Soldiers delay Balikatan protesters en route to Pikit; Brigade chief says “misconstrued”

Zaynab Datumanong Ampatuan, secretary-general of the Suara Bangsamoro party list, said soldiers from the 7th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army led by Lt. Jilbert Barrera blocked their way and allegedly asked copies of permit from the local government unit (LGU). A later report said the soldiers asked copies of a permit allegedly from the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines).

The group said there was no need to secure a permit from any LGU as they were only expressing their opinion on issues they believe would not be beneficial to the people.

Ampatuan said the participants were held for two hours along the highway checkpoint before they were allowed to proceed to Pikit town.

Members of militant organizations from Kidapawan City and the towns of Carmen, Pigcawayan, Aleosan, Libungan, Midsayap, Alamada, and Makilala in North Cotabato were to converge in Pikit town for the rally culminating their anti-Balikatan caravan.

The party-list said that what happened to them was clear violation of their right to expression.

Misconstrued

But Lt. Col. Dickson Hermoso, chief of the Army’s 7th IB, told MindaNews Monday evening that the checking of vehicles “may have been misconstrued” by the caravan participants. He said this has been going on since last week because of the tense situation in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, following the assumption of former vice mayor Norodin Matalam as the new mayor.

To recall, the Commission on Elections proclaimed on May 16, 2007 —  two days after the election — Ohto Montawal as mayor-elect and his father, Macabangen, as vice mayor-elect of Pagalungan. Macabangen Montawal was mayor from 2004 to 2007 when Matalam was vice mayor. The Montawals got the same number of votes: 2,769 each, when proclaimed.

The Matalam camp complained that the Montawals were proclaimed even as the votes in eight of Pagalungan’s 12 towns had yet to be counted and that the ballots in the four barangays were allegedly questionable, having been snatched in the morning and reportedly filled out in neighboring Montawal town.

Hermoso said they are strict at the checkpoints from Datu Montawal to Pagalungan to avoid a repeat of the September 2007 clash along Lumayong Bridge in Carmen, where the Matalams and supporters of Montawals figured in a gunfight that left nine people dead and several injured.
    
Pangalungan is located between Datu Montawal and Pikit towns.

He said the mayor of Pikit also informed him about a rally in his town only that morning. Hermoso said the mayor told him no one from Pikit attended the rally and that those who participated came from Arakan, Kidapawan and Carmen towns.

Lt. Barrera, he said, is the commanding officer of Alpha Comany in charge of Pagalungan area. “I gave him orders last week to be strict in dealing with the volatile political situation between the Matalams and the Montawals. If they (caravan participants) were included in the checking this morning, that’s part of the impartiality we are doing in the area. Had I known early that they would pass by Pagalungan, I could have softened the manner of checking. Just tell them that it was not intended for them but for the feuding political clans. I don’t want a similar situation like what happened in Lumayong Bridge,” Hermoso, whose headquarters is based in Pikit, said.

                US troops out, GMA out

Bro. Rustico Lumbo, FMS, convenor of Out Now! Coalition-Cotabato said he is “so sad that the government is so zealous with Balikatan but forsake the cry of innocent civilians especially the women and children who are often the victims.”
          
Rev. Jeric Cortado, convenor from United Methodist Church, said American troops keep going back to Mindanao “because of the richness of our land.”

Ustadz Ibrahim Sarip, also a convenor, said, "the Moro people have experienced all forms of violations from these foreign contingents.”

An anti-Balikatan rally was also held in Davao City with protesters carrying streamers calling for the ouster of  President Arroyo.

In Cagayan de Oro, where caravan participants from the Zamboanga and Lanao provinces, Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon and the Caraga region converged for a march-rally Monday morning, protesters not only called for the ouster of US troops in the country but also for the ouster of  President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

“Along with our call for the ouster of US troops, let us also call for the ouster of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her puppetry to US interests,” Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo said, as Rodolfo Noel “Jun” Lozada again appeared before the Senate on the national broadband deal.

A press statement from InPeace Mindanao said Ocampo and Maza also supported the resolution filed by some Mindanao representatives to suspend the Balikatan, citing the February 4 incident in Sulu where US troops were alleged to be behind the killing of seven civilians and a soldier on vacation during a military operation.

Bayan Muna Representative Satur Ocampo and Gabriela Women Party representative Liza Maza joined the march and later in the rally called for the unity of Mindanao people to oust the US troops and President Arroyo.

                “Humanitarian”

InPeace quoted Amirah Ali Lidasan, vice president of Suara Bangsamoro as saying  US troops have “turned the Moro people into live fire targets of their military exercises.”  

She cited various Moro civilians in Sulu and Basilan who have been killed or wounded during Balikatan war games. She said US troops were found to be joining ground operations with the AFP, “in clear violation of our national sovereignty.”

Mass protests against the Balikatan have continued even as early this month, a press release from the Public Affairs Section of the United States Embassy in Manila, said there will be "no military exercises or war games conducted in Mindanao and Sulu" during Balikatan 2008 from February 18 to March 3 but "Mindanao and Sulu" will receive "humanitarian assistance" within that period.

The press release did not specify in which areas in Mindanao they were going to conduct the "humanitarian assistance," citing only "Central and Western Mindanao" and "the Sulu Archipelago" where "approximately 23 humanitarian assistance projects" will be conducted within the period.

The press release said "approximately 600 U.S. troops will work with civilian authorities and the AFP (Armed Forces in the Philippines) in these regions on humanitarian projects" and that the joint teams will offer "free medical, dental, and veterinary care."

"They will also construct and repair schools and other community infrastructures in areas of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago that are in great need of assistance. The majority of U.S. personnel are construction engineers and medical specialists.  They will be working side-by-side with their AFP counterparts who will be in charge of all projects," the US Embassy said.

 "These humanitarian assistance and training activities enable our soldiers to get to know each other, train together, and provide assistance in communities where the need is greatest," the press release quoted U.S. Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney as saying. "True to the meaning of the word Balikatan, Americans and Filipinos are shouldering the load together to help the greatest possible number of people in need," Kenney said.

Lidasan lashed out against these “humanitarian missions,” saying that “US troops give us aid with their right hand, but their left hand is brandishing firearms that kill us.”

Groups such as the Sisters’ Association in Mindanao (Samin), Ranao Crescent Against Balikatan Exercises (Racabe) of Lanao del Sur, Kusog sa Katawhang Lumad sa Mindanao (Kalumaran), and Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) joined the rallies.

Lawyer Frederico Gapuz, chair of UPLM, told protesters in Cagayan de Oro: “I’ve been fighting US military intervention for fifty years. It’s been that long, but are we ready to ensure that in our lifetime we can drive them away?”  

“The protesters responded with a resounding yes,” InPeace Mindanao said.

The Cagayan de Oro rally ended with the burning of a US flag and an effigy of President Arroyo, the press statement read. (MindaNews)

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