“By experience, tribal leaders who were repeatedly branded and investigated by soldiers end up dead.”
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Kailo Bontulan, 37, a Manobo datu (tribal chieftain), has been away from his home in Palma Gil village in Talaingod, Davao del Norte province since April this year. He did not want to be away from his farm and home, but leaving was a choice he had to make.
“By experience, tribal leaders who were repeatedly branded and investigated by soldiers end up dead,” he said. And Bontulan had both been accused of either being a New People’s Army (NPA) fighter or supporter, and interrogated by the military.
Since 2014, soldiers of the 68th Infantry Battalion had made barracks of his home. “First they branded me as an NPA,” Bontulan said. “They repeatedly ‘investigate’ me,” Bontulan told Bulatlat.com in an interview in September, when he was in Manila along with other Lumád leaders.
Five soldiers led by Lt. Eric Sumaliday and Lt. JR Bacayan stayed at the living space under his hut. The soldiers also repeatedly asked him about his Lumad group, Salugpungan Ta’tanu Igkanugon (Unity of the People to Defend the Ancestral Land), and its leaders, Datu Doloman Dausay and Datu Guibang Apoga, the latter a fugitive in the last two decades.
Bontulan knew the backdrop of the military harassment is Pantaron Range, the last remaining old growth forest in the country, where logging and mining companies have been kept out by the fierce resistance of Lumád tribes. Although there is also the undeniable presence of the NPA in the area — which contributed to how it had remain intact — the civilian communities are the ones which bore the brunt of military offensives, triggering massive evacuations.
Bontulan left his home and sought sanctuary in Davao City.
His wife and three children – with the youngest just a year and a half – stayed behind. Bontulan said that the soldiers know of the Manobo tradition that no man is allowed inside the house if a woman’s husband is not around. Still, the soldiers did not leave.
Bontulan said the soldiers conducted a “census” of the residents. “After the census, we found out that we had become ��surrenderees.”
In May, the Save our Schools Network reported that 68th IB soldiers had encamped in Palma Gil and threatened to shut down the Salugpungan Ta’tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center (STTICLC), the school built by the Lumad group. The soldiers have dug foxholes in between the schools of the STTICLC and the Department of Education (DepEd), and told students and their parents not to enrol in STTICLC.
In a statement, the SOS Network quoted Datu Ginomaw Andil of Salugpungan, who said that soldiers gathered the community residents and told them to torch the school, and kill the teachers, because it is allegedly run by the NPA, and the teachers themselves are NPAs.
By June, Bontulan was reunited with his family, who joined some 400 Lumad who evacuated from 18 communities in the towns of Talaingod and Kapalong. The evacuees found shelter at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Haran House in Davao city where they are still staying up to now.
Forcible recruitment into Alamara
Bontulan said the soldiers not only encamped in the community and harassed members of Salugpungan. They also aggresively recruit for the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu) and for the paramilitary group Alamara.
Alamara, the Lumád word for “extensive and massive tribal war,” was reportedly formed in 2002, under Oplan Alsa Lumad by Col. Felipe Berroya of the 701st Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army. The vigilante group was meant to pit Lumad against themselves as a counterinsurgency tactic.
Such groups continue to operate, and recruit, in spite of human rights abuses and calls for their dismantling. In March to April this year, the human rights group Karapatan documented the killing of four people by Alamara men in nearby Kapalong town.
“If you’re not an NPA, then prove it by taking up arms against them, and join the Alamara,” Bontulan recalled the soldiers’ line.
Bontulan cited the case of Barobo, a 30-household community in Palma Gil where soldiers have encamped. “After sometime, we were surprised to find out that they have been recruited into Alamara.”
From then on, he said they had estranged relations with the Barobo residents, in spite of having blood relations with some of them.
Those who were recruited into the Cafgu were trained for a month, and reportedly receive P4,000 ($86) a month, which is hardly enough to support a family. The Alamara recruits do not receive any training nor allowance. Bontulan said the families of those who joined these paramilitary groups are the ones left to suffer.
“They have food to eat at the detachment, but their families go hungry,” he said. There were some who reportedly stow some rice supply from the detachment to bring home to their families, he said.
Bontulan said the younger Alamara recruits join soldiers during operations, but the older ones just stay in the community. “Their families are pitiful, because they are too afraid to work in their farms,” he said. Soldiers have warned that they are now enemies of the NPA.
Bontulan lamented that those who claim to be Lumád chieftains were the ones attacking organizations such as Salugpungan, acting more like “tribal dealers” who recruit indigenous peoples into paramilitary groups.
One of them, Datu Lumansad Sibugan, who belongs to the Talaingod Tribal Council of Elders, even led the discrediting of the STTICLC, and requested DepEd to close the school, to be replaced by soldiers who are para-teachers.
Sibugan also figured in the police raid at the UCCP Haran House on July 23, a “rescue” reportedly instigated by North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco who insisted that the evacuees return home. Sibugan threatened to wage a pangayaw (tribal war), and to forcibly take the women and children evacuees back to Talaingod. Alamara men were seen with the Davao City police in the incident, which ended with the evacuees insisting on staying in the city until the soldiers pull out of the communities.
Threats a continuing reality
“What the soldiers are doing is meant to weaken our struggle. But we are not giving up. We are showing that what they are doing is wrong, and it strengthens our commitment,” Bontulan said.
This year’s evacuation seemed only a repeat of April last year’s, when some 1,400 Ata-Manobos fled from Talaingod and stayed in Davao City for a month, following military encampment in their communities.
With the recent massacre of other Lumad communities in Bukidnon and Surigao del Sur, Bontulan said the threats against indigenous leaders remain a reality, and he has prepared his family for the worst.