ZAMBOANGA CITY: Hundreds of families, mostly tribesmen, fled Davao del Norte as government troops launched an offensive against the New People’s Army (NPA), human rights groups said on Tuesday.
Tribesmen and villagers left the town of Talaingod for fear of being caught in the crossfire, arrested or branded as rebels or supporters of the rebel group which has been waging a secessionist war for many decades.
Media group Kilab, which documented the exodus of civilians, reported that more than 1,000 tribesmen are currently in Davao City and the number of those escaping the government offensive is steadily increasing by the day.
“More than a thousand indigenous people have fled their villages after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) persistently tormented their communities. Manobo men, women and children have travelled all the way from Talaingod to Davao City to seek refuge and expose the violations of their right to ancestral land and self-determination,” it said.
The Children Rehabilitation Center has conducted psycho-social intervention to some 500 Ata- Manobo children in their refugee camp at the United Church of Christ of the Philippines’ Haran House. It put the evacuees at around 1,300.
“The participants were among the 1,300 indigenous people from the hinterlands of Talaingod Norte who evacuated due to what they say massive militarization that includes aerial bombing, harassment and military encampment in the schools and communities,” it said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties either in the military or rebel side.
The NPA condemned the government assault, saying the attacks only affected innocent civilians and branded the military campaign as “atrocious operations.”
“The state’s use of overwhelming force against the NPA and its display of superior armament and forces in rugged mountainous terrain of guerrilla zones and bases has been proven in history as a failed formula. The enemy attacks a guerrilla force that is not a fixed military target. It drops bombs against empty camps, it attacks in thin air. Failing that, their overwhelming military force takes a cowardly retreat by instilling fear in the minds of the rural populace and innocent civilians,” a rebel spokesman Rigoberto Sanchez told The Manila Times.
“The AFP’s overweening arrogance and unconcern for the welfare of civilians is also displayed in its recent sortie in Talaingod when the NPA discharged command detonated explosives against their troops. It was obvious that the military exploited the civilians and the media as their protective cover under the pretext of relief operations for displaced Manobos. The AFP does not care one whit if civilians are killed or maimed,” he added.
Sanchez said government forces were attacking tribesmen in southern Philippines who are opposing or fighting unabated logging and large-scale mining operations within their ancestral domain.
“The AFP’s mission in Ta–laingod—their unspoken objective—is to punish Lumad Ma–nobos for having practiced their right to self-determination by prevailing over stage neglect and national oppression. The Lumads were in the process of building their own self-sufficient economy, a thing which the state finds abominable, hence the bombing and other abuses. Lumads are fair game to the 10th Infantry Division-Eastern Mindanao Command’s psychological warfare and inhuman operations,” he explained.
He said the indigenous people, for decades, have been deprived of their ancestral rights and fallen victims of state exploitation.
“They have waged campaign against land grabbers, large-scale miners and against reactionary laws and programs that try to subvert their rightful claim over their lands. Vastly neglected by the reactionary government, they nurtured farms, schools, under auspices of their own tribal system of leadership,” said Sanchez, adding the military has been tagging tribesmen as rebels or NPA supporters to justify its operations and pave the way for mining firms and logging to further exploit ancestral lands of the natives.
He also branded as “inutile” the military operations against the NPA, saying it would never win because the support of the people on the communist struggle is strong.
“Indeed, the AFP, while superior in a war of quick decision, is inutile against a people’s army waging widespread and intensive guerrilla warfare in the framework of a protracted people’s war,” he said.
The military’s Eastern Mindanao Command strongly denied all accusations of human rights violations and also branded the allegations as mere “propaganda.”
Captain Alberto Caber, a spokesman for the military command, said the operations were aimed at weakening the NPA in the province following civilian reports of massive abuses and atrocities committed by the rebel group.
“We are the protector of the people and we uphold human rights of every citizen and our operation is aimed at the communist terrorists who continue to their atrocities not only in Davao, but elsewhere in the region,” he said in a separate interview.
Caber also released statements by tribal leaders and politicians in Talaingod denying reports of military abuses in the town.
“For truth and peace, there were no abuses committed by the soldiers in the area. If indeed there are, then I myself will defend my people,” Caber quoted Talaingod Mayor Basilio Libayao as saying.
Caber said the politician also took a swipe on Pasaka, a confederation of indigenous peoples’ organizations in southern Philippines, as behind the evacuation of tribesmen in Davao City.
“The mayor also revealed that the residents were discreetly gathered by a group called Pasaka at night to leave their residences in order to make it appear that the soldiers on peace outreach in the area committed abuses. Mayor Libayao further said that they are seeking assistance from Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to let the evacuees return to Talaingod,” Caber said.
“We are capable to attend to the needs of our constituents. The organizers did not inform local authorities of their plan to bring the evacuees to Davao City. We are seeking assistance to the good mayor of Davao City to bring back our constituents here in our municipality. We also apologize for any disturbance, in one way or another, they may have caused,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
Caber, citing reports by social workers, said only 300 tribesmen have evacuated to Davao City.
Datu Ruben Labawan, leader of the Supreme Tribal Council for Peace and Development, said the evacuees need to return to their respective homes and farms to live normally.
“I appeal to the organizers, do not exploit the plight of the indigenous people, do not put us at risk. Please respect us,” he said.
Other tribal leaders said Pasaka does not represent the indigenous tribes in Talaingod and has no right to speak in their behalf.
Caber said troops have captured several rebel camps and recovered landmines during the operations, which began recently.
Eastern Mindanao Commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Rainier Cruz, has ordered military commanders to help villagers affected by the anti-communist campaign.
“It is our desire to protect the indigenous people from NPA’s deception and aggression. The military and police will always be there to protect the people. Rest assured that our best effort is to serve the people so they can live peacefully and without fear,” he said.