NAGA CITY AS ZONE OF PEACE

By Soliman M. Santos, Jr.

Naga City, 11 August 2021


[Paper prepared for the Naga City An Maogmang Lugar webinar, 18 August 2021]


Role of HOPE and Mayor Robredo, 1988-1992


At the outset of discussing this topic, on the occasion of the 9th death anniversary of our long-time beloved Mayor Jesse M. Robredo, allow me to first pay tribute to him for his role in the establishment of his and our beloved City of Naga as a Zone of Peace. During the first few months of his first term as Mayor from 1988 to 1992, I was a leader of the non-governmental coalition of peace advocates based in the city called the Hearts of Peace (HOPE), shepherded by the late Nagueña “Mommy” Jean Llorin. We initiated a largely symbolic “people’s declaration” of Naga City as a “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN)” for the duration of the Peñafrancia fiesta in September 1988. This peace zone was basically an assertion of the people’s right to peace, particularly from the armed hostilities between the AFP and the NPA. Jess gave us his moral and, quite importantly, political support for this community initiative, which support was indispensable for it to have a fighting chance against the odds of that time.

Ribbon cutting for the declaration of Naga City as a peace zone, the country's first ever, on 3 September 1988 at Plaza Quezon, Naga City on the occasion of the Penafrancia Fiesta. From left to right: Mayor Jess Robredo, peace advo-kids Lorie and Kara Santos, and Kagawad Joe Grageda.



The Naga peace zone at that time tended to generate resistance from the security sector, especially the military (which was already in “total war” mode as declared by then President Cory Aquino after the collapse of the GRP-NDF peace talks in 1987) and even from the local Catholic Church hierarchy. Both sectors were gripped by the scare that “Reds” were taking advantage of, if not behind, the peace zone initiative as meant to provide some kind of sanctuary to the NPA. Ironically, the CPP-NPA-NDF would later issue its national-level policy against peace zones which they viewed as counter-insurgency to divide their mass base. So, one could imagine that the support Jess gave to the initiative took a certain amount of courage, boldness or daring. He was then a very young 30-year old first time Mayor whose then Lakas ng Bansa group had a minority of only two kagawads against a big majority of eight kagawads from the Cory Coalition group in the Sangguniang Panlungsod of a city that was a bastion of Catholic conservatism. Jess thus reflected early on a brand of leadership that was open to new ideas and initiatives, to experiment, and even to take risks, whether of a political or security nature, but with the remarkable down-to-earth people skills to win over support for his programs.


The risks for Jess with his support for the Naga peace zone were underscored by the fact that it was actually the country’s (if not the world’s) first ever peace zone, still an experimental concept. It may not have fully developed or been sustained here but it was an early example of Naga concepts that spread to and were replicated in many other places. This was most notably seen in the case of peace zones in Central Mindanao, with a quite different context of armed conflict between the AFP and the MILF, and more than a decade after the Naga peace zone became dormant. This dormancy is somewhat unfortunate, if not disappointing, because by also the first few months of the second term of Mayor Robredo, he had approved on November 3, 1992 Sangguniang Panlungsod (SP) Resolution No. 92-169 adopted on October 28, 1992 “to declare the City of Naga as a Peace Zone” and furthermore “to implore the regional commands of the AFP, the NDF and the RAM-SFP-YOU to meet with the City Government of Naga for the following purposes, to wit:


a) To discuss and guarantee measures to respect the will of the people to make the City of Naga a Peace Zone;

b) To discuss and guarantee the settlement of regional and/or local problems which have no national implications and which do not need the intervention of the National Government and the national leadership of the NDF, and the RAM-SFP-YOU;

c) To agree on and recommend an agenda for the Bikol Region for inclusion in and consideration of the peace talks in the National level, should one be finally held.”


The Past Nearly Three Decades, 1992-2021


Since then, 1992, almost three decades ago by next year would have passed but not much has happened in terms of the further development of the Naga Peace Zone, even along the lines of SP Resolution 92-169. There has been no implored meeting of the City Government of Naga with at least the regional commands of the AFP and the NPA which are still in armed conflict with each other, if only to at least address humanitarian concerns arising from continuing armed hostilities. What has happened was only the declaration of Naga City as a Peace Zone, albeit remaining largely symbolic in the absence of sufficient follow through of secured guarantee measures involving the main armed protagonists which are the AFP (and for that matter the PNP) and the NPA to respect the will of the people of Naga to at least keep it off-limits to armed conflict. But there have been at least five notable insurgency-related killing incidents in Naga City since 2003:


1 -- On 2 September 2003, a NPA unit believed to be of its Guerrilla Front 74 raided the Naga City Police Substation No. 6 in upland barangay Carolina during which one policeman SPO2 Placido Morales and one unidentified NPA Red fighter were killed.


2 -- On 14 March 2004, a NPA unit of the Romulo Jallores (regional) Command liquidated retired PNP intelligence officer Lt. Col. Ramon Claros along the national highway in urban barangay Concepcion Grande near no less than the PNP Provincial Office/headquarters.


3 -- On 30 November 2005, the Eduardo Albara (provincial) Command of the NPA in Camarines Sur liquated, by way of a “sparrow operation,” SPO3 Casiano “Sonny” Paromog of the Intelligence Division of Naga City Police Office in urban barangay Concepcion Pequeña


4 -- On 15 March 2018, combined Philippine Army 9ID and PNP Regional Office elements raided and killed no less than the CPP Bicol Regional Party Committee Secretary Alfredo “Ka Bendoy” Merillos and a civilian companion friend Liza Beriso Ocampo at the home of her friend social worker Lualhati Balcueva in Camella Homes at the outlying urban barangay Cararayan.


5 -- On 17 June 2019, former Bayan Muna-Bicol and BAYAN-Bicol leader Nephtali Morada was killed while driving his motorcycle to work (at the Provincial Capitol) by unidentified persons on board a white pickup along the road in the outlying urban barangay San Isidro. This was part of the spate of killings and arrests around that time in parts of the country (notably Negros Oriental and Bicol) of many above-ground nat-dem activists who were being Red-tagged by the security sector for alleged ties with the CPP-NPA-NDF. Though Morada was no longer active in nat-dem activism and was certainly never a NPA combatant, his relatives had witnessed several visits to him at his home in upland barangay Carolina by 9ID intelligence elements for some period which preceded his killing.


These five notable insurgency-related killing incidents in Naga City may be relatively small in number but such armed hostilities are contrary to the spirit of the Naga Peace Zone, as well as the city’s self-image of “An Maogmang Lugar” (The Happy Place) that Mayor Robredo cultivated for the city. There should be “zero casualties” here related to the man-made calamity of armed conflict, just as we say there should be “zero casualties” for natural calamities and, for that matter, the legitimate war on drugs, which has unfortunately become another man-made calamity with its inordinate number of killings of drug suspects, including an already significant number of such killings in Naga City -- the latest being that of former court worker Dino Dañas only last February 26 inside his home in Greenland Avenue, Concepcion Pequeña.


Sadly, the concerned leaders of and from Naga City, at various levels of government and in various concerned sectors, have hardly said anything to push back on all these killings, whether insurgency-related or drug war-related, that do violence to “An Maogmang Lugar.” With a few exceptions. Well known of course is Vice-President Leni Robredo’s general aversion and opposition to the bloody war on drugs, but more than that she has present a coherent comprehensive alternative program to address the drug problem of the country during her unceremoniously aborted short-lived but already promising stint as Co-Chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD).


As for the insurgency-related killing incidents in Naga City, there have been, if I remember right, only the two separate reactive privileged speeches by two City Kagawads each condemning a particular incident to be in violation of the Naga Peace Zone under SP Resolution 92-169. First was that of Kagawad. Gabriel Bordado, Jr. regarding the September 2003 NPA unit attack on the Carolina Police Substation resulting in the killing of one policeman and one NPA fighter. Second was that of Kagawad Lito del Rosario regarding the March 2018 combined Philippine Army and PNP raid of a Cararayan Camella Homes unit resulting in the killing of CPP-Bicol leader Alfredo Merillos and a civilian companion friend Liza Beriso Ocampo. While welcome as expressions of the Naga spirit, these privilege speeches have been too few and far between, were merely reactive and soon forgotten, as there has been no follow through in terms of dialogue by the City Government with the AFP-PNP and the NPA to discuss and ideally agree on specific effective measures and mechanisms that would guarantee the Naga Peace Zone.


Effective Revival or Renewal of the Naga Peace Zone: Agenda 2022?


The effective revival or renewal of the Naga Peace Zone, one of the many good legacies to our beloved City by the exemplary Mayor Robredo for the greater glory of Naga, can and should be part of the City’s Agenda by 2022 and beyond. Of course, it almost goes without saying that this would depend much, though not only, on the quality of leadership both of our city and of our country come the crucial political juncture in mid-2022. It can be our city’s modest but worthy contribution to our country’s needed overall peace efforts, especially on the local communist armed conflict front. What could be the key aspects of a revived or renewed Naga Peace Zone? Allow me to propose and outline three aspects of this:


1. OFF-LIMITS TO ARMED HOSTILITIES. This is the minimum or most basic feature of a peace zone, a safe space or place where citizens can be spared from war. SP Resolution 92-169 does not itself define “peace zone” but reference can be made to a congressional bill for a “Peace Zones Policy Act” (hopefully by Rep. Bordado) which defines a peace zone as “a people-initiated, community-based arrangement in a local geographic area which residents themselves declare to be off-limits to armed conflict primarily to protect the civilians, livelihood and property there, and to contribute to the more comprehensive peace process.”


This can be expanded as a further development of the Naga Peace Zone to also “off-limits” cover two particular types of killings as discussed earlier above: a) killings of open and legal nat-dem activists who are non-combatants like Nephtali Morada and therefore not legitimate targets for lethal military/police counter-insurgency operations; and b) drug war killings of suspects who really do not “nanlaban” or put up any armed resistance like Dino Dañas. These willful killings which amount to murder are actually unlawful or illegal whether committed in Naga City or outside it. The point of making such killings “off-limits” to the city is not to suggest that they be committed elsewhere, but rather it is to deliver a strong Naga message of prevention against such killings where it has jurisdiction. This is important for Naga’s being true to itself as “An Maogmang Lugar” even if only symbolically. Needless to say, symbols are important to one’s identity and values, whether as a person, as a city, or as a nation.


The Naga Peace Zone as integral to “An Maogmang Lugar” also ties in with its more recent 30 September 2019 launching as the sixth Justice Zone in the country under the auspices of the national tripartite Justice Sector Coordinating Council involving the Supreme Court, DOJ and DILG. Certainly, there should be no “cardboard justice” at street-level for drug suspects in a Justice Zone where there are functioning courts of justice. Naga City is thus now unique for being both a Justice Zone and a Peace Zone, thereby highlighting two of the several supreme ideals of our people stated in the Preamble of the Philippine Constitution. Acts of injustice or abuse are among the most commonly expressed root causes of internal armed conflict and social unrest. Indeed, there can be no peace without justice, especially social justice. Naga City is thus challenged by a unique opportunity to make its own contribution to the realization of both aspirations.

2. A VENUE FOR LOCAL PEACE ENGAGEMENTS AND DIALOGUES. The Naga Peace Zone SP Resolution 92-169 implores the regional commands of the AFP and NDF to meet with the City Government not only “To discuss and guarantee measures to respect the will of the people to make the City of Naga a Peace Zone,” but also “To discuss and guarantee the settlement of regional and/or local problems which have no national implications and which do not need the intervention of the National Government and the national leadership of the NDF, …” and “To agree on and recommend an agenda for the Bikol region for inclusion in and consideration of the peace talks in the National level, should one be finally held.” There is actual so much to bring to a good discussion of local, regional and national problems. Ironically, this discussion meeting(s) may be easier for the City Government to arrange with the regional commands of the AFP and NDF during the current pandemic than before it, through the use now of the “new normal” zoom meeting mode, of course with whatever necessary security safeguards.


In any case, the locally autonomous City of Naga should be allowed to blaze its own path of “local peace engagement,” with due regard to its own terms of reference, history and track record of local governance innovation. It is thus noteworthy that the City’s Public Safety Office (PSO) Chief Renne Gumba, who represented Mayor Nelson Legacion at the Joint Peace and Security Council meeting on 11 July 2019 in declaring the activation of the City Task Force for Ending the Local Communist Armed Conflict (CTF-ELCAC), said that Naga is known as a democratic city, a place where one is free to discuss, debate or fight for one’s principles, but not known as a place where people shed blood, and they hope to keep it that way.


In the spirit of wild or even crazy ideas that the peace zone once was, perhaps the City Government of Naga in a tie-up again with Vice-President Robredo and on the premise of sufficient vaccine supplies, can do still another NagaVax Express-type of operation to provide single-dose Janssen vaccination shots to NPA-Camarines Sur commanders and fighters who want to have those shots (rather than the usual gunshots), again with whatever necessary security safeguards for all concerned, such as if conducted with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This would serve our one big common fight against Covid-19, on the principle that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” This would also be an occasion for pilot confidence-building for the larger peace process such as through a time- and area-bound local ceasefire by both sides or at least a humanitarian corridor or buffer with similarly worked-out terms. The indispensable and good faith cooperation of the AFP-PNP in this would actually make for an excellent conciliatory gesture that is bound to have peace-making dividends.

3. SERVING AS A POSITIVE EXAMPLE, GIVING MORAL SUPPORT. Finally, by reviving or renewing the Naga Peace Zone, our beloved City can additionally or incidentally serve -- even if this not be an intention, much less a main one -- as a positive example or otherwise give moral support which would possibly spur or encourage the similar revival or renewal of other forms of peace zones from the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon down the country to Southern Mindanao. Local communities like those in Sagada, Mountain Province and elsewhere should be allowed and respected in their autonomous decisions to declare or maintain their localities as peace zones which are, at the minimum, off-limits to armed conflict, and not necessarily off-limits to soldiers and rebels, armed or unarmed.


These peace zones would best not be coopted for counter-insurgency which would only defeat the purpose and even integrity of peace zones as autonomous local community initiatives to protect themselves from continuing armed hostilities of which they want no part in. On the other hand, the rebel side should do its part to honor, recognize and respect peace zones autonomously declared by local communities, and not automatically brand these peace initiatives as counter-insurgency measures to fragment the organizational and military unity of the revolutionary movement. Aside from keeping peace zones off-limits to armed conflict, let them be also safe spaces for peaceful competition between the GRP and the NDF in the delivery of much needed basic services there, in the best interests of the local communities, certainly a win-win solution for them. And more so, in case of continued failure to revive or renew the national-level peace negotiations with a proper accompanying ceasefire.


In ending, at this critical period for our country, may we find the same kind of courage, boldness, daring, openness to new ideas, to experiment, and to take risks shown by Mayor Jess Robredo, this time for the greater contributions bound to be made by Naga as a Peace Zone. JESS Mabalos! -- #


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SOLIMAN M. SANTOS, JR. is a Judge of the Regional Trial Court of Naga City, Branch 61. He was awarded by Mayor Jesse M. Robredo in 2007 with a Mayoral Recognition for Peace Advocacy “for his dauntless and full-hearted advocacy for peace, people empowerment, and the advancement of human rights through his writings, scholarship and research, and militancy that, among other cause-oriented initiatives, saw the declaration of Naga as the first Zone of Peace in the country.”