Election problem seen in Surigao del Sur if conflict in Lumad areas not resolved

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 24 Sept) – The head of the Commission on Election (COMELEC) in Surigao del Sur has expressed concerns that the displacement of indigenous people and communities in the province may cause problem in next year’s election if issues would not be addressed.

“We need to be concerned and address the issues raised by the displaced people in the evacuation area in Tandag City,” said lawyer Ernie Palanan, Provincial Election Supervisor II of COMELEC.

He warned that if not resolved properly in due time, it would be a huge problem for the COMELEC.

“People should be able to vote freely and without any hindrance and fear. It is our obligation to find means to give the people this,” Palanan said.

Evacuees, mostly from the Manobo tribe, have been flocking Tandag, the provincial capital, since last month when Bagani gunmen threatened residents as well as the staff of a tribal school in Sitio Nalindog, Barangay Bolhoon, San Miguel town. On August 28, brothers Cristano and Ellie Tabogol were murdered in Barangay Siargao in the same municipality.

On September 1, gunmen of another militia, the Magahat, murdered Emerito Samarca, executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, an award-winning tribal school in Barangay Diatagon, Lianga town and executed Dionel Campos, chairman of the Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang Sa Sumusunod (MAPASU), and his cousin Bello Sinzo in front of residents as well as staff and students of the school, whom the militias had rounded up.

Presently around 3,000 individuals have been displaced and staying at the Surigao del Sur Sports Complex in Tandag City.

Palanan explained that the electoral process is very important since this is the essence of the nation’s democracy.

He said he is worried because usually, if there are election hot spots, the COMELEC would ask the help of the military. “But the ironic part in this case, based on our own investigation, the people have a huge mistrust with the Army,” Palanan lamented.

He said they may ask the police instead to provide security measures.

“As of now we are trying to establish a relationship with the people and have a win-win solution to get the people to vote. Maybe we can do a joint Army-police operation to help secure the election, but maybe we’ll request the Army to work in the periphery and the police closer to the community,” added Palanan.

The Comelec supervisor revealed that together with several personnel, they have gone to the affected areas and talked with stakeholders into finding alternative solutions to the problem.

Palanan said that this early, he has requested the reactivation of the Provincial Joint Security Control Center to discuss the issue.

“We also made our own assessment and interviews and personally talked to barangay officials in the affected areas. No matter how we try to justify that this is an insurgency related situation, we cannot remove the fact that the election will be hampered,” he stressed.

Palanan said they are looking at the possibility of requesting for additional police force – like the Special Action Force (SAF) and the Regional Public Safety Company or PNP Scouts – equipped to handle such security issues.

Chief Supt. Vert Tinio Chavez, regional director in Caraga, said that they are continuously assessing the situation.

He made it clear that even if the COMELEC would spearhead and deputize the police, they would make recommendations together with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Capt. Jo Patrick Martinez, spokesman of the 4th Infantry Division, clarified that whatever the recommendation and request of the COMELEC, the Army will push for recommendation based on their mandate.

“Part of the Army’s mandate is to protect the people, the right of suffrage. We all know that the threat of the New People’s Army (NPA) rises especially during election period. We cannot just allow and let the rebels roam around and dominate the areas, especially when we know they will find means to sabotage the election and push for ways to extort money from candidates through permit to campaign and permit to win,” said Martinez.

He emphasized that the situation in the area is a conflict between lumads who are in favor and against the New People’s Army (NPA) and that the issue should be resolved among them.

“The Army is there so help secure and maintain peace within these communities. The COMELEC does not have the last say on the matter and that other stakeholders – like our political leaders, the Department of National Defense, Philippine National Police and others – can also repute such recommendation if needed,” said Martinez.

In the 2013 election, Palanan was the election head in Butuan City who made news when he, together with other stakeholders, strictly implemented the removal of election signage and campaign advertisement throughout the city.