IT was the murder of a colleague and a Molotov cocktail lobbed at his car that brought Arnedo Valera to New York. For Bernadette Encinareal, it was the armed men who came to church looking for her. For J.V. Bautista, it was the slaying of another close associate. The three lawyers are among what they say is a growing group of Philippine human rights monitors whose lives are threatened by policies of President Corazon Aquino's government and who have come to North America (in their cases, the New York City area) for their own protection.
The lawyers recently joined to form the Philippine UN Task Force on Human Rights, a group (not affiliated with the United Nations) to monitor the accuracy of their government's human rights reports.
``Under Marcos, people left to avoid jail. Now, we leave so we're not killed,'' says Mr. Bautista, a lawyer with Bayan, the umbrella organization formed in 1985 to consolidate the anti-Marcos groups.
Bayan (New Nationalist Alliance) is a left-leaning legal political group in the Philippines encompassing elements of the Marxist left, the Roman Catholic church, cause-oriented groups, nationalist politicians, and academics.
Bautista, who now has a fellowship at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, contends that there are more disappearances and killings now under Aquino than under Marcos. He also charges that even the abuses are qualitatively worse. ``People now get decapitated, killed in the most atrocious and cruel way. Bodies are mutilated.''
Human rights organizations agree that the Philippine situation is deteriorating. But direct numerical comparisons with the Marcos regime remain ``speculative'' according to Estrellita Jones, Amnesty International's government program officer for Asian affairs.
``We had cases of mutilation under Marcos, too,'' says Ms. Jones. ``Whether it is more or not we don't know. It's a plus and minus situation.''
Since Aquino came to power in 1986, Jones says there have been ``many positive things'' including Aquino's endorsement of civil and political rights, the release of political prisoners, and her statements supporting of human rights.
``On the other hand, there seems to be an increase of those unlawful killings and disappearances,'' Jones says. ``We are quick to say, however, that it is not our sense that there is a policy of promoting or condoning abuses - but there seems to be an inability or unwillingness to stop these abuses.''
Jones also cites an increase in torture, much of it in safehouses run by the Philippine military, or taking place in military camps. She adds that overall higher levels of violence have occurred in the context of ``increased violence'' by the communist New People's Army (NPA).
Six human rights lawyers have been killed since Marcos fled in February 1986, in addition to a number of journalists and clerics. On March 22, a free-legal-assistance lawyer was shot in Northern Samar Province, and on April 6, a priest was slain by soldiers in Zamboanga del Sur. Violence by the NPA is also common, but often poorly documented, Jones says.
Mr. Valera, a lawyer for peasants and urban poor who says he has received numerous death threats, came to the US last September, and is now with Columbia University's Center for the Study of Human Rights. He blames the attacks on Aquino's declared policy of ``Total War'' on communist and Muslim insurgencies which he says had the effect of encouraging attacks on legal opposition groups.
Sidney Jones, executive director of Asia Watch, a New York-based group and a unit of Human Rights Watch, which monitors human rights violations, agrees with Valera that it is the result of ``a conscious policy by the government to close its eyes to attacks by paramilitary or civilian armed groups on members of suspected communist front groups.''
Asia Watch's Ms. Jones says the military holds meetings throughout the countryside to warn people about the dangers of communism, and says it tacitly and sometimes directly encourages attacks on members of leftist trade unions, peasant and urban poor groups.
``Sometimes there seems to be a direct handing out of lists of names,'' Asia Watch's Ms. Jones says. ``Sometimes it's more subtle, [although] I don't think there's a directive from the ministry of defense to go out and kill someone.''
She also says the defense minister has made statements against the killings, ``but those go directly counter to the anticommunist rousing going on at the provincial level.''
Hesiquio Mallillin, acting chairman of the Philippine commission on human rights, told a UN committee meeting recently that private armies and vigilantes are being abolished. But he differentiated between those groups and civilian armed force groups, which he says will be watched.
Jones, of Asia Watch, says the ongoing recruitment of civilian defense groups ignores the government's own guidelines. ``You're getting the same types of dregs of society who have wreaked havoc in the Philippines over the last several decades.''
Ms. Encinareal, mayor of Tudela, a city on Mindanao, who worked in Aquino's presidential campaign, came to New York in January of this year. She says common criminals have been turned into vigilantes by the Aquino government, roaming freely throughout her province, harassing and killing at will.
An official of the Philippine Mission to the UN, who asked not to be named, says that unlike the Marcos regime, the Aquino government has been very open about its attempts to deal with rights violations.
Alluding to difficulties in controlling vigilante group excesses, the official says the government has ``the same commitment they do to bring to justice the people guilty of these things. We've communicated to the proper authorities that in the area of the vigilantes we need to exercise proper control.''
Each of the three lawyers say they have been seriously disappointed by Aquino's performance. ``When Marcos was overthrown, all of us were very happy,'' Bautista says. ``It raised hopes for major, badly needed reforms. [But] practically all the reforms - land redistributions, programs on behalf of workers and the urban poor - have crumbled.''
They say Aquino, once hailed as the ``people's president,'' has failed to convince landowners and businessmen to initiate meaningful reform. Instead, they charge, she has been convinced by the military that opposition groups are fronts for the insurgency. Indeed, a number of US officials and Philippines watchers believe at least some groups are fronts. There are also allegations of NPA violence against leftists that is then blamed on the government.
But Bautista says none of the Philippine groups are calling for the armed overthrow of the government. ``We're working within the democratic structure,'' Bautista says. ``The violations committed by the government are the real causes of the destabilization,'' Valera says.
Jones, of Asia Watch, says that while the majority of activists - including lawyers representing suspected members of the communist NPA - are not linked with the communist insurgency, some undoubtedly are.
But if the government has proof, she says, ``there should be a systematic procedure to try those people. Instead, it's easier to go after them and kill them.'' She says that such policies serve only to further radicalize people, and emphasizes that under Marcos, ``the attacks on leftists sent a lot of people to the hills, more than if you had left them alone.''