Peace group denounces US’ “militarization” of Mindanao

“We see them on the streets with sophisticated weapons, and our children are exposed to this culture of war at such an early age,” said Fatmawati Salapuddin of the Lupah Sug Bangsamoro Women’s Group.

Salapuddin is just one of the many members of the Citizens Peace Watch, an organization composed of more than 20 civic society organizations and party list groups which include STOP the War Coalition, Akbayan Partylist, Mindanao People’s Peace Movement, Pinay Kilos and Moro Human Rights Center.

The Citizens Peace Watch was recently established to investigate US military presence and intervention in the country, specifically in Mindanao.

From Feb. 18-21, the group traveled to this city and Sulu to conduct a fact-finding mission on the alleged participation of US troops in actual combat operations, particularly the Feb. 4 encounter in Maimbung town which killed eight civilians.

Lawyer Cora Fabros of STOP the War Coalition said that based on their initial findings, Rawina Wahid, a widow of one of the victims who directly witnessed the shootout, claimed that US troops were present during the operation. A few other residents reported to have seen US troops within the vicinity, but it was not clear if these instances were during the actual encounter, during investigation, or during humanitarian missions conducted by US forces in the province.

“The humanitarian projects of US troops are just a ‘cover up’ of US ‘militarization’ of Sulu,” said lawyer Virgie Pinlac of the KaisaKa/Citizen’s Coalition for Human Rights.

US humanitarian projects in Sulu include medical and dental missions and infrastructure projects like rehabilitation of roads and school buildings.

Citizens Peace Watch claimed that development projects provided by the US government, including those of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), have little impact on the province and the presence of armed US soldiers during project implementation is not helping the situation.

“The Japanese and Canadian governments also provide development assistance to Sulu, but we do not see their armed soldiers on the streets,” implied Mabel Carumba of the Mindanao People’s Peace Movement.

In their mission statement, Citizens Peace Watch asserted that US “militarization” is clearly indicated by the presence of a US military basing in Mindanao, citing the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF) military unit inside the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command Headquarters in this city, the US forces’ “actionable intelligence” through operation of spy planes and sophisticated communications facilities, and the conduct of certain US operations outside the control of Philippine government and military.

According to Maj. Eugenio Batara Jr., WesMinCom spokesman, the presence of the JSOTF military unit inside the camp was borne out of the Philippines’s request for aid from the US government for its anti-terrorism campaign, which includes training exercises and improvement of military equipment.

Batara also clarified that US soldiers are not allowed to loiter the streets of Sulu for security reasons, and it is only during humanitarian missions that they come in contact with locals. He also stated that there were no US troops anywhere within the vicinity of the Maimbung encounter during and after the shootout.

The Citizens Peace Watch is compiling a mission report on these issues which will be submitted to both chambers of Congress for further investigation. (Angel Tiamson-Saceda / MindaNews)