Print Version    Email to Friend
Government cannot hide murders behind its maverick militias

MANILA (Mabuhay) : The governor of Surigao del Sur, Johnny Pimentel, laid down the gauntlet when he declared a state of emergency in the province on September 18 as a result of up to 3,000 people frantically fleeing their homes in fear of their lives in the wake of execution-style murders committed by the Magahat-Bagani paramilitary on September 1.

“The killings caused massive evacuations from San Miguel and Liangga towns. They are now staying in Tandag City at our sports stadium,” UCAN quoted Pimentel as saying.

Stocks of food were due to run out by September 21 and Pimentel said that the province did not have money to buy more. Declaring a state of emergency allows access to other funds.

The government has responded by forming a task force and a senior superintendent, Narciso Verdadero, was quoted by UCAN as saying, “We will scour areas where the suspects may have possibly hidden.”

However, the indigenous people’s group, Katribu, is confident that the task force will not find anything, as it says the government is doing nothing to end the impunity of those who commit such murders.

This prompts the question as to whether the government is responsible for the murders or not. 

The president of The Philippines, Noynoy Aquino, stressed at a forum on September 9 that his government does not have any policy to run a campaign to kill anybody.

However, an editorial posted on CBCP News notes, “Disputable though this may be, the same logic can be applied to the massacre of Chinese tourists at the Quirino Grandstand in August 2010… That’s why the leadership did not see any need to apologise.”

It also notes that with a stretch of the imagination the same could apply to the siege in Zamboanga City in September 2013 or to the mass exodus of migrant workers in search of greener pastures in foreign lands. No policy, no responsibility.

But rights groups in Surigao del Sur point to the Peace Dialogue that was held on January 30 this year and attended by representatives of the Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces of The Philippines, the provincial government and local government units of Liangga, as well as religious and Lumad leaders.

CBCP News reports that during that meeting paramilitary personnel harassing and murdering indigenous leaders were identified as Datu Calpito Egua, Marcos Bocales, Marcial Belandres and Bobby Tejero.

“This gathering agreed to immediately dismantle and disarm this paramilitary group and file criminal charges,” CBCP News says. “But of course nothing happened.”

Although Aquino must be one of the few presidents ever to win an election without uttering even a single policy, the president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, believes that he is still responsible for the behaviour of government law enforcement personnel.

Since the forerunner to the current paramilitaries were set up under the government Oplan Bantay security programme by Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as a type of vigilante organisation, and re-described by Aquino in his Oplan Bayanihan, the archbishop believes they are a government responsibility.

The archbishop is now questioning how the government could be so quick in exonerating the militia group of responsibility, even before any inquiry had been held.

“We are disturbed profoundly by reports that national leaders have been quick to exonerate the militia group of wrong-doing. This alarming eagerness to deny culpability does not augur well for truth and justice,” Archbishop Villegas says in a statement from the bishops’ conference on September 11.

“Such declarations inspire credence only after a reliable and trustworthy investigation by impartial and competent persons shall have taken place. If made before any such investigation, they disturbingly suggest a refusal to hold accountable those to whom the administration so eagerly extends its mantle of protection,” he continues.

But local clergy are also pointing the finger at powerful interests pulling strings behind the paramilitary groups, saying that only groups who defend their lands against mining interesting are targeted.

In a statement issued on September 8, the priests of Tandag diocese say, “One can see and understand that only those communities of Lumads who firmly stand to protect the forest and reject mining activities and anything that destroys nature were obviously the ones being hounded and intimidated, supposedly by the afore-
mentioned notorious group.”

They continue, “Gathering all these, we can say that all this could be a work that has been extensively planned. Our indigenous people who, ever since, have been one with nature, have lived in and survived out of their land of heritage, are now victims of those who are hungry and greedy for power and wealth.”

CBCP News comments that it is not easy to take the president’s word that his government has no connection with the murders, which prompted Archbishop Villegas to question why, when a militia group has been named, nothing is being done.

“Militia groups, by their very nature, do not fall under a clear, established and accessible chain of command. Government makes use of such groups for counter-
insurgency and counter-rebellion manoeuvres,” he points out.

“It is their association with government that can be pernicious, for while they act with the tacit consent, if not authority of state agents, they cannot be held to account for their actions by the regular channels of accountability and attribution that exist in the regular armed forces and police,” he stresses.

He then points out that just because Aquino lacks a policy that does not mean that he can wash his hands of the matter.

“We respectfully invite the attention of the state to the fact that under accepted principles of international law, state responsibility lies where persons acting in behalf of the state commit some actionable wrong, and the state hesitates about acting or, worse, refuses to act,” the archbishop says.

He then notes that if militia groups cannot be fitted into the chain of government command they should be abolished.

“If militia groups cannot fit within a structure of clear authority and command by legitimate state authority, they should not be tolerated, much less employed as mercenaries by the state,” he stresses.

Local clergy in Surigao del Sur are calling on the government to stop prioritising supposed development projects over indigenous people’s rights.

“We all strongly condemn the terrorisation, harassment and the killings of our Lumad brothers and sisters, as well as denounce the root cause of it all,” they say.

Bagani Force, which has been named by eye witnesses as the perpetrator of the murder of Lumad leaders.