusation."
"I believe that Mr. Alston might be in a state of denial himself," said Gen. Hermogenes Esperon at a news conference on Wednesday.
Ms. Arroyo has proposed creating special courts to try cases of extrajudicial killings. But ending a culture of impunity in the military won't be easy, not least because of its tight hold on local and national politics. It has also garnered substantial US assistance since 2001 for its war on terror, and its elite troops are being trained by US Special Forces.
The commission's findings are likely to increase pressure on Arroyo. Midterm elections in May could tip the balance in Congress against her. The president's opponents already tried unsuccessfully to impeach her once in 2005 over election fraud allegations.
Security officials reject claims of military death squads, calling them left-wing propaganda by groups that they consider to be fronts for the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA). Indeed, while the US is fixated on the fight against Islamic extremists in the southern Philippines, Arroyo's advisers say the greater threat comes from Communist insurgents that roam across the country.
There is also disagreement over the extent of the violence. Karapatan, a leftist human rights watchdog, has recorded over 800 killings since 2001, but observers say that number is inflated and includes dozens of nonpolitical murders and undocumented cases. Alston declined to provide an estimate, but said the total was "high enough to be distressing."
A police task force set up last year to probe the violence has pinned much of the blame on the CPP itself. Deputy Director General Avelino Razon, who oversees the task force, says that most documented killings of left-wing activists were carried out by Communist forces, not the security forces.
"We think they're doing a series of purges, and this is timed during a government campaign against their insurgency," he says, referring to an all-out war that Arroyo declared last year against the CPP.
General Razon says police and Army personnel were involved in a few murder cases, but insists they were acting alone. "If we have evidence of orders from above, we would file charges against the officer issuing the orders," he says.
Unsurprisingly, this is vigorously disputed by leftist groups who accuse the police of a whitewash. Teodoro Casino is one of six left-wing lawmakers who were charged with rebellion last year after Arroyo declared a state of emergency. A court later overturned the charges. Mr. Casino says the administration's hand is clearly seen in the violence.
"You can't attribute widespread killings to a few generals. It has to go all the way up. It's the government's counterinsurgency policy that's provided the environment for these human rights abuses to take place," he says.
Casino's complaint is echoed not only in political circles but also within the influential Roman Catholic church. Bishop Deogracias Iniguez, head of public affairs for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, says Arroyo, a devout Catholic, is quick to smear her opponents. Many priests have been accused of Communist sympathies in the past – some of whom have turned up dead.
"In the Philippines, if you are against the government, then you're associated with the left-wing groups," he says.
The presence of legal leftist organizations in the Philippines is a legacy of a 1990s peace initiative to bring activists into the political arena and cut ties with armed insurgents. Security officials say these ties persist and accuse left-wing lawmakers of channeling Congressional funds to their comrades. Casino denies this accusation.
Even Arroyo's critics concede that a tough response is needed to counter the NPA and its frequent attacks on government targets. But declaring all-out war on Communists and tarring all activists with the same brush isn't the way forward, says Randy David, a newspaper columnist and sociologist at the University of the Philippines.
"This is a terrible approach to the insurgency. Those who are already in the underground may even welcome this. It focuses attention on their struggle, and in the long term it forces people to go underground," he says.