QUEZON CITY (August 9) — More than 20 community leaders from war affected areas of Mindanao have asked the Department of National Defense (DND) to conduct an “in-depth and accurate study on the role of the government militia in the escalation of violent conflicts in Mindanao.”
The request was relayed to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin during the first of a series of meetings with cabinet secretaries that the Mindanao Peoples Caucus (MPC) has organized within the week.
The request for the DND to look into the alleged role of the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) in the violent conflicts in Mindanao was raised following the delegations’ observation that the militias were being “used and employed as private armies, personal bodyguards and hired goons of politicians who, time and again, had been proven to be spoilers of local peace and unity among communities already experiencing displacement and risk.”
Specifically, the participants to the week-long lobby mission dubbed “Conversation with Mindanao Grassroots,” told Secretary Gazmin that there is a need to “review the process of recruiting CAFGUs” as they also urged government to investigate alleged practices of the militias and regular soldiers to use public facilities, like barangay halls and health centers, as their outposts.
Bae Magdalina Suhat-Herbelia, chair of the Council of Elders of the Matigsalog tribe in Bukidnon, specifically complained that even minors among her tribe were being recruited by soldiers for enlistment into the CAFGU.
Suhat-Herbelia mentioned the Army 57th IB which allegedly used the barangay hall and asked Secretary Gazmin if the soldiers do not have budget to set up their detachment in a place not populated by civilians so the innocent ones would not be caught in crossfire in an event of an armed encounter between soldiers and rebels.
Uztadz Rahib Kudto, deputy secretary-general of MPC, also asked Secretary Gazmin to “share to the public the results of the investigation and study” of the Malacanang created National Commission Against Private Armies, which was created to conduct a study on how to disband private armies. The Commission was formed after the gruesome Ampatuan massacre that killed 58 people, 36 of them were journalists, on November 23 last year.
Kudto believes that “it is difficult to sustain peace in Mindanao if lawless armed groups and abusive government militias continue to operate with apparent impunity.”
Gazmin, who told the group he was assigned in Mindanao for 12 years, said he was thankful that the delegation met him, stressing the “need for us to understand the different positions of all” in issues affecting the community.
Atty. Mary Ann Arnado, secretary-general of MPC, told Gazmin that her group, which has been supporting the peace process in Mindanao, would also like to support the DND in addressing the Mindanao problems, including that of the internally displaced persons, a reason she presented for wanting to meet the Defense secretary.
“We want to support efforts to come up with viable solutions to achieve peace in Mindanao,” Arnado also stressed.
Secretary Gazmin was thankful that the Mindanao delegation came at a time when they were still drafting their plans so that “your inputs will be incorporated in our plans.”
Prof. Raby Angkal, a member of the delegation, proposed “an all out support to the peace talks until a final agreement will be reached. We can only have good life in Mindanao if an agreement is reached.”
Angkal appealed for Gazmin to attend to the plight of more than 60,000 individuals “mostly children, who continue to suffer in evacuation centers in Mindanao. Many of these evacuees have been in the evacuation centers since more than two years already. There are more people who continue to troop to evacuation areas as a result of ridos (clan wars), and recently, the flooding in some areas around the Liguasan Marsh.”
Badria Abas, an evacuee, told the defense secretary that after two years in the evacuation centers, they were able to go back home but only to continue suffering. “Mas lalo kaming naghihirap. Wala pa rin kaming bahay. Wala pa rin kaming makain. Inaasahan po namin ngayon na nagbago na ang gobyerno sana wala ng gyera para wala na ring bakwit.”
Babu Umbai Maliganan, also an evacuee who is joining for the fifth time a lobby mission organized by the MPC, said: “Ilang beses na ako babalik ditto sa, Camp Crame, Camp Aguinaldo, at Malacanang, upang humingi ng tulong. Sana dahil bago na ang ating president hintuan na ang gulo. Gusto namin ma develop na ang aming organization. Sana hanggang noong tyempo ni Presidnet GMA na lang ang gulo. Wala na sanang gulo sa panahon ni President Aquino. Hinihiling namin sa inyo na itigil na ang gulo. Karamihan sa amin, Muslim man or Christian, wala ng kapital pang farm. Dinaanan pa kami ng El Nino. Yung pagpatigil ng El Nino, duon hingiin kay Allah. Itong gulo dito hilingin sa inyo na matataas na officials.”
Gazmin told the group that their “comments and suggestions will be brought to agencies concerned so that your voices will be heard.”
Fr. Teresito Suganob, the vicar-general of the Prelature of Marawi, relayed to Secretary Gazmin and his staff how he “saw with my two eyes the sufferings of the many evacuees.”
But more than the sufferings in the evacuation centers, Fr. Suganob said that the war has brought long term damage to the relationship of Muslims and Christians which he believed “may take centuries to heal.”
“If there is war, it will ruin the life of the residents until the end of their life aside from reinforcing the biases against Muslims and Christians, which effects will last for centuries,” the priest said.
“We do not only recommend but we demand protection of civilians because that is the duty of the government to protect the civilians,” stressed Suganob on the need for government to ensure safety of civilians in situations of armed conflict.
Defense Undersecretary for Internal Affairs Ramon Martinez Jr., assured the group that the government no longer tolerates Special CAFGU and that government militias would no longer be under the control of local government units but the Army. “We do not allow the local government units to have control over militias.” (Romy B. Elusfa is a member of the “peace lobby” delegation).