RELIGIOUS and civil society groups have called on the Philippine government to conduct a more thorough investigation into the killing last month of eight indigenous peoples who had struggled for decades to reclaim their ancestral land.
The call came after a fact-finding mission on January 11 and 12 in the village of Ned, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato found that there was allegedly no encounter that occurred between the military and the victims.
The military earlier said the victims were members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels, a claim belied by family members of the slain tribal members.
In a press briefing on January 13, the victims’ female family members tearfully condemned the military for allegedly slaughtering their relatives.
It was the first time the family members surfaced publicly more than a month after the incident that other militant groups earlier described as an alleged massacre by government troops.
“The gunfire came from the military,” Lita Wali, sister of Datu Victor Danyan, told reporters.
“I was cooking for lunch. We heard volleys of gunshots and my brother rushed out of the house to see what’s happening. He was gunned down. There was no exchange of gunfire,” said Wali, who admitted that Danyan was carrying a home-made gun.
Dr Benito Molino, an independent forensic expert who joined the two-day fact-finding mission, said that at least 300 empty and live shells of M14 and M16 rifles were recovered from the various sites were the soldiers apparently fired their weapons.
“Based on physical evidence … it appears that there was no encounter,” Molino said, noting that Danyan “only suffered a single gunshot wound apparently inflicted by a sniper fire.”
Sister Susan Bolanio, executive director of the Oblate of Notre Dame-run which lobbies on behalf of victims of extrajudicial killings, said it was believed Danyan was killed for leading the struggle to reclaim their ancestral land.
“He was deliberately targeted to silence dissent in the area,” said Bolanio, whose non-profit has been helping the tribal leader’s community for two decades.
The Hesed Foundation urged President Rodrigo Duterte to order a comprehensive investigation into the killing of the tribal members and for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to withdraw soldiers, militiamen and company guards operating in the area.
Danyan, chair of the Taboli-Manobo S’daf Claimants Organisation (TAMASCO), was killed on Dec 3 in the village of Sitio Datal Bonlangon. It remains a ghost town as the 22 households there have remained in an evacuation centre more than a month after the bloody incident.
Besides the tribal leader, also killed were his sons Artemio and Victor Jr, son-in-law Pato Ceraldo, as well as Samuel Angkoy, Mating Balabagan-Bantal, Toto Diamante and Toto Danyan.
TAMASCO is a grassroots organisation formed in 2006 to reclaim the tribe’s almost 1,700-hectare ancestral domain – currently planted with coffee by Silvicultural Industries. The company was granted a 25-year Integrated Forest Management Agreement (IFMA) 22, which expired on Dec 21, 2016.
It applied for a renewal but TAMASCO did not give its consent during the Free and Prior Informed Consent process facilitated by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
With the help of various church and legal rights groups, TAMASCO later discovered that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources approved another agreement covering the same tribal land.
Aside from struggling to reclaim their land planted with coffee, tribal leader Danyan and his group also opposed the entry of coal mining operations on their ancestral land.
In a statement issued on Dec 5, an AFP spokesman said that AFP soldiers had “seized the largest New People’s Army guerilla base in the boundary between South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat provinces after a two-pronged attack that commenced dawn of Dec 3.”
The firefight erupted at past noon when NPA fighters engaged AFP troops near their “terrorist cave hideout” in Sitio Datal Bonglangon, the official said.
NPA guerrillas in Far South Mindanao in formation during the 46th Founding Anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Source: Edwin EspejoSEE ALSO: Communist rebels vow fierce resistance to martial law in Mindanao
Two Philippine soldiers and sevenn insurgents were killed in the running gunbattle that ensued, the military official added.
At the press briefing Saturday noon, Datu Dande Danyan, a relative of the slain tribal leader and now the TAMASCO chair, denied that the victims were communist rebels.
“They’re civilians whose cause was to reclaim our ancestral land,” he later told Asian Correspondent.
“We will continue the fight to reclaim our ancestral land even with the death of my father,” said Tarcela, whose husband Pato Ceraldo was also killed during the military operation.
“We want justice for the victims.”