Army official accuses Lumads in Bukidnon of conniving with rebels

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/2 Feb) – About 2,500 Lumads under 13 tribal leaders are working with the New People’s Army (NPA) in southern Bukidnon, the highest ranking military official here told the Sangguniang Panlalawigan Wednesday in his update on the military’s pursuit of the rebels.

Col. Romeo Gapuz, commander of the Army’s 403rd Infantry Brigade based here, said the indigenous peoples serve as mass support for the rebels making it more difficult for the military to curb insurgency. But a tribal leader refuted Gapuz’s claim, saying the Lumads are only forced to deal with the rebels out of fear and because the government, the military and the police are simply not found in the hinterlands.

Gapuz cited a claim of a tribal chieftain in San Fernando town he named as Datu Onkit, who facilitated the surrender of former rebel Benjamin Salusad last year.

Salusad, along with 79 other alleged NPA members, surrendered to the 8th Infantry Battalion in Maramag town on Nov. 15. They turned in 25 high-powered firearms.

Only 31 of the surrenderees were said to be fulltime combatants and 49 were members of the Milisya ng Bayan (People’s Militia). Seventy of them were males. The surrenderees belong to the Tigwahanon, Matigsalug and Manobo tribes of the municipality of San Fernando.

Gapuz told the provincial board there are only about 60 to 80 armed rebels in southern Bukidnon under Guerilla Front 6 and Guerilla Front 53 of the NPA. He added that the Lumads serve as their mass base.

But board member Roelito Gawilan, a Matigsalug chieftain who represents the association of barangay councils in the board, refuted Gapuz’s pronouncement.

“The Lumads serve as no mass base for the rebels. They have no alliance with the NPA,” he said. The tribal leader stressed that the Lumads were forced to deal with the rebels only because the NPAs are the only ones who reach out to them in the remote areas.

“The IPs live in the mountains. Government projects and services do not reach them. They seldom see the police and the military there,” he added.

He said the Lumads give in to the rebels who allegedly employ intimidation and sow fear.

Gawilan also cited that some Lumad leaders are even in the NPA hit list.

The reverse the tide, he called on the government to implement more projects in the hinterlands and provide more police and military visibility to protect the Lumads from the rebels.

He cited that his barangay – Sinuda in Kitaotao town – has become a venue of NPA attacks, including the abduction of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology officials and the burning of cargo trucks, and has become a venue for illegal drugs trade and even the sale of fake gold bars. These he blamed to the lack of visibility of the military and the police in the area.

In December, Gawilan decried that the indigenous peoples in Bukidnon have been caught in the crossfire in the fighting between the military and the NPA. He accused both parties of not recognizing and respecting the rights of the Lumads over their ancestral domain.

Gawilan, also chief of the Federation of Matigsalug, Manobo Tribal Council Association (Femmatrics) and ex-officio member of the Bukidnon provincial board, said his people suffered 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. questioned Gapuz.

Gawilan explained that a Lumad who suffers 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 that is triggering the increase in the number of people siding with the rebels.

Gapuz has appealed for the help of the different sectors in pursuing the rebels. He also asked that the provincial board approve the memorandum of agreement between the provincial government and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) to help them in their program for rebels returning to the folds of law.

The provincial board scheduled to tackle the MOA today but Zubiri said there were some more clarifications needed in the latest draft they received as of Wednesday afternoon. (Walter I. Balane / MindaNews)