CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 19 August 2017

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Twisting a life-giving law to justify murder

MANILA (UCAN): On November 11, the archbishop of Manila, Luis Cardinal Tagle, made his widely publicised visit to displaced tribal people from Mindanao and called for an end to the military occupation of their schools and communities.

On the very same day, a commander from a military-backed paramilitary militia defended the execution of the principal of an indigenous children’s school before the congress.

At the other end of the country on November 23, Ulas Salanganie, a leader with the Manobo people and an official with the local Parents, Teachers and Community Association, was murdered in Davao del Norte.

Critics say that government officials and paramilitary commanders are using the landmark law on self-determination for tribal people to justify the murder and execution of indigenous leaders and their supporters.

The senior minority leader in the House of Representatives, Neri Colmenares, reported that the murder prompted the wholesale evacuation of the area.

On the following day, Malacañang announced that the president, Noynoy Aquino, had met with representatives of the indigenous people to discuss what an official press release described as their concerns.

Spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said that the president had come up with concrete action plans to address the issues they raised.

Cardinal Tagle made a call for peace and an end to human rights violations linked to conflicts over natural resources when he visited a camp in Manila for Mindanao’s displaced indigenous peoples.

Meanwhile, the congressional Committee on Indigenous People was meeting to discuss the September 1 murders of a teacher and two tribal community leaders.

Effectively, the committee heard that the militia and paramilitary leaders accused of the same rights violations Cardinal Tagle had condemned had acted appropriately in executing the indigenous leaders without laying a charge or a trial being conducted.

However, there is no law in The Philippines that allows any rationale for murder or for that matter, arbitrary execution—not even by the military or police.

Yet members of congress, including the controversial committee chairperson, Nancy Catamco, used the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, which is intended to support tribal communities, to defend the action taken against the schools run by the indigenous communities.

Emerito Samarca, the head teacher of a school in remote Surigao del Sur province, was gunned down on September 1, allegedly by a militia group backed by the Philippine army and paramilitary groups.

“He poisoned the minds of the people,” Datu Jumar Bucales told the congressional committee when asked why the militia would have killed Samarca.

Bucales, who was called as an expert witness in the congressional hearing, is no ordinary village elder. The governor of the province had previously named him as one of the paramilitary leaders.

Catamco asked if Samarca’s death was punishment for teaching an alien ideology that went against tribal culture.

Bucales replied that is was. He claimed that the tribal school specialised in training militants.

Michelle Campos, the school’s most recent valedictorian, wept with rage as she listened to news broadcasts of the congressional proceedings.

Her father, Dionel Campos, was murdered along with Samarca. He had been the chairperson of an organisation that covered 22 indigenous communities.

“They applaud this murderous logic in congress,” she said. “What kind of country do we have, where lawmakers applaud murder?”

Witnesses to Campos’ murder say his executioners said Bucales was their leader. Witnesses to the 2014 execution of Campos’ predecessor also identified Bucales among his assailants.

Advocacy groups say there have been at least 400 attacks on indigenous schools since 2010.

It is part of a longstanding pressure being put on Mindanao’s indigenous communities, who say they face unwanted attention for their resource-rich traditional lands.

Many tribal communities are also caught up in the conflict between the government and Communist guerrillas, with paramilitary groups often labelling civilian villagers as combatants.

It is a tragic turn of events for the first country in Asia to recognise indigenous people through a legal instrument.

The Philippines was lauded for passing the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, which recognised the historical marginalisation of tribal people and provided them with a means of redress.

The legislation sought to protect indigenous communities. However, it can also be used against them.

The act stipulates that outsiders coming to indigenous lands require prior consent from tribal leaders.

This can mean that indigenous schools, which are often supported by outsiders like Catholic sisters, are accused by militias of being alien entities on ancestral lands—effectively the same argument Bucales is using to justify Samarca’s murder before the congress.

Arnold Alamon, from the Rural Missionaries of The Philippines in northern Mindanao, says that less than two decades after the implementation of the Indigenous Act, government policies have upended its intentions.

“Redress mechanisms have become instruments for continued… marginalisation and, in many cases, provide the imperative for the spate of extrajudicial killings and forced evacuations of indigenous leaders and their communities,” he said.

Alamon cited the 2012 killing in Bukidnon province of anti-mining Matigsalog tribal leader, Jimmy Liguyon.

A paramilitary leader, who had an ancestral claim to 52,000 hectares of indigenous land, shot and killed Liguyon in front of his children.

Since 2010, at least 60 indigenous people have been murdered and 40,000 displaced.

“What provides motive and fuels this madness in Mindanao is the lucrative potential for mining,” Alamon said.

Cardinal Tagle said in a statement, “They have lost their livelihood. The children have stopped their schooling. The old people, the sick, children and women are suffering. The environment is being destroyed. What rules is strife and violence; their communities know no peace nor justice.”

In the same congressional hearing where Bucales offered his excuse for the indigenous teacher’s death, former military officers-turned-lawmakers urged the closure of alternative schools and the filing of charges against administrators and staff, alleging that they challenge traditional indigenous institutions.

“They forget we, the Lumad, built those schools,” the orphaned Michelle Campos pointed out. “My father said he cried on my first day of school. He had never gone to school. There were no schools before.”

She added, “We, the Lumad, sought help from the Churches and other groups, because the government ignored us. A government that sees the teaching of human rights and love for the environment as crimes is a government that wants the death of our people.”

 

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