Print Version    Email to Friend
Displaced tribal people of Mindanao trek home

MANILA (UCAN): “We had a confirmation that the army has pulled its troops out of our village. Now, we can finally return,” said Sarry Campos, spokesperson of the Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang Sa Sumusunod (Mapasu), an inter-municipal organisation of Lumad tribal people in Surigao del Sur, Mindanao.
About 1,600 tribal people from 15 communities who left their mountain villagees for fear of being caught in crossfire between government soldiers and communist rebels started the trek home on August 8 after military officials agreed to temporarily withdraw troops from their villages.
However, Campos, said they will “not hesitate to leave again” if troops insist on setting up camp inside their villages.
He alleged that the soldiers were deployed in the villages to pave the way for mining and other projects on tribal lands.
But military spokesperson, Lt. Colonel Jaime Datuin, said the aim of the soldiers was “to secure the area from armed elements that are endangering the communities.” 
However, he admitted the military had received a request from local officials to clear the area of guerrillas because “government projects were being blocked by the communists.” 
In the wake of the recent exodus, authorities filed charges against 30 tribal leaders and their supporters, including a Protestant pastor and a local journalist. 
Prosecutors alleged they instigated the evacuation to implement a “deceptive plan” by rebels.
One witness presented by the government claimed that people were told to leave their homes or risk being killed by the rebels.
The tribal leaders denied the allegations.
“No one threatened anyone because the decision to flee was a collective one due to fear of military abuses,” read a statement from Mapasu.
Church and rights groups condemned the charges, saying they were trumped up and accused the military of trying to “discredit the legitimate grievances” of the people. 
Sister Elenita Belardo of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines said it is unacceptable for authorities to throw accusations against victims of social injustice and inequality.”
Protestant Bishop Modesto Villasanta, chairperson of the rights group Karapatan in the region, called the charges “a desperate move” by the military.
He said the inclusion of a Protestant pastor and a journalist was a “clear indication that the complainants do not really know the people on their list.” 
The Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao said that false charges were being laid against tribal leaders and human rights defenders in other parts of Mindanao. 
In Cagayan de Oro, where 53 displaced tribal families are staying in the provincial capitol grounds, 11 people were charged for coercion and child abuse. 
At least nine tribal people were also charged with various offences after they gathered on July 31 to bury their leader who died at a rally in the city of General Santos.
The lawyers said it has become pattern of repression by the military “to push indigenous people to helplessness and disenfranchisement.”
Army spokesperson, Major Ezra Balagtey, of the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command, said it is “up to the courts to determine whether the cases filed are trumped up or not.” 
He said that military was only assisting in the implementation of the law.

More from this section