Fr Sean Martin
This story was published in the 20 November 2016 issue of Sunday Examiner, the English-language Catholic weekly of the Diocese of Hong Kong, edited by Australian Columban Fr James Mulroney. Fr Sean Martin, quoted in the story, is a Columban from County Meath, Ireland, who has been in the Philippines for more than 40 years. I have made one or two minor corrections about the location of the incident.
'He was one of our best barangay captains and a great servant of the people,' Father Sean Martin said from his parish in Liloan, Bonifacio, Misamis Occidental, of Jovani Romo, who was shot 14 times by unknown assailants and died on the road just 30 metres from his home in Barangay Kanokano on July 29. [Note: The barangay is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines.]
Romo's is one of the faceless deaths in a Philippines swamped in a frenzied daily attack on the poor being carried out by the state under the guise of a war on drugs. He is one of the victims of the regular round of murders of human rights advocates, journalists and indigenous leaders protecting their land that has been going on for decades, whose murders now struggle to even get reported let alone investigated in the midst of the drug-related frenzy of bloodletting.
The silence surrounding their deaths is chilling, as what is being covered up by the curtain of silence that has been pulled across the steady flow of political murders, together with the rule of fear instigated by the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, becomes more and more difficult to uncover.
'Romo was not involved in drugs,' Father Martin attests, 'but he was deeply involved in protecting the forests of Mount Malindang, a unique and beautiful park, which has already been depleted by some 30 per cent.'
Romo had crossed swords with vested interests in the area through his work with the Department of Energy and Natural Resources aimed at stopping the logging and protecting the wildlife in the area which houses some of the richest varieties of fauna and flora in Asia.
'That is one possibility,' Father Martin told the Sunday Examiner. 'But the reason could have other political overtones, as he was in line to become the chairperson of the Association of Barangay Councils in Bonifacio, as the incumbent has completed three terms and must step down.'
Father Martin said that he cannot unearth any information about the reason for Romo’s death, as the atmosphere of fear is still so prevalent in the area.
'Celebrating the funeral Mass was a profoundly moving event,' the Columban missionary said. 'He was only 34-years-old and had made great improvements in the barangay.'
However, the longtime missionary believes that the motive for the crime, as well as the identity of those who ordered and carried out the murder will never be known.
'The court system is so weak and so many officials are compromised that the problem will never be solved by relying on them, so we can only try and minimise the killings as best we can,' he lamented.
Mount Malindang [Wikimapia.org]
Father Martin added in an email to me: '[Jovani] did a lot of work and had good projects for the people. He was encouraging the people to plant flowers. It would have been successful because the barangay is so high up on [Mount] Malindang and the hills are so steep.
'It took me a good while to adjust to the fact that Jovani had been killed so violently.'