MANILA, Philippines – Displaced students from indigenous communities in Mindanao on Saturday, December 23, bid their goodbyes and expressed their gratitude to people who have supported their 5-month protest camp in Manila.
More than 100 children from tribal schools affected by the conflict between communist rebels and the government have been staying at the national capital since August.
They staged a protest camp inside the University of the Philippines to press the government to address the alleged harassment and persecution perpetuated by the military against tribal communities. (READ: Why Lumad groups are camping outside DepEd)
“We’ve been here for months and we want to go home. But still, we are not sure what fate is waiting for us in our communities,” said tribal youth leader Jenky Malibato.
Malibato added that military operations and the presence of government troops in their communities “hinder us from returning to our ancestral lands.”
Save Our Schools Network urged President Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw all government forces from indigenous peoples communities and lift the extended implementation of military rule in the entire island of Mindanao. (READ: Rappler Talk: The love-hate relationship between Duterte and the Lumad)
“Military operations within indigenous communities and martial law disturb the peace of the tribal people in their ancestral lands,” said Rius Valle, the spokesperson of the group.
Valle said the extension of martial law created “great distress” among the tribal students. “Martial law justifies killings of innocent civilians and human rights defenders,” he added.
On November 26, more than 1,500 tribal people from 14 indigenous communities within the coal-rich, 26,000-hectare Andap Valley complex in Caraga region fled their homes due to supposed counter-insurgency military operations in the area.
The internally displaced people – including more than 600 students and 54 volunteer teachers – were among the 4,000 people who were recovering from a yearlong displacement from 2015-2016.
“Those tribal people were victims of dislocation in 2015 after government troops killed 3 of their leaders in front of the whole villages in Han-ayan, Lianga town,” said Raymond Montero Ambray, a priest from the Diocese of Tandag.
The priest, who has been studying the culture and spirituality of tribal communities for his thesis in Ateneo de Davao, said, “they are fleeing to evade the conflict and avoid the crossfires between the government and the rebels.”
“What’s worse, the government is accusing these indigenous communities as supporters and sympathizers of the Communist Party,” he added.
On December 3, the killings of 8 tribal people – including leader Datu Victor Dayan, killed allegedly by members of the army – led to the displacement of nearly 100 families in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. (READ: Legarda seeks justice for 8 Lumad killed in South Cotabato)
The Armed Forces of the Philippines claimed that the 8 tribal people were members of the New People’s Army and were killed in a “legitimate” encounter.
Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc, commander of the 33rd Infantry Batallion, said in a statement that government troops responded to “a report of armed men in the area.”
A fact-finding mission conducted by church and rights groups reported that the slain tribal people were civilians and “have been defending their ancestral land against big corporations.”
Oblate Sister Susan Bolanio said there was an encounter between the army and the rebels but “at a distance from the village.”
Bolanio, who is the executive director of the Hesed Foundation, said an 8-year old child was among those injured due to the armed clash.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of rights group Karapatan, said since Duterte won the presidency in 2016, more than 450,000 people have been victimized of forced evacuation due to military operations.
Palabay said they are “expecting the numbers to rise” with Duterte’s extended implementation of martial law “targeting not only armed groups but civilians who are defending their lands and rights.”
Ambray praised Duterte’s decision to declare a Christmas ceasefire with the communist, saying, “Hopefully it will give the tribal people a break from conflict.”
“Let this truce be a chance for all displaced people in Mindanao to go back to their communities to celebrate Christmas in peace,” he said. – Rappler.com