MINDANAO 2015: A violent year for the Lumads (Second of two parts)

‘Unholy Alliance,’ Impunity

Evacuees from Han-ayan said some 30 soldiers of the 75th Infantry Battalion accompanied Bobby Tejero, his older brother Loloy, and Gareto Layno, the Magahat-Bagani members who reportedly killed Samarca, Campos and Sinzo.

The military has denied any links to paramilitary groups accused in the killings and in other cases of atrocities against civilians. The Army report on the killings said the soldiers were positioned some 100 meters from the Magahat-Bagani but opted to not engage the armed group as the civilians might get hit.

During the Senate hearing in Tandag, Maj. Gen. Oscar Lactao, commander of the 4th Infantry Division maintained the military doesn’t condone the presence of paramilitary groups like the Magahat-Bagani.

In the same hearing, Col. Eduardo Purisima, commander of the 402nd Brigade denied the military issued firearms to the Magahat-Bagani. He said that since some of them were former NPA members they could have brought with them their firearms when they left the movement.

Nonetheless, Governor Pimentel pointed out that many killings have been attributed to the group and none of the suspects have been arrested so far even if the military has denied supporting them. Earlier reports quoted the official as saying the military has created a monster it could no longer control.

Bishop Odchimar told the Senate probe that there seems to be an “unholy alliance” between the military and the Magahat-Bagani. He cited the presence of Marcial Belandres, a leader of the paramilitary group and principal suspect in the October 24, 2014 killing of Mapasu leader Henry Alameda and Aldren Dumaguit, in a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Sept. 15. In that press conference Belandres cleared the military of complicity and instead blamed the NPA for the killings and other abuses.

Bishop Odchimar added that on Sept. 29, Belandres and his family boarded Cebu Pacific flight 5J92 in Butuan for Manila and were met at the airport by the military. “Why is the military coddling them if there is no connivance between the Bagani and the military?” he asked. He added such perception exists because they have a common enemy – the NPA – that’s why the military seems reluctant to go after the Bagani.

Kakilala explained that Belandres surrendered on Aug. 23-25 this year, and went to Manila to shed light on the situation of Lumad communities affected by the armed conflict. He said Belandres “has no case at all”.

In the Senate hearing, Alameda’s wife Zenaida identified Belandres, brother in law of Egua’s, as among the killers of her husband. Chief Supt. Vert Chavez, acting chief of the PNP in Caraga, said the case was “still under investigation due to lack of witnesses,” and that ”it was the first time he heard the wife name Belandres.

However, Belandres was named in the January 30, 2015 “Agreement on the Return of the Evacuees to Barangays San Isidro and St. Christine” in Lianga town, signed by local government officials, church leaders, military and police officials and representatives of the evacuees. The agreement provides for the disarming and dismantling of the paramilitary group and the filing of charges against them.

The international fact-finding mission report cited another incident to prove the alleged collusion between the military and the paramilitary group. It said that in a ceremony sometime in 2009, Col. Benjamin Pedralvez of the 58th Infantry Battalion acknowledged having created Task Force Gantangan-Bagani Force as a paramilitary unit “to maintain peace and order” in Mapasu communities in Lianga. Residents and local officials attended the ceremony.

The report added that in meetings attended by local officials, government agencies and the military to tackle the evacuation in Diatagon caused by the killing of Alameda, the military recognized Egua as the leader of the armed Baganis.

During the Senate hearing, Bishop Odchimar read an undated statement in Cebuano from the so-called Tribal Territorial Defense Force (TTDF–Bagani), suggesting that the group was formed in 2006 for counterinsurgency. It called on Lumads to defend their ancestral domain and fight the CPP-NPA-NDF.

Like rice cake

Bishop Odchimar likened the situation of the Lumads to that of “bibingka” (rice cake) which is cooked by placing firewood below and above the oven. He said he had copies of extortion letters purportedly from both the Bagani and the NPA. “The Lumads are caught like a bibingka: fire above and fire below.”

NPA rebels too were criticized for killing Lumad leaders who opposed the movement. On Oct. 19, rebels who posed as National Bureau of Investigation agents abducted and killed Loreto, Agusan del Sur Mayor Dario Otaza and his son Daryl in Butuan City. The NPA accused the two victims of terrorizing Lumads and peasants in Agusan del Sur and of selling illegal drugs, an allegation which his relatives and supporters denied.

A report from the Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Conference said that 357 Lumad leaders were killed by the NPA from 1998 to 2008.

UN’s Almgren shared the observation that the conflict has endangered civilians in Lumad communities, as both sides compete for their support and loyalty.

“Activities undertaken by security forces as well as armed groups within and around IP communities in Mindanao have resulted in legitimate expressions of fear and insecurity, in displacement, and is endangering the security and safety of non-combatants, including women, children and older persons,” he noted during the Dec. 8 gathering in Malacanang.

Almgren, however, emphasized that government must see to it that the paramilitary groups are disbanded and disarmed and those responsible for the killings are brought to justice. He cited too that the attacks on Lumad schools violated UN Resolution 1612 which covers children in armed conflict.

Lt. Gen. Aurelio Baladad, chief of the Eastern Mindanao Command, told the Senate hearing that they might have to send in more troops to go after the paramilitary groups.

Bishop Odchimar, however, doubted the wisdom of the move given the “lingering sentiment against the military among the people” even as he acknowledged that the police are shorthanded in dealing with the Bagani.

Meanwhile, police have filed a complaint for multiple murder, arson, robbery and grave threats at the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office in Lianga town against the the Tejero brothers, Layno, and several John Does. But no arrests have been made so far, members of the Bagani still roam the province, and the evacuees haven’t returned to their homes. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)