Every single Filipino, or perhaps even the non-Filipinos in and out of the country, knew what happened last week until Monday: that members of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) staged a large demonstration in EDSA to condemn what they say was the meddling of the Department of Justice with their internal affairs.
But what many of us don’t know is that also this week, there was another rally, albeit a much smaller one, at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. Last September 4, 2015, young activists trooped to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo and spray painted fences with the words “AFP berdugo” and “Mamamatay tao.”
Soldiers used water cannon on the protesters. AFP Spokesman Col. Noel Detoyato told the press that although demonstrations were part of freedom of expression and democracy, activists did not have the right to “destroy government property.”
Why were the activists so angry? Here’s what’s happening:
Let us begin with what took place on July 23 at a Church compound in Davao City. There were around 700 Lumad evacuees, mostly women and children, who have sought refuge inside the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). They have been there for months supposedly to escape the military presence in their communities. The Lumads allege that the military has invaded their villages and communities, fired guns around, harassed their people and occupied their schools all under an operation to hunt down communist rebels.
Authorities barged into the compound to supposedly rescue the Lumads and bring them home. But strong resistance resulted to violence that injured 17 Lumads and two cops. The military claims that the leftists are manipulating the Lumads. North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco, chair of the House committee on indigenous people, even went as far as telling Rappler they were being held hostage inside the compound.
On August 7, the Military told the press that they were not responsible for what’s been happening with the Lumads and quoted United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons Chaloka Beyani as having agreed with them that the Lumads were indeed being manipulated by their support groups to turn them against the government. One week after that, UN’s Beyani sent a strongly-worded statement to the media, saying that his views were “grossly distorted” by the military. He said:
“The indigenous peoples whom I interviewed informed me that they relocated to this facility freely and in response to the militarization of their lands and territories and forced recruitment into paramilitary groups operating under the auspices of the AFP. My reference to their being ‘manipulated’ related to the attempt to forcibly move them out of the UCCP facility without proper and adequate consultation with them.”
Hours after Beyani’s statement, the spokesperson for the Eastern Mindanao Command (Eastmincom) Colonel Eduardo Gubat resigned and publicly apologized to Beyani. All of us know the story of one fictional Yaya, her dashing prince charming, and the cunning but wise grandmother in a noontime series plastered all over the internet, newspapers and the airwaves.
But only a few know the story of a 15-year-old Manobo boy from Pangantucan, Bukidnon.
His father Herminio Samia, 70, brothers Joebert, 20, and Emir, 19, relatives Norman, 13, and Elmer, 17 were killed in Sitio Mando, Barangay Mendis, Pangantucan in a military encounter. The military insists it was a legitimate encounter between government forces and the New People’s Army (NPA). The boy told the story of how soldiers shot his loved ones one by one. He told the story of how he begged for the mercy of soldiers to just take his father, brothers and relatives to jail, instead of kill them.
The AFP insists that the dead men and teenagers tested positive for nitrates, which supposedly means they were armed rebels who could have also shot the soldiers before the soldiers shot them.
InterAksyon published a report that challenged the conclusiveness of this paraffin test.
Quoting Dr. Vincent JM Di Maio of the Texas Forensic Science Commission in a book he wrote titled “Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques,” the article said that “although paraffin tests often turn out positive on the hands of persons who have fired weapons, they can also give positive results for persons who have not actually fired a gun.”
According to Dr. Di Maio, there is a “widespread distribution of nitrates and nitrites in our environment.” In fact, the article further said, potassium nitrate is also used in fertilizers. The boy’s father, brothers and relatives were farmers. The boy’s father was the second highest ranking chieftain of their tribal community. Knowing that the military was after the chieftain, residents rushed to the site to try and stop the military. It was the boy who spared their lives.
According to Human Rights group Karapatan: “the boy stopped them saying that the military men no longer differentiated civilians and would shoot anyone.”
It did not stop there, last Tuesday, September 2, while we were all busy debating the supposed “deal” between the government and the Iglesia Ni Cristo that marked the end of a 4-day rally (both camps have since explained that there was not an agreement, just a clarification), three Mindanaoans from Surigao del Sur were being killed.
Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of the tribal school Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev); Dionel Campos, head of a Lumad organization protesting mining operations, land conversions and plantations called the Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (MAPASU); and Campos’ cousin, Bello Sinzo were killed and we barely noticed.
They were allegedly killed by elements of the paramilitary group “Magahat-Bagani.” According to Karapatan-Caraga, the men woke members of the community very early and forced them to gather outside as they opened fire at Campos and Sinzo.
Samarca, on the other hand, was found dead inside one of the classrooms.
It was because of ALCADEV that Lumad children no longer have to cross mountains and rivers just to study. There they are taught to be critical thinkers so they could one day lead their community. Parents are taught practical skills like tending to the sick because the hospital is so far from them. For its outstanding contribution to the education and empowerment of Lumads, ALCADEV was conferred the National Literacy Award in 2001 and 2005.
But nobody knew this. Now all they will be known for is three cold, bloodied bodies. Because this multi-awarded school is now being painted a hotbed for communist rebels. According to Karapatan-Caraga, two days before the incident, elements of the Army’s 36th Infantry Battalion and Special Forces together with members of the Magahat-Bagani Force occupied the tribal school’s function halls and other areas.
The Mahagat allegedly “threatened to massacre the community should they not evacuate within two days.” Eliza Pangilinan of Karapatan-Caraga says: “This is a clear indication of collusion between the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and the armed Magahat-Bagani Forces. Despite the obvious presence of the military who are purportedly there for internal security, these killings continue to happen with impunity.”
The 36th Infantry Battalion said it comes to them as a surprise to be implicated when the area — Km. 16, Han-ayan, Barangay Diatagon, Lianga, Surigao del Sur — is not part of their jurisdiction.
Leftist lawmakers have come out against these killings:
Gabriela party-list Rep. Luz Ilagan: “There is a systematic operation to harass and kill lumad leaders. It is alarming.” Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate: “The government’s upkeep of paramilitary organizations is sustaining the state of impunity in our country. We denounce this recent killing of lumad leaders to the highest degree. We demand swift justice for these killings.”
Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon: “This new spate of lumad killings by paramilitary groups and suspected elements of the military is the result of President Aquino’s extant policy of militarization of the countryside. This latest incident further highlights the continuing culture of impunity in a country with a very dismal record of protecting human rights.”
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has called for an investigation into allegations that the military is involved with the operations of paramilitary groups “whose activities displace and destroy communities not only in Mindanao, but also in other parts of the country.”
As early as 2014, interest groups have been calling on the government to address the militarization of tribal villages in Mindanao and the alleged occupation of their schools. Last December, the Department of Education said that to fully investigate these allegations, schools should submit documentary evidence such as photos and videos.
In the murder of three in a school in Surigao del Sur last September 2, Karapatan-Caraga said all cellphones and cameras were seized by the armed men. According to the National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples Organizations in the Philippines, there have been 13 lumads killed, 4 massacres and more than 4,000 evacuees from Lumad communities in the last eight months, due to intense military operations.
Their Secretary-General Piya Malayo sent a statement to the press: “With still 9 months remaining, we dread the furtherance of even worse human rights violations by the Aquino government against our communities. We appeal to stop the killings of indigenous peoples, immediately investigate these cases and punish the perpetrators. We demand for the immediate dismantling and disarming of paramilitary groups, the pullout of the military forces from our communities, and to scrap Oplan Bayanihan.”
The Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of the UP Diliman, has recently launched a campaign calling for justice for the victims of killings in Mindanao.
They feature a 12-year-old Lumad girl from Mindanao who dreams of becoming a teacher. But she and her classmates have had to stop going to school because the military has set up bases and has burned several of their classrooms.
She has been staying at an evacuation center away from the community, and waiting for the military to leave her ancestral land. She told the Collegian: “Pangarap ko po sa buhay ay maging titser para makatulong ako sa kapwa ko Lumad.” (It is my dream in life to be a teacher so I can help my fellow Lumads). Members of the UP community have also held an indignation rally inside their campus to condemn what they call a military aggression and human rights violations.
But who’s listening to them? Who’s listening to the young Lumad girl who dreams of becoming a teacher and to the young Manobo boy who is now left fatherless? Who knows the names of the three teachers in Surigao del Sur who were killed helplessly as their equally helpless co-villagers looked on?
Tyrone Beyer of the Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights told me: “There isn’t enough attention to IPs because society in general has always discriminated IPs. The rare times we see them is when there are advertisements featuring culture or exotic stuff. It is only now that although minimally, IPs reach out or appear in media coverage because of their organized struggles to defend their land, the source of their lives and culture. It is still a challenge to highlight IPs and their issues. We are still struggling to be recognized as significant sectors for the achievement of overall economic and social development.”
Perhaps the detachment to tribes who live far away from us is understandable; it is a long and difficult journey towards changing mindsets. What is mind-boggling is the lack of interest to a boy who begged soldiers not to kill his family. The lack of interest to thousands of evacuees saying they are being harassed with guns; the lack of interest to the cries of villagers in Surigao del Sur who watched their teachers fall to their death on the ground.
This week, the world was shocked by a photo of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, whose dead body was washed up on a beach in Turkey. The war in Syria has been going on for years, their humanitarian crisis has been the subject of many advocacies and stories that have been ignored by so many of us. The Rohingyans, the Karens, and many other immigrants have suffered and died before Aylan did.
But it had to take a photo of his body, face down on the sand, his left eye peeping that, although closed, tore right through our souls and made us question whether we have done anything at all that could have saved him.
The Lumads of Mindanao have stories to tell like Aylan and his brother. Norman was like Aylan: so young, but now dead. Do we have to have a photo of Norman with blood spilling on the land he called his home before we could start listening?
There is now a worldwide clamor for the European nations and the rest of the countries to show compassion and open their doors to the refugees who are dying out at sea. While here we are killing our own people in their own lands while we watch and do nothing. Our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of our own Lumad tribe are calling out for help.
[Entry 96, The SubSelfie Blog]
#TanawMindanao Part 5
Editor’s Note: Our brothers and sisters in Mindanao have always complained of isolation, and of being painted a negative image in the media. #TanawMindanao is a series of content dedicated to mainstream their issues, demystify their stories and show that we are all the same. They just have a harder battle to fight towards peace, and this is the contribution of SubSelfie.com to that effort.
About the Author:
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England to take up her Masters in Digital Journalism at the Goldsmiths, University of London. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.