Senate probe on Lumad killings: “apparent unholy alliance” and denials

TANDAG CITY, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/04 October) – The two-day Senate probe on Lumad killings ended Friday afternoon with Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III and Aquilino Pimentel III echoing the call of Lumads (Indigenous Peoples), church and local government leaders to arrest, disarm and disband the “Magahat-Bagani” paramilitary group that has been repeatedly accused of sowing terror in several towns in Surigao del Sur and whose disbandment has also been repeatedly sought.

But the Bishop of Tandag is still waiting for answers to critical questions about the “apparent unholy alliance between the military and the Bagani  which the military vehemently denies.” 

Bishop Nereo Odchimar in an interview with MindaNews after the Senate public hearing (Oct. 2, 2015). MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno Bishop Nereo Odchimar in an interview with MindaNews after the Senate public hearing (Oct. 2, 2015). MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

On Thursday, Tandag Bishop Nereo Odchimar told the Senate probe on Lumad killings called for by the Committees on Justice and Human Rights, and Cultural Communities that he is “baffled” why, despite the military’s denials of an alliance, Marcial Belandres, one of the leaders of the paramilitary group and principal suspect in the October 2014 killing of Manobo teacher Henry Alameda and Aldren Dumaguit, was among three persons presented as Datus in a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on September 15.

In that press conference, Belandres and company cleared the military of alleged collusion with the paramilitary group and instead pointed to the New People’s Army (NPA) as the perpetrators of the killings and harassments.

The press conference came two weeks after the September 1 attack on Sitio Han-ayan, Diatagon, Lianga where Emerito Samarca, executive director of an alternative learning center, Lumad leader Dionel Campos and his cousin Bello Sinzo were killed early morning of September 1 by armed men known in the area as “Magahat-Bagani,” allegedly with soldiers from the 75th and 36th Infantry Battalions.

The Army Board of Inquiry said a military patrol was about a hundred meters away from the basketball court where the paramilitary group of about 20 held hostage at gunpoint about a hundred civilians, including women and children, but the patrol leader, a fresh graduate from the Philippine Military Academy, reportedly claimed they could not engage the armed group despite an order from their superiors, allegedly for fear of harming the civilians.

 A mother prepares sweet potatoes at the town gym in Marihatag, Surigao del Sur on Friday (02 October 2015). She and her sons are among the 1,000 individuals that fled Barangay Mahaba, Marihatag on Oct. 1 due to an ongoing military operation in their place. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno A mother prepares sweet potatoes at the town gym in Marihatag, Surigao del Sur on Friday (02 October 2015). She and her sons are among the 1,000 individuals that fled Barangay Mahaba, Marihatag on Oct. 1 due to an ongoing military operation in their place. MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

The Philippine National Police (PNP) had filed a complaint for multiple murder, arson, robbery and grave threats at the Provincial Prosecutors Office in Lianga town against the borthers Bobby and Loloy Tejero, Garito Layno, and several John Does.

The attack triggered the evacuation of some 3,000 residents from Han-ayan and 26 other villages in the towns of Lianga, San Agustin, San Miguel, Marihatag and Tago, who are now occupying the Sports Center within the Provincial Capitol compound in Tandag City.

Han-ayan residents interviewed by MindaNews at the evacuation center said the armed men warned they would return to “massacre” them. (Another wave of evacuees from Barangay Mahaba in Marihatag fled to the municipal gymnasium on Thursday, the first day of the Senate probe here, following an armed encounter believed to be between the military and the NPA, and the alleged sighting of Bobby Tejero, one of three identified killers in the September 1 attack in Han-ayan).

“Irony of ironies”

“Irony of ironies, this Marcial (Belandres) was one of three Datus brought to Camp Aguinaldo, given the opportunity to clear the military of any connivance,” said Bishop Odchimar, who served as president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines from 2009 to 2011.

Belandres was identified as among Alameda’s killers by Alameda’s wife Zenaida, who testified at the Senate probe. Odchimar said Belandres was also named in a January 2015 agreement to disarm and disband the paramilitary group led by Marcos Bocales, Belandres and a certain Calpit. The agreement was signed by representatives of displaced residents, local government and military and police officials.

Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III (in black) and Aquilino Pimentel (right), at the Senate Probe on Lumad killings held in Tandag City on October 1 and 2, 2015. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III (in black) and Aquilino Pimentel (right), at the Senate Probe on Lumad killings held in Tandag City on October 1 and 2, 2015. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo

Senator Guingona later asked the public not to be surprised as he himself was surprised when a member of his staff approached him while Alameda’s wife was testifying, that Belandres was with a group of Lumads who went to see him at the Senate on September 16 and even had a photograph with him. Guingona said he told the group who wanted to talk to him about what was happening in Surigao del Sur to testify at the Senate probe here. Belandres did not show up in the hearing but his companion in the Camp Aguinaldo press conference, Datu Rico Macat, testified.

The visit of Belandres’ group in the Senate came a day after their press conference and two days after Guingona delivered a privilege speech urging the Senate to conduct an investigation on the killings and harassments here and to “restore the rule of law in Surigao.”

In his privilege speech, Guingona said he wanted answers to these questions: “No. 1, Why did the armed forces not do anything?; No. 2, Why are the police not doing anything also when they have armed men knocking on doors of civilians?”

“Coddling”

The Bishop also brought to the attention of the Senators that on September 29, or just two days before the start of the probe here, Belandres, his wife Gaga and their children, boarded Cebu Pacific flight 5J92 in Butuan for Manila, where “they were met (at the airport) by the military.”

“Now my question is,” Odchimar asked, “if there is no unholy alliance between the military and Bagani… why is the military coddling (them) if there is no connivance between the Bagani and the military?”

In response to Odchimar’s queries, Brig. Gen. Joselito Kakilala, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Civil Relations Service, said that based on their data, Belandres “surrendered Aug. 23-25” this year, during the Peace Caravan that sent off the troops to conduct peace and development activities in the municipalities.

Kakila said Belandres “went through the process” that was “vetted by different local agencies in Surigao del Sur” before the formal surrender.

He said Belandres was in Manila “to speak about the truth on the dynamics” of the situation “and why this “inter-clan conflict” happened and how the NPA is allegedly destroying the Lumad community.

Kakilala said the NPA in the past gave the Datus a free hand to “engage with the different corporations engaged in logging and mining” on the “sharing between how much money they get from these companies” but that this agreement was revised by the NPA sometime in 2004 and 2005, with the NPA, not the Datus, already negotiating with the companies.

He said the Datus “resented that latest agreement” where the NPA negotiates on their behalf.

Han-ayan residents at the evacuation center told MindaNews that vested interest groups out to exploit the vast mineral deposits in their ancestral domain in Andap Valley could be the reason behind the deployment of soldiers and the paramility in their area.

“No case”

Kakilala also said Belandres “has no case at all.”

Senator Pimentel had earlier asked Chief Supt. Vert Chavez, acting chief of the PNP in Caraga, on the status of the case after the wife of Alameda testified.

He said the case was “still under investigation due to lack of witnesses.” Chavez said Mrs. Alameda’s Oct. 2014 affidavit did not name Belandres as among the killers. He said it was the first time he heard the wife name Belandres.

The two-day Senate probe on Lumad killings held in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur, ended Friday afternoon with critical questions unanswered. MindaNews photo by Erwin Mascarinas The two-day Senate probe on Lumad killings held in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur, ended Friday afternoon with critical questions unanswered. MindaNews photo by Erwin Mascarinas

The senator proposed to Chavez to have a supplemental affidavit prepared now that the wife has named Belandres.

But even as Belandres may not have been named in Mrs. Alameda’s affidavit, he was one of two leaders of the paramilitary group named in the January 30, 2015 “Agreement on the return of the Evacuees to Barangays San Isidro and St. Christine” in Lianga town, where representatives of the provincial, municipal and barangay governments, as well as church leaders, military and police officials and representatives of the “bakwits” agreed, among others,  to “disarm and dismantle” the paramilitary group and to file charges against them immediately.

Col. Alexander Macario, chief of the 401st Brigade, signed on behalf of the military while Sr. Superintendent Narciso Verdadero, provincial director of the Philipine National Police (PNP) in Surigao del Sur, signed on behalf of the PNP.

Campos, one of the three persons killed on September 1, was among the signatories.

A similar agreement on November 3, 2014, stated that charges against the paramilitary group leader’s Marcos Bocales and Calpit be filed.

More questions

When the Senate probe resumed Friday morning, Odchimar, who spoke on behalf of the clergy and sisters of the Diocese of Tandag, and “I presume I also carry the voice of my brothers in the Christian denominations, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente represented here by five bishops,” said they would like to “share the demands” of Governor Johnny Pimentel that the accused in the September 1 killing of Emerito Samarca, Dionel Campos and Bello Sinzo – and other killings, “be brought to justice.”

“In connection with this, I would like to ask the question. Does the mere fact of the surrender exonerate them from crimes committed before their surrender?,” Odchimar asked, referring to Belandres.

“We ask respectfully ask (for) the disarmament and disbandment of these armed groups,” he said.

Child evacuees hold classes at the evacuation center in Tandag City (Oct. 1, 2015). MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno Child evacuees hold classes at the evacuation center in Tandag City (Oct. 1, 2015). MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

The Bishop also read a faded, undated document in Cebuano, purportedly from the Tribal Territorial Defense Force (TTDF – O Bagani), stating the Bagani was organized in 2006 “to defend our ancestral domain and to destroy the mass base of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New Peoples Army-National Democratic Front in the hinterlands.”

The statement called on all members of the Manobo tribe to stand up and fight and “reclaim our ancestral domain from the hands of the oppressive CPP/NPA/NDF.”

“Like a bibingka”

“The military and Bagani have a common enemy: the NPA,” Bishop Odchimar said.

But the Bishop also noted that he had copies of extortion letters “coming from so-called Bagani and from the NPA.”

“The Lumads are caught like a bibingka (rice cake): fire above and fire below,” to which Guingona replied, “bibingka talaga.”

The Bishop said “drastic measures” must be undertaken now to avoid a repeat of violent incidents.

“I don’t know whether there is an ulterior motive. Why are these Lumads being harassed?,” he asked.

The Bishop also wants to know why Secretary Corazon Soliman of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) offered a relocation site for the “bakwits.”

“If there is relocation, then there might be an ulterior motive of removing these people from that place. Why offer relocation when the people want to return to their place?” he asked.

But Governor Pimentel clarified that what Soliman offered was a temporary site that would serve as halfway house until the evacuees are “ready to return home.”

Common enemy

In an interview shortly after the probe was adjourned on Friday afternoon, Odchimar told MindaNews that “some questions” were not answered.

He said the military and the paramilitary have a common enemy, the NPA “so there could have been an unholy alliance. Because according to the claims of the people, no concrete action has been made in order to bring to justice the murderers and also the perpetrators of harassments.”

He said the paramilitary group seems to have been “just tolerated” as there are perceptions that “in some situations, the paramilitary helped the military fight the NPA so if this paramilitary group commits some crimes, they are reluctant to apprehend them because meron silang pinagsamahan” (they are allies).

“The perception is there is collusion between armed groups and the military and there seems to be indications like the ones we cited,” Odchimar said.

Governor Pimentel told the Senate Probe on Thursday that he hopes the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “would not be offended” but the perceptions that the “Magahat-Bagni” are supported by the AFP persists. “If (they are) not supported, then why can’t we apprehend or arrest these people” when the provincial government had already asked for the disbandment of the group “as early as last year.”

“How many more will die?”

He cited the extortion activities of the group in Barobo town. “How come the Bagani are roaming the province with high powered firearms?… How many more will die before this group is disbanded?”

Governor Pimentel as well as Lumad leaders and advocates also asked why the Bagani forces set up camps “near the camp of the Army,” an allegation the military denied.

“Mga santo ba gyud kaha ni nga mga tawhana nganong di man madakop? Inutil na ba ning atong gobyerno nga dili madakop kining mga (Bagani) forces? (Are they saints that they cannot be arrested? Is our government useless that it cannot arrest these forces?)

“I understand, ako okay ra ko kung gigamit (ang Bagani) sa counter-insurgency (it’s okay for me if the Bagani were used in counter-insurgency). Let them do their part pero kung masagad pati ang mga civilian, murag di na na sakto.” (but if civilians are harmed, that is not right).

More troops?

Bishop Odchimar said his question on whether surrender exonerates the person of a crime, also went unanswered.

Odchimar, however, expressed hope the Senate probe could lead to a resolution of this “very complex problem.”

But the Bishop cautioned Lt. Gen. Aurelio Baladad, chief of the Eastern Mindanao Comand, from sending more troops to the province.

Baladad told the Senate probe on Friday morning that they are “contemplating on bringing in more troops” to help in the disbandment of these armed groups and go after the killers.

In matters of law enforcement, such as the arrest of criminals and disarming of armed groups, it is the PNP that takes the lead, with the AFP assisting. In counter-insurgency, it is the AFP that takes the lead, with the PNP assisting.

“I think there is still that lingering feeling against the military and the animosity among the people,” the Bishop said.

“I went around the sports center (where the “bakwits” are) asking at random and the pervading sentiment was that of fear (of) the military, the seeming animosity,” he explained.

“Now at this stage, to be bringing immediately the soldiers, the intention might be noble but …” Odchimar said.

Erlinda Pagalan, a bakwit from Sitio Han-ayan, Barangay Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur share with a grandchild a small space at the evacuation site in Tandag City on Thursday (1 October 2015). MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno Erlinda Pagalan, a bakwit from Sitio Han-ayan, Barangay Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur share with a grandchild a small space at the evacuation site in Tandag City on Thursday (1 October 2015). MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

But he also acknowledged that he does not believe the police can do it alone. ‘They could not even serve the warrants of arrest,” he said.

Baladad said Surigao del Sur is second nationwide, after Compostela Valley, in terms of the NPA’s armed strength. It is also in the province of Surigao del Sur, he said, where the yearly celebration of the anniversaries of the Communist Party of the Philippines and New Peoples’ Army are celebrated.

Maj. Gen. Oscar Lactao, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said they will take all the necessary steps to support the PNP in arresting the perpetrators. “Together with the PNP, we will put a stop to this,” he vowed.

On the alleged coddling of the paramilitary group, Lactao said the Army is a professional organization that “never condones” the presence of lawless armed groups.

Returning home

“I feel so sad,” Sister Stella Matutina, a Benedictine nun based in Marihatag town, emphasized that justice should be given for those who were killed. “They were not NPA. They were civilians.”

Matutina said concrete actions must be undertaken for the “bakwits” who had been staying at the Sports Center here since September 1. “Twelve mothers had given birth and 52 mothers are about to give birth,” she said, adding the evacuees want to go home where their livelihood is.

“We want help from you, Senators, (we want) immediate action (so) that these people can go back,” she said.

On the disarming of the paramilitary group, the nun said, “I think we should not evade questions…. our question now is to face problem of people in evacuation centers.”

One of the “bakwits” in the evacuation center, Jocelyn Pagalan, a 36-year old Manobo leader, mother of four and grandmother to a four-day old baby at the time of the attack on September 1, told MindaNews they will only return home if their security is guaranteed, the killers are made to answer for their crimes, the military is pulled out from their areas and the “Bagani” is disbanded. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)