Activists shout slogans and offer prayers Monday, April 1, 2019, to protest the killings of what they claim were farmers in a central Philippine province. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Drug war”-style lawlessness in the Philippines may be spiraling out of control.

Philippine authorities said the police and military killed 14 people during anti-crime operations over the weekend in the central Philippine province of Negros Oriental, but the circumstances of the deaths are unclear. 

The police claim they had search warrants for illegal weapons and that they killed suspects who fought back, including several insurgents from the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Among those killed was Edgardo Avelino, 59, a longtime chairman of a local farmers’ group affiliated with the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, a union of agricultural workers. Seven farmers, two village officials, and several others were also killed. Local activists say that a dozen residents were arrested and taken into custody.

Witnesses and relatives dispute the police claims, saying that these were more like “drug war”-style killings. Local human rights groups also drew the comparison.

Since June 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has seen the police carry out thousands of extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers and users. Research by Human Rights Watch and others shows the police often falsely claim that they were acting in self-defense, and plant guns and drugs on victims. Expanding these murderous tactics to other realms of abusive “law enforcement” would be unsurprising.

Violence isn’t new to Negros. The island has been plagued by land disputes, and security forces frequently claim farmers and land reform activists are armed communist rebels to justify attacks on the former. Killings have intensified over the past six months. The so-called “Sagay Massacre” in Negros Occidental in October 2018 left nine dead. And in December 2018, police gunned down six people in Guihulngan in Negros Oriental.

Security forces implicated in unlawful killings in Negros have rarely been brought to justice. By playing the “self-defense” card, the authorities will make getting redress for victims even harder.

A prompt, impartial, and independent investigation into the Negros Oriental killings is desperately needed and concerned governments should be raising their concerns about the growing violence. Of course, an investigation will not end the lawlessness engulfing the country, but it might help stop things from getting worse.