Bukidnon tribal chief decries military, NPA abuses over ancestral domains

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/1 Dec) – The indigenous peoples in Bukidnon have been caught in the crossfire in the fighting between the military and the communist New People’s Army as both parties do not recognize and respect the rights of the lumads over their ancestral domain, a tribal leader said.

Roelito Gawilan, chief of the Federation of Matigasalug, Manobo Tribal Council Association (Femmatrics) and ex-officio member of the Bukidnon provincial board, said during the board’s 43rd regular session that his people suffer both parties’ abuses.

“This (being caught in the crossfire) is a dilemma for the indigenous peoples,” he said during the session’s question hour where Vice Gov. Jose Ma. R. Zubiri Jr. grilled Col. Romeo Gapuz, chief of the 403rd Infantry Brigade, on their pursuit of rebels in the province following the surrender of San Fernando-based armed group leader Benjamin Salusad along with 79 others last month.

Gawilan explained that a lumad who suffered from one party’s abuses would go to the other party for revenge.

He cited Salusad’s case who he said suffered abuses from the military, the reason he went to the NPA. Salusad eventually went back to the folds of the government.

Gawilan said the never-ending battle between the military and the rebels caught them unfairly as victims.

“Where is the peace process if you don’t recognize and respect the rights of the indigenous peoples on their ancestral domains?” he said.

To the NPA, he said they should no longer enter the Lumad’s ancestral domains.

But Gawilan said it is actually the military who is triggering the increase in the number of people siding with the rebels.

He cited the abuses experienced by Lumad communities where their datus or tribal leaders were killed or harassed.

Capt. Eduardo Meclat Jr., chief of civil military operations of the 403IB, said the abuses by the military are a thing of the past.

He added that the military now pursues a people-centered campaign, which shows respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. He cited that the brigade even has a human rights desk and an IP desk.

Gawilan’s reaction came amid the discussion between Zubiri and Gapuz.

Zubiri questioned the release of financial assistance to surrenderees that did not turn over firearms. He also questioned the deluge of rebel returnees, with 102 earlier this year in Cabanglasan and 79 others with Salusad. He said the military reported rebel strength in the province to be only 120 in an earlier meeting this year.

Gapuz said a portion of the rebel returnees, like 49 out of 80 with Salusad, were militias or those who may not carry firearms. He told the provincial board that rebels from neighboring provinces also augment the rebels in Bukidnon on special operations.

Zubiri asked if Salusad is qualified to receive any financial assistance when he was allegedly no longer a rebel when he surrendered.

Gapuz clarified that the rebels cease to become enemies of the state only when they surrender.

But Gawilan said it is immaterial at this point.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. They were just victims (of the abuses),” he added.

Board member Jay Albarece said the discussion with Gapuz was part of their deliberation before they decide on the agreement with the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. (Walter I. Balane / MindaNews)