BUKIDNON, Philippines – Bishops from various Christian denominations and a group of lawmakers called for separate official investigations into the February 24 deaths of Lumad rights activist and volunteer teacher Chad Booc and four others in Davao de Oro province.
The calls were made as an offshoot of a controversy surrounding what the military claimed was an encounter in New Bataan town that killed the five activists on February 24.
All five were accused by the military of being New People’s Army (NPA) rebels, an allegation disputed by Booc’s family and the Save Our Schools Network (SOS Network).
In a March 4 statement, the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum (EBF) sought separate investigations into the deaths by the Department of Justice (DOJ), the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
The statement was signed by EBF chairperson and United Methodist Church Bishop Ciriaco Francisco, United Church of Christ in the Philippines Bishop Joel Tendero, Caloocan Catholic Bishop Emeritus Deogracias Iniguez Jr., and The Right Reverend Emelyn Gasco-Dacuycuy and Dindo Ranojo of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.
The EBF said the government’s iron-handed approach in dealing with the longest-running communist insurgency in Southeast Asia resulted in the vilification, red-tagging, frame-ups, detentions, murders, and policies and programs against human rights and environmental activists, sectoral leaders, and even church people.
“Its appetite to hunt groups for speaking out has remained insatiable even in its remaining few months in power,” read part of the bishops’ statement.
At the House of Representatives, six lawmakers under the Makabayan bloc filed House Resolution No. 2500 to urge the CHR to start an investigation into the alleged Davao de Oro encounter.
The resolution noted that Booc, the most prominent member of the group, was subjected to intense red-tagging, threats, and harassment long before his killing.
The legislators also cited conflicting accounts about their deaths.
The resolution was jointly authored by representatives Carlos Zarate, Ferdinand Gaite and Eufemia Cullamat of Bayan Muna, Sarah Elago of the Kabataan party-list, Arlyn Brosas of Gabriela Women’s Party, and France Castro of ACT Teachers.
The authors and their groups themselves, incidentally, have been subjected to years of red-tagging.
The College of Engineering of the University of the Philippines-Diliman also released a strongly worded statement against the rise in the number of killings which it said were attributed to “encounters with the NPA.”
“We demand punitive measures… We believe in the rule of law and justice for all; even in war, there are laws to be followed. Instead of killing our youth, the government should be addressing the causes of their respective decisions to leave their comfortable lives to serve the underserved,” the group said.
Brigadier General Jesus Durante III, commander of the Army’s 1001st Brigade, told a news conference that the encounter in New Bataan came after villagers informed the military that food supplies were en route for delivery to NPA rebels operating in the area.
Davao de Oro Governor Jayvee Tyrone Uy has corroborated the military claims of an encounter in New Bataan on February 24, contrary to allegations made by the NPA and SOS Network that there was none that day.
Booc, according to Durante, was an NPA recruiter, an allegation SOS Network has challenged.
SOS Network said Booc and the other activists were sent to Davao de Oro to do research work because the group anticipated the reopening of Lumad schools.
Meanwhile, the NPA in Southern Mindanao threatened to punish those behind the deaths of activists.
Marco Valbuena, chief information officer of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), alleged that Booc, Gelejurain Ngujo II, Elgyn Balonga, and drivers Roberto Aragon and Tirso Añar were in the custody of the military on the evening of February 23, hours before the alleged encounter took place.
“The victims were accosted at a military checkpoint in Barangay Poblacion, New Bataan in Davao de Oro. On February 24, the bodies of the five were found sprawled on a dirt road in Purok 8, Barangay Andap,” Valbuena alleged.
Rigoberto Sanchez, spokesperson of the NPA in Southern Mindanao, warned of “revolutionary justice.” – Rappler.com
Grace Cantal-Albasin is a Mindanao-based journalist and an awardee of Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship