Lumad school blames military for burning teachers’ cottage

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/16 November) – A network of schools for the Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) is holding the military accountable for the November 12 burning of a teachers’ cottage in its satellite school in Sibagat, Agusan del Sur and “the continuous attacks on our schools and Lumad communities.”

The military denied responsibility for the burning and claimed in a November 13 statement by the Eastern Mindanao Command that the perpetrators were a “still unidentified lawless armed group wearing Army uniforms” who “disguised as soldiers of 23rd Infantry Battalion (23rd IB).”

The Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, Inc. (ALCADEV), in a statement dated November 16, said the military “is attempting to cover-up the crime by conveniently excusing the perpetrators as ‘impostors’ citing that Army uniforms and military backpacks were recently procured from an accredited tailoring shop in Butuan City and deduced that these were used for the disguise of the perpetrators.”

It said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “is trying to blame the NPA (New Peoples Army) for this atrocity while continuing its vilification of ALCADEV as an NPA school.”

A teachers’ cottage of the ALCADEV satellite school in Sitio Km. 30, Brgy. Padiay, Sibagat, Agusan del Sur was burned down by six unidentified men at around 2 a.m. on November 12, “destroying books, school supplies, instructional and learning materials, stocks of rice, power generator set, audio-video equipment, sewing machine, kitchen utensils and farm tools,” the ALCADEV said.

About 5,000 banana and abaca seedlings in the school nursery of hardwood and fruit trees adjacent to the cottage were also destroyed, the statement added.

Karapatan-Caraga in a Nov. 14 press statement e-mailed on Sunday said elements of the Army’s 23rd IB “were in nearby areas, about three to five kilometers away from the school, when the burning incident happened.”

The Eastern Mindanao Command’s November 13 statement quoted Lt. Col. Lynart Castisimo, commander of the 23rd IB, as saying he received reports that there were groups who earlier bought Army uniforms and military backpacks in a tailoring shop in Butuan City and that “it is clear that the uniforms were used by the perpetrators in the burning of ALCADEV cottage.”

“We strongly deny the involvement of our soldiers and we condemn the burning of ALCADEV cottage by the lawless bandit group,” Castisimo said, adding they would exert “our best efforts” to help the Philippine National Police in the investigation and law enforcement operations in the area.

Karapatan-Caraga recalled that “months prior to the burning incident,” elements of the 23rd IB and Special Forces arrived in the area and neighboring communities, and had since been going around communities including Km. 29 and Km. 30, launching “COPD (Community Organizing for Peace and Development) and combat operations.”

ALCADEV said the 23rd IB has a detachment in the center of Brgy Padiay, less than five kilometers from the school.

Karapatan-Caraga said that sometime in June, six soldiers, introducing themselves as members of the 23rd IB, attempted to enter the school grounds of ALCADEV in to conduct a census of students but the teachers refused them on the grounds that armed men are not allowed in school premises.

The rights group said the soldiers “constantly warned residents from joining progressive organizations, vilified the school and its teachers as NPA and had been telling residents to burn the school” but the residents said it was the community that set up the school with the help of ALCADEV.

In an earlier statement, Rius Valle, spokesperson of the Save Our Schools (SOS) Network, said that since September 2014, they have documented 95 cases of attacks on schools allegedly perpetrated by the military and paramilitary.

Karapatan-Caraga said the Sibagat school was temporarily closed after the killing of ALCADEV Executive Director Emerito Samarca on September 1, 2015 at the ALCADEV main campus in Sitio Han-ayan, Brgy. Diatagon, Lianga, Surigao del Sur and after ALCADEV teachers and students were warned they would be massacred.

Aside from Samarca, two other persons were killed in neighboring Sitio Km. 16 that day by alleged members of the Magahat-Bagani, a paramilitary group allegedly supported by the military, an allegation the military denies: Lumad leaders Dionel Campos, chair of the Malahutayong Pakigbisog alang sa Sumusuon (MAPASU), and Kiwagan Datu Juvello Sinzo.

The attacks triggered the evacuation of some 3,000 residents from Han-ayan and 26 other villages in the towns of Lianga, San Agustin, San Miguel, Marihatag and Tago, who sought refuge at the Sports Center in the Provincial Capitol compound in Tandag City. Karapatan-Caraga said the evacuees remain at the evacuation sites.

Karapatan-Caraga said ALCADEV and the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS) and its teachers “have been constantly vilified by operating AFP units and paramilitary bandit groups as NPA” despite recognition from the Department of Education, the National Literacy Awards and Most Outstanding Literacy Program at the regional level.

Lumad schools of ALCADEV and TRIFPSS, it said, “are in communities where Lumad organizations are opposing the entry of large-scale mining operations and plantations, and where the AFP has been launching counter-insurgency operations.“

ALCADEV said that in the absence of government service in the hinterlands, the Lumads “persevered to establish the schools and develop communities.”

The Aquino administration, it said, “remains deaf” to their calls for justice.

ALCADEV said that in their search for justice, they have called on various agencies and officials and even joined the Manilakbayan ng Mindanao to knock on the doors of officials in Metro Manila but 75 days after the Lianga killings, the perpetrators remain at large, no one has been arrested and prosecuted.

Despite repeated calls for their disarming and disbandment, the paramilitary groups have not been disbanded and have continued their “rampage in our communities” as its leaders continue to be “coddled by the AFP.”

“Not a single commanding officer of the AFP has been held accountable; they are even rewarded with more troops,” ALCADEV said.

The school network said they have been demanding the pull-out of the military “yet more than two battalions have been additionally deployed to further intensify AFP’s military operations.”

“Are we to expect more violence and destruction in response to our calls?,” ALCADEV asked.

The Senate conducted a probe on Lumad killings in Tandag City on October 1 and 2 with Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III and Aquilino Pimentel III echoing the call of Lumads, church and local government leaders to arrest, disarm and disband the principal suspects in the Lianga killings – the “Magahat-Bagani” paramilitary group that has repeatedly been accused of sowing terror in several towns in Surigao del Sur and whose disbandment has also been repeatedly sought.

The Bishop of Tandag, Nereo Odchimar said he wanted answers to critical questions about the “apparent unholy alliance between the military and the paramilitary which the military vehemently denies.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)