Military has last word on ‘bakwit’ in Surigao Sur, says village chief

DIATAGON, Lianga, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/22 July) – The military has the final say on the handling of the evacuees from the upland communities of this barangay and neighboring areas, Diatagon barangay chair Remegio Pareja on Friday said.

In an interview, Pareja admitted that soldiers from the 75th Infantry Battalion are closely keeping watch over 1,200 evacuees, most of them Lumads (indigenous peoples) from the Manobo tribe who have sought shelter at the barangay gym after leaving their homes on Monday, July 16.

Over 1,200 evacuees from upland communities of Diatagon, Lianga in Surigao del Sur and neighboring villages have sought shelter at the barangay gym. They fled their homes on July 16, 2018 citing the presence of an Army detachment in their area which they fear would invite attacks by the New People’s Army. MindaNews photo taken on July 20, 2018 by GG BUENO

“Kang Colonel man na nga pamaagi. Wala man mi ana. Martial law man gud karon. Gipayongan man gud tas mga sundalo karon (That’s the colonel’s move. We have no say on that. It’s because there’s martial law now. We’re under the military now),” the official said, referring to Lt. Col. Jaime Datuin, commander of the 75th IB.

Pareja said that during their meeting on Wednesday, Datuin was so mad and berated him for allowing the evacuees to enter the gym.

“I told him that when the evacuees arrived in the barangay and asked to be allowed inside the gym I consulted him on what to do. He said ‘it’s your barangay, if you don’t like them to stay, then so be it, you decide’,” he said.

“I allowed them inside the gym because they’re our people and it was about to rain…there are children. They slept on the road,” he said.

“I told him that he said it was up to me to decide,” he added.

“Hala sige, pinapasok mo yan, ikaw na managot diyan, lahat ng mga problema diyan (Ok then, you let them in, that’s your lookout, all the problems it would cause),” Pareja quoted Datuin as saying.

“I felt ashamed because there were many people in that meeting. I apologized to him if ever what I did was a mistake,” he said. “If I answer back, I might be charged with insubordination since we’re under martial law.”

The evacuees fled their homes on Monday to protest the presence of a detachment of the 75th IB in their place. They vowed not to return unless the outpost was dismantled and the military left.

The evacuees, numbering around 1,600 to1,800 individuals, came from nine sitios of Diatagon and four villages of neighboring San Agustin town, also in Surigao del Sur.

Pareja said the barangay officials proposed that only the evacuees from the sitios of Diatagon should stay in the gym.

“But they stood firm that they should remain together and reiterated their demand for the pull out of soldiers from their place,” he said.

On Friday, Municipal Social Welfare and Development officer Melita Incenso tried to stop MindaNews from interviewing the evacuees at the gym, saying it had to be coordinated with the military.

Asked if the management of the evacuees has been relegated to the military, Incenso replied, “aw, dili man pod (not really)” and relented.

MPOC, not military

In a telephone interview on Sunday, Capt. Rodolfo Cordero, civil military operations officer of the 401st Infantry Brigade denied that the military is the one deciding on the handling of the evacuees.

Cordero said it is the Municipal Peace and Order Council headed by the mayor that makes the decision, although the military is a member of the body. “What the council agrees on is implemented.”

“Our main role is to ensure safety and security, assist in rescue and relief operations and feeding. We’re very visible to prevent the armed group from exploiting the situation,” he said, alluding to the New People’s Army (NPA).

A mother prepares food for her family on July 20, 2018 inside the gym of Diatagon, Lianga in Surigao del Sur where over 1,200 individuals from the barangay’s upland communities and neighboring villages have sought shelter. They fled their homes on July 16, 2018 citing the presence of an Army detachment in their area which they fear would invite attacks by the New People’s Army. MindaNews photo by GG BUENO

“If you noticed, there’s an incident command post in front of the gym. The incident command post is provided for under Republic Act 10121 for better management of disasters,” he explained.

On allegations of military abuses like food blockade and harassment being aired by the evacuees, Cordero dismissed these as recycled issues.

“They keep on repeating these allegations because MAPASU is an anti-government organization. Its leader, (Imelda) Melandres is a sister of NPA commander Pablito Campos who was arrested in Sibagat, Agusan del Sur months ago,” he said.

MAPASU, a Lumad organization, is short for Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (Sustained Struggle for the Next Generations).

Cordero further said the military won’t leave the area to force the NPA to abandon it, and to secure government projects like roads and electrification. “These projects are already in the pipeline.”

“This is the area where they always held their anniversaries,” he said.

“Deceptive mobilization”

In a telephone interview, Eastern Mindanao Command chief, Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal told MindaNews late Friday afternoon that there are no military operations in Diatagon that would have warranted a mass evacuation and that the recent evacuation is likely a mobilization in preparation for the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 23.

The Eastern Mindanao Command has jurisdiction over the 401st Infantry Brigade under which the 75th IB operates.

In a statement Sunday, the Eastern Mindanao Command commended the local government unit of Lianga for establishing the Incident Command Post “that manages the different interventions to the Indigenous Peoples who were brought to Diatagon Gymnasium,” describing it as “deceptive mobilization” that “disturbed the normal living and adds misery and suffering to the IPs.”

He said the Lumads “were not affected by any military operations, as alleged, for there were no military operations going on in the area” except for the establishment of a detachment  in Km.9 which it said was requested by the community through a resolution by the Municipal and Barangay Peace and Order Council of Lianga and Diatagon, respectively.

Andap Valley

In a telephone interview Sunday, Brig. Gen. Andres Centino,  chief of the Army 401st Infantry Brigade denied allegations of military abuses as claimed by Mapasu, a Lumad organization protesting mining operations,  land conversions and plantations in the area.

“We asked them to tell us where the abuses were committed so we can investigate our soldiers but there was no formal complaint filed,” he told MindaNews.

Centino said the allegations were aired during their meeting with Surigao Del Sur Gov. Vicente Pimentel in Tandag on July 7.

He said instead of filing a complaint, Mapasu leaders led the Lumads to evacuate to Diatagon.

Pimentel told reporters in Tandag that Mapasu, a group allegedly sympathetic to the NPA instigated the evacuation of the Lumads.

He said Mapasu wants a repeat of what happened in September 2015 where hundreds of Lumads sought refuge in Tandag after the killing of Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev);  Mapasu chair Dionel Campos, and Campos’ cousin, Bello Sinzo.

Centino said they implemented a plan to construct a string of military camps along a road leading to Andap Valley, main stronghold of the communist New People’s Army.

He said the camp in Kilometer 9, is the first of such facility and is located some 32 kilometers from Andap Valley.

“The road where the camp is constructed is a major supply route for the rebels,” he added.

Early this year, the Mapasu claimed at least five firms are interested in coal mining in Andap Valley. It said Andap Valley covers the towns of San Miguel, Tago, San Agustin, Marihatag and Lianga. It alleged that military operations forced 345 families or 1,628 individuals from 14 communities to evacuate on January 28 to February 7, 2018.  (H. Marcos C. Mordeno / MindaNews with a report from Froilan Gallardo)