MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/2 February) – Col. Romeo Gapuz, commander of the 403rd Infantry Brigade, on Wednesday told the provincial board of Bukidnon that 2,500 Lumads (a generic term for indigenous peoples in Mindanao) in the province led by 13 datus or chieftains are helping the New People’s Army.
Pressed by Vice Gov. Jose Maria R. Zubiri Jr. as to how many of these Lumads are armed, Gapuz could not give a definite answer. He settled for a safe statement: they serve as mass-base of the NPA.
Before that, the colonel told the provincial board there are only 110 NPA guerrillas in Bukidnon’s three rebel fronts (Fronts 6, 53 and 89). Of these, 80 are regulars and 30 are militia members or part-time fighters. That’s less than 40 rebels per front giving periodic headaches to a numerically and logistically superior military.
But what baffles me is how the military determined with absolute certainty that 13 Lumad leaders and 2,500 of their followers are with the NPA, although Gapuz said that they only act as supporters. In the course of questioning by Zubiri, the military official said his source is one Datu Ongkit from San Fernando town, who figured in the surrender of an NPA outcast named Benjamin Salusad.
Gapuz did not say if Datu Ongkit gave him the names of the 13 datus, although I’d say the information is useless if no specific identities were mentioned. And if names were indeed given, it’s best for the military to exercise utmost caution in handling the matter.
For one, nobody knows for sure the real motive of the informant. It’s best for the military to investigate if Datu Ongkit simply wanted to settle a score with the 13 other datus. I have lived long enough in Bukidnon to know that rivalries do exist among tribal leaders in the province. Why, I even know of two brothers, both datus, who are no longer on talking terms due to leadership issues.
Some of these are caused by conflicting ancestral domain claims, others by economic interests. Worse, there’s one case where the conflicting Lumads all belong to the same tribe and the same ancestral domain, but eventually broke up into two factions over disputes on leadership and economic benefits.
In San Fernando town, there have been reports that certain Lumad groups, including Salusad’s band of former rebels, are fighting for control of small-scale gold mining activities. Rumors are rife that the rebels, a number of military personnel and some politicians have stakes in these activities too.
Whether these rumors are true or not is beside the point. The real issue here is that the military should be careful in handling information that tends to put the lives of people in danger. Being labeled a rebel supporter is no easy matter, especially for an obscure Lumad in a place that nobody knows exists. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)