ZAMBOANGA CITY: Tribesmen and various human rights groups in Davao Oriental on Wednesday threatened to leave their communities as they accused the military of using civilians as shield against rebels in its anti-insurgency operation.
They said military encampments in civilian communities, especially near schools, churches and other public buildings, make them vulnerable from attacks during encounters between government troops and rebel forces.
Karadyawan, a local indigenous people’s organization in Kapalong town, also accused the military of killing a taxi driver Wilfred Estrebillo and other human rights violations alleged- ly perpetrated by members of the 60th and 68th Infantry Battalion.
Lito Sampag, a spokesman for the Karadyawan, said: “The military is using our communities as shields; they are occupying our churches and schools, accusing and forcing some of us to surrender, and forcing our children to act as their guides in their pursuit of New People’s Army rebels.”
He said troops are currently encamped at Sitio Kapatagan, Taongatok, Upper Tagasan, Lower Ta–gasan, Mangkay, Maguimon, Aminipat and Ngan all in the village of Gupitan, and other areas nearby.
“Their presence brings threats and violations to the rights of the villagers. Their targets and vivid victims are us,” Sampag said. “If the military will not pull out from civilian areas, we shall be forced to leave our villages and protest this continued militarization.”
Human rights group Karapatan said it is documenting all reported cases of human rights violations in the areas identified by Karadyawan so that appropriate charges or legal actions can be filed against the perpetrators.
“But we will not rely on the filing of legal cases alone; the courageous protest of the people is more effective based on our experience because many of our government instrumentalities and offices are futile especially in addressing the complaints of poor people like the farmers and lumads.” Said Hanimay Suazo, Karapatan’s Secretary-General in Southern Mindanao.
Meanwhile, the military denied all the allegations and accused the NPA of human rights violations in the province.
Lt. Col. Norman Zuniega, commander of the 10th Civil-Military Operation Battalion, said the rebel group was behind numerous cases of killings, intimidation, coercion, extortion and recruitment of young villagers, including children to fight the government.
He said even local government agencies and officials have reported serious difficulties in the delivery of basic services and infrastructure projects in the villages due to the presence of rebels.
He said tribesmen were also being intimidated and coerced by human rights groups, including Karapatan, Barug Katawhan and other front organizations of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
“Residents reported the utilization of school classrooms by the NPA for anti-government propaganda and revolutionary activities, disrupting the schedule of students and causing fear among them,” Zuniega said.
“Also, it was found that indigenous peoples are the most exploited and deceived, purposely isolated by the NPA from any service or help from the governments as are the main targets of recruitment to become NPA fighters. The rebels do not have any regard for the welfare of indigenous tribes and their customary laws and they brainwashed and arm them and teach them violence,” he added.
Zuniega said the soldiers are continuing their peace and development outreach program in the province and are working closely with local governments in an effort to address the growing threats of the NPA.
“The 10th Infantry Division is mandated to secure the welfare of the people and we cannot allow this armed group to continue its exploitation of this area and its residents. We will continue to pursue this criminal group involved in extortion, exploitation of minors, deception, murder and the use of banned explosives. Regardless of whatever setbacks and unfounded accusations by groups with malicious intentions, the 10th Infantry Division will continue pursuing the peace and development that the citizens of the far-flung areas have long aspired for,” said Zuniega.
“We assure the people that we will continue to work with the local government and its agencies to address the people’s concerns, and to help the people in the area live normally and freely, without the constant psychological fear caused by the NPA,” he said.