‘Townless’ folk in conflict-torn Lanao Sur villages seek PNoy’s help

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/08 February) – Saying the town they call their own have refused to recognize them and give them assistance, residents of 10 villages in Bumbaran, Lanao del Sur wracked by fighting between armed groups have asked President Benigno Aquino III for help amid what they called a worsening peace and order situation.

The affected villages were identified as sitios Canaan, Kahayagan, Katipunan, Kilabuntod, Kabugangan, Janob, Trapal, New Israel, Pigsayawan, and Mt. Olive. About 3,500 people, mostly dumagats (settlers) and Manobos inhabit these areas.

An evacuee who is an official in one of the affected villages today told MindaNews that classes at the Upper Tigason Elementary School where some 300 are enrolled have been suspended since January 19, a day before new clashes erupted sending villagers to flee to Talakag town in Bukidnon.

In a letter dated January 8, the residents asked Aquino to consider their problem as a priority “as early as possible.”

They said they expect the President to resolve the problem “for our welfare and also to avoid more killings in this area.”

The letter was sent on fast courier to Malacañang Palace more than a week before the clashes erupted on January 20 in two of the 10 villages.

According to the residents in their letter, the 10 villages geographically belonged to Bumbaran town but the town’s municipal government did not recognize them “for unknown reasons.”

MindaNews sources said armed Maranaos led by Mamurak (Mama Orak to others) clashed with the group of “Dimas” on January 20. Mamurak’s group reportedly shot to death an armed farmer identified as Jojo Pisigan, and looted a corn farm next to the victim’s potato garden.

Pisigan’s death reportedly triggered an exchange of fire between armed farmers and the Mamurak group.

The Dimas group sided with the farmers in the clashes that extended until January 27, a source said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The source said there is rido (clan war) in the area citing the involvement of two armed groups of Maranaos.

The residents sought the help of the military. Capt. Eduardo Meclat, spokesperson of the 403rd Brigade, said troops from the 8th Infantry Battalion were sent there.

The source said the military brokered a truce. On January 30 to 31, Mamurak’s group left Sitio Kilabuntod while the Dimas group, who stayed in Katipunan, went to Kilabuntod.

The Mamurak group later returned to the upper portion of the village, while the Dimas group stayed in the lower area.

Both groups carry high-powered firearms although sources said they don’t belong to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) or the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Residents feared that Mamurak’s group will attack other villages like Canaan, based on reports that reached them.

They asked Aquino to step in so that the local government of Bumbaran will recognize them and thus provide services.

They noted that they voluntarily registered as voters in the adjacent village of Dominorog, which belong to Talakag.

The residents consider themselves “adopted” villagers, although they complained that they could not avail of services from the local government of Talakag or from non-government organizations “because as they said, ‘we are not living in their area’.”

When conflict erupted in the villages, the residents said they realized why they need to be recognized:  they need local government to build better roads so that it will become easier for the police and the military to respond, and their products can easily be transported.

Lt. Col. Jose Ma. Cuerpo, 8th IB commanding officer, told MindaNews earlier that accessibility was a problem.

Bukidnon police director Supt. Rustom Duran said that in January their personnel were on standby in Dominorog but they could not go beyond their area of responsibility.

The MindaNews source said the 10 villages lie across the Maridugao River, the natural boundary between Bukidnon and Lanao del Sur, which is also recognized by indigenous peoples from Bukidnon as their traditional border.

MindaNews reported earlier that about 100 residents fled the villages on January 20 due to clashes in sitios Kahayagan and Katipunan, which police believe is rooted in land conflicts.

With the clashes, the source said, teachers have become afraid to return.

The residents said they asked help from the provincial government of Bukidnon “but they refused to take action because it is outside their jurisdiction.”

“Same with Bumbaran (local government unit), they ignored us,” they added.

According to the source from Sitio Canaan, majority of the villagers in the area are dumagats who have settled there since 1994. At the time, the source added, the dominant economic activity among Maranaos was logging.

In 2009, when the area was already cleared and the residents have put up farms, the source said, the Maranaos allegedly came and announced they will continue with logging.

In 2010, the source said, Maranaos allegedly started to collect a third of the harvest or demand rents of P5,000 per hectare. Some of the residents gave but the rest either resisted or fled never to return.

The source said the armed men claimed their harvest and took over their farms. But the source noted that the Dimas group sided with the dumagat farmers.

Previously, the Dimas group allegedly harassed residents like the Mamurak group did.

Sitio leaders and barangay officials of Dominorog passed resolutions urging the military to set up a detachment in the area to deter future clashes. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)