By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Indigenous peoples could not help but sneer at Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya, as he justified the presence of soldiers in communities in a dialogue led by Gina Lopez, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (Denr).
Visaya was not actually present in the dialogue, but spoke to the crowd through the phone held up to the microphone by Lopez, who was the one who called him up.
The environment secretary wanted to relay the complaints raised by different indigenous peoples groups about militarization and human rights violations by soldiers and paramilitary groups, whose presence, they say, is linked to the entry and operations of mining and logging companies.
The dialogue between Lopez and leaders of the Kilusan ng Moro at Mamamayang Katutubo para sa Sariling Pagpapasya (Sandugo) was held at the Kampuhan of the Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya (protest caravan of national minorities) at the Campus Maintenance Office (CMO) grounds in the University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City.
“What is happening there is not militarization, because the military doesn’t intervene with the leaders on how to run (the community). They are there to gather and teach you on how to live peacefully and happy. We are working with you to help you improve your livelihood,” Visaya said on the phone.
The AFP chief proceeded to tell about the example of Loreto, Agusan del Sur, whose mayor Dario Otaza worked along with the military “to improve his town,” and was killed by the New People’s Army (NPA). Addressing the crowd, Visaya said the soldiers’ presence was meant to target “those who lost their way,” or the NPA members, “who exploit you.”
Lopez asked for Visaya’s hotline, citing that the groups reported that civilians were killed by the military. Visaya answered: “Ang mga namamatay na Lumád ay dahil sumanib sila sa NPA (The Lumád who were killed there were those who joined the NPA).”
At this point, the mostly Lumád crowd which has kept quiet as Visaya spoke, burst out into loud booing. Youths in the crowd even followed with chants: Militar sa kanayunan, palayasin!
By then, Lopez ended the call.
Kerlan Fanagel, chairperson of the Pasaka Confederation of Lumád Organizations in Southern Mindanao, refuted Visaya’s statement, as he cited the recent killing of Lumád peasant leader Jimmy Saypan of the Compostela Farmers’ Association (CFA) who staunchly opposed the entry of the Agusan Petroleum Company. He said soldiers of the 66th infantry battalion were the suspected perpetrators. Another activist, Anoy Pasaporte of Panalipdan-Youth also in Compostela, was killed two days after Saypan died.
“What Visaya said is no different from what we have heard from the past administration,” Fanagel said. He said the Duterte administration continues the “peace and development outreach program” of Oplan Bayanihan, the Aquino administration’s counterinsurgency program, which targeted indigenous organizations, schools and communities.
The indigenous peoples’ alliance Katribu had documented at least 90 indigenous peoples killed under Oplan Bayanihan during Aquino’s term. The alliance had documented at least nine indigenous peoples activists killed under President Duterte.
Fanagel stressed to Lopez that the intensified military deployment in Mindanao goes side by side with the opening of some 500,000 hectares of ancestral lands to mining, and some 700,000 hectares to expansion of bio-fuel plantations.
He reiterated Sandugo’s call to cancel all mining operations, pull out soldiers encamped in schools and communities, and dismantle and disarm paramilitary groups.
Manobo Datu Ginem Ande, a Talaingod tribal chieftain was apparently agitated as he listened to Bisaya. He told Bulatlat on the side that soldiers are the ones who violate the Lumád’s rights, branding those killed as NPA. “They make up stories about people who are so poor and are only looking for camote to eat,” he said in Cebuano. He also cited the case of Lumád student, Alibando Tingkas, who was shot dead by members of Alamara, the paramilitary group suspected to be backed by the AFP.