By: Gabriel Cardinoza, Kimberlie Quitasol
BAGUIO CITY, Philippines—Officials and Tingguian elders in Abra province have signed a peace covenant that they hope would address political violence in the province in the run-up to the 2016 national elections.
The covenant, called “Pagta ti Kappia,” asks local leaders, including those seeking posts in the 2016 elections, to heed new rules against the proliferation of unlicensed guns and other weapons, a ban on private armed groups, and the practice of good governance and transparency.
Abra earned notoriety for political killings during previous elections, until the province was overseen by a government security task force composed of policemen and Army soldiers in 2004.
The 2013 election was considered Abra’s most peaceful exercise by the police and nongovernment organizations.
Under the peace covenant signed on Dec. 5, the province’s leaders will be overseen by a special action office starting Dec. 21. The document sets in place a grievance system to prevent conflicts and imposes penalties for violators.
The peace initiative, however, was marred by the murder of La Paz town administrator Noel Belena, 61, who was shot and killed by two men on the eve of the covenant signing.
Belena died from two bullet wounds in the back when he was attacked as he drove a motorcycle through Canan village in La Paz at 11 p.m. on Dec. 4. The killers have yet to be arrested.
Chief Supt. Ulysses Abellera, Cordillera regional police director, joined the covenant signing and reported the murder to the participants.
In a text message on Monday, Abellera said the police had not yet classified Belena’s murder as politically motivated pending an investigation by the Abra police.
Belena’s brother, former reporter Abe Belena, urged the National Bureau of Investigation to solve the murder and stop political violence in Abra. “Our family suspects that my brother was the first victim of political violence in Abra for next year’s elections,” he said.
He said his brother was the political strategist of La Paz Mayor Joseph Bernos and had been organizing supporters in the province for Bernos’ congressional bid in next year’s polls.
Bernos joined the covenant signing that was attended by Abra’s top officials, including Gov. Eustaquio Bersamin; Bernos’ sister-in-law, Rep. Joy Valera-Bernos; Maj. Gen. Angelito de Leon, commander of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division; and lawyer Mae Richelle Belmes-Beronilla, provincial election supervisor.
The peace document describes the “pagta” as an indigenous conflict resolution system binding parties to agreed conditions following an oath called “bagawas.”
“It is synonymous to a blood compact, which requires parties to honor the agreement at all costs,” it said.
During his recent visit to the Cordillera police headquarters in Benguet province, Director General Ricardo Marquez, Philippine National Police chief, said the next challenge confronting the police would be the 2016 elections, after the PNP secured world leaders who attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Manila.
He said the Cordillera police would need to ensure peaceful elections in Abra. “There are institutionalized mechanisms for election-related peace and order operations. We just need to implement them properly,” he said.