Human Rights in Mindanao: A Year of Living Dangerously

Dec. 16, 2006

2006: Davao Today's Year-End Series

In the past year, human-rights abuses have been exemplified by extrajudicial killings, intimidation and harassments targeting not just activists, lawyers, peasants, workers and poor Filipinos but those who try to protect them as well. And in Mindanao particularly, this campaign, which is supposedly part of the governments counter-insurgency efforts, benefits big and foreign business interests that massively dislocates poor people. Davao Todays Germelina A. Lacorte reports.

DAVAO CITY — Strange cars with people she hadn’t seen before started parking in front of her office at the height of the political killings in June.

Then, on a trip to Metro Manila, she was getting out of a building when balut and newspaper vendors she didn’t even know alerted her that motorcycle-riding men — with something bulging at their wastes had come to look for her.

“They hardly even knew me,” lawyer Beverly Selin-Musni, a convenor of InPeace Mindanao, said of the vendors who had spoken to her about the strange men. “They’re unorganized — people who don’t belong to the people’s organizations but they were honest enough to tell me,” Musni told a recent Mindanao gathering for peace attended by over a hundred people displaced by war.

What she experienced, she said, was part of Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL), a military directive reportedly issued by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2001 to wipe out the revolutionary movement within a span of five years. But instead of going after armed New Peoples Army (NPA) guerillas waging war in the countryside, this directive — now extended beyond its five-year deadline — has been targeting progressive people’s organizations, human-rights activists and professionals deeply involved in the “people’s struggle.”

InPeace, one of the groups Musni is closely identified with, has been active among grassroots groups of Christians, Muslims and indigenous peoples working for a just and lasting peace and opposing the entry of mining and multinational companies in Mindanao.

No wonder, according to Musni, that the killing of political activists in the country remains unchecked because Arroyo government’s approach to development involves “killing people, especially those critical of the administration.”

Massive Dislocation

But a more savage face of OBL has been rearing its head in Mindanao, where intensified military operations have been causing massive dislocation of people in areas targeted for mining and other forms of business activities.

“Human-rights groups see a clear pattern in Oplan Bantay Laya as a military strategy to clear the way for the coming in of foreign monopoly capital,” Musni said. “It’s not simply bulldozing the area but massively dislocating people in the community as well,” she said.

Oplan Bantay Laya, she added, is ” not just a simple counter-insurgency measure because majority of the victims are part of the civilian population who are active members of people’s organization in the area.”

The European Union (EU)-funded Citizens Disaster Response Center (CDRC) reported over 180,503 persons displaced in Mindanao in the last two years alone, when the government intensified its war against the Moro and Communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in areas known for their rich mining deposits and other business prospects.

Intensified military operations triggered forced evacuations in San Luis, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur and Bukidnon, known for rich mining potentials and where big logging and banana plantations operate; and in Santa Cruz town of Davao del Sur, where a big power firm owned by Aboitiz is planning to put up a hydropower plant within the ancestral land of the indigenous Bagobo-Tagabawa tribe.

A fact-finding team that went inside Santa Cruz in September this year was told how peasant families were ordered to buy only one kilo of rice every day at the height of the military operations which also destroyed crops in the area, depriving whole communities of food, water, shelter and medicine.

Internal displacements is perhaps one of the gravest forms of human-rights violations, perhaps second only to enforced disappearance and, of course, extra-judicial executions,” said Musni. “Evacuation denies not only one person but the whole community of basic right to life, property, health, shelter and other basic human rights.”

Gloomy Picture

Reaching its height under the present regime, internal displacement is part of the whole gloomy picture of the human-rights situation in Mindanao, which Musni said, is under a state of undeclared martial law, marked by the rising number of extrajudicial killings, militarization in the countryside, attacks on civil liberties, political repression and the existence of military hit lists, the silencing of human-rights support groups and dissidents.

“The human-rights situation in Mindanao only differ from the national situation because, apart from the farmer settlers, most of our victims here are the indigenous peoples and the Moro tribes,” she said. “There is an established pattern of these displacements, often occurring as a matter of military campaigns to suppress legitimate opposition to development aggression in the guise of flushing out insurgency hotbeds,” said Musni.

The EU-funded Aid to the Uprooted People Program (AUPP) has been helping communities displaced in the 2001 and 2003 all out wars in Central Mindanao and the intermittent conflicts that broke out in Sulu in 2002, in 2005 and early this year.

Rosalinda Tablang, executive director of the CDRC, said the figures of displaced persons in 62 pilot areas in Mindanao run up to hundreds of thousands who, up to now, are still struggling to get back to their communities and start their lives all over again.

Targets of Abuse

But while programs like the AUPP help uprooted people take roots in their communities again, CDRC network groups in the provinces are fast becoming targets of military harassments, illegal arrests and killings.

Federico Anor, a community leader in barangay Tulatulahan in Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte, who was involved with the project, was killed on June 4 this year while Jovito Pinakilid, a former BREAD project area staff in Buenavista, Agusan del Norte, was shot in September this year.

On April 22 last year, Ramil Gomonit, who has been involved with the CDRC project in Lanao del Norte through his organization Halad, was held for questioning by the a unit of the Philippine Marines out of suspicion that he was a member of the Communist New People’s Army (NPA). Gomonit has denied the charge.

The most recent case was the Nov. 4 abduction of Lourilie Naiz and Mary Bernadette Solitario, area field staff and community teachers of the nongovernment relief group Direct, who were held for a night of questioning and were sexually harassed by members of the 39th IB of the Philippine Army who tried to force them to admit that they were members of the NPA.

In August, two people belonging to the indigenous Matigsalog tribe in a village of Naboc, in Compostela Valley’s town of Montevista, were arrested by 40 combined forces of military and paramilitary forces in Monkayo after they attended a health training as part of an EU-funded project. Rey Gimboloy, chairman of a local people’s organization in Naboc, said the soldiers tried as well to force him to admit that he was a member of the NPA.

Both Gimboloy and Rossie Mantiquinon, 25, were part of the indigenous Matigsalog tribes frequently uprooted by war in the area, struggling to take roots in their communities again but in doing so, they were harassed by the military, said Daday Sanchez, executive director of the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation Inc. (Misfi), one of the groups carrying out the CDRC project in the area.

Palparans Imprint

Musni pointed out that the killings of political activists in the country bore the imprint of a Jovito Palparan, the controversial military official who had earned the moniker “the Butcher” for the slaughter of activists in Central Luzon and Eastern Visayas, where he had been assigned before retiring earlier this year, and got away with it. Activists had alleged that military commanders in other areas have been copying Palparans methods.

But, according to Musni, ultimate responsibility for these atrocities rests upon Arroyo.

“Arroyo is waging an all-out war campaign against the peoples of Mindanao,” Musni said, “She transforms the entire Mindanao into a single laboratory of OBL. Her approach towards development in Mindanao — which requires the entry of mining companies, logging concessions and other monopoly capital — is a recipe of development that requires the killing of people.”

Other lawyerslike Kidapawan’s Connie Brizuela involved in seeking justice for the slain journalist couple Macel and George Vigo in Kidapawan City of North Cotabato, and lawyer Frederico Gapuz, president of the lawyers’ group Union of People’s Lawyers of Mindanao (UPLM) and countless number of political activists — have been receiving death threats for having been identified closely with issues affecting mostly poor and dispossessed Filipinos.

Musni said the actual victims of the Arroyo regimes human-rights violations are people in the countryside, who bear the brunt of a policy that favors the interest of big and foreign capital over those of the poor. (Germelina Lacorte/

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