The Philippine military has repeatedly stood aside while paramilitary forces have attacked indigenous villages and schools in the southern region of Mindanao, Human Rights Watch said today. These forces have committed killings, torture, forced displacement, and harassment of residents, students, and educators with impunity.
The Philippine government should urgently act to end these abuses and investigate alleged complicity by military personnel, Human Rights Watch said.
“Paramilitaries in Mindanao have been terrorizing tribal people while the military at best does nothing,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Aquino administration should not only be cracking down on the paramilitaries, but also on the military officers supporting them.”
Residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch and government officials have linked military personnel to the two paramilitary groups involved in the attacks. Surigao del Sur’s governor, Johnny Pimentel, publicly accused the military of creating and controlling the Magahat Bagani Force (the “Magahat”) paramilitary group. “The military created a monster,” Pimentel told reporters on September 6, 2015.
Human Rights Watch received reports that elements of the military were consistently nearby when the Alamara group carried out attacks in Davao del Norte. In some instances, the troops accompanied paramilitaries as they harassed students and teachers of a tribal school in the town of Talaingod. “The soldiers stayed outside the classrooms but allowed the Alamara to go inside, fully armed, accusing us of being supporters of the NPA [the communist New People’s Army],” said one student, referring to an incident in March.
Tribal and environmental groups have accused the military of using these paramilitaries, who are tribal members and thus familiar to local residents, to help clear ancestral areas to pave the way for mining companies and other business interests. The government has designated the Caraga region, which includes Surigao del Sur, as the “mining capital of the Philippines.” Davao del Norte and Bukidnon are also known for rich mineral and natural resources that indigenous peoples claim as their ancestral domain.
On September 1, the Magahat paramilitary group allegedly attacked a tribal school in Surigao del Sur province, torturing and killing an educator and two tribal leaders. The attack caused an estimated 4,000 residents to flee their homes, mostly to an evacuation camp in Tandag City, the capital of Surigao del Sur.
A paramilitary group called the Alamara has since 2014 committed violence against villages of indigenous peoples in the provinces of Bukidnon and Davao del Norte. The group has particularly harassed students at tribal schools run by religious and nongovernmental groups, claiming that these schools are used to indoctrinate tribal children in communist ideology. School administrators respond that the government-accredited schools teach approved subjects attuned to the tribe’s culture.
These attacks have resulted in the closure of some schools and the disruption of classes. Hundreds of residents fled their villages and sought refuge at a Protestant church compound in Davao City, where children hold classes under trees and tents.
Save Our Schools Network, a Manila-based advocacy group, lists 52 attacks on schools in four Mindanao provinces from 2014 to mid-2015 by combined paramilitary and military forces. While paramilitaries have attacked public schools, most of their targets are tribal schools in far-flung villages where the NPA is also present. The Philippine government should join the Safe Schools Declaration, which was opened for endorsement in May in Oslo, Norway, and outlines concrete measures that all governments can take to better protect students, teachers, and schools from attack, Human Rights Watch said.
The Philippine armed forces has denied allegations of direct or indirect involvement in the paramilitary attacks. It has instead accused the NPA and alleged supporters of spreading what military officials call “black propaganda.” At a September 15 news conference inside the armed forces headquarters in Manila, three tribal leaders denied the military’s involvement in the violence, and accused the NPA of instigating it. However, Pimentel and other tribal groups said that two of the three leaders at the news conference were actually leaders of the Magahat and the Alamara.
“The armed forces is not involved in these alleged abuses. What is happening is a tribal war,” Maj. Gen. Cesar Lactao, chief of the 4th Infantry Division, told Human Rights Watch, noting that the Magahat and the Alamara as well as the victims themselves were all from tribal communities. He asserted that the allegations were just “propaganda” by the military’s enemies.
Lactao announced on September 17 the formation of a task force to pursue action against the paramilitaries. The police earlier recommended charges against 23 alleged members of the Magahat, including three of its leaders, but no arrests have been made. The official Commission on Human Rights announced that it will conduct an inquiry into the alleged abuses.
“The military’s claims of ‘tribal war’ and denials of complicity fall flat when soldiers do nothing to stop grievous crimes happening right nearby them,” Robertson said. “President Aquino should immediately order the Justice Department to conduct an impartial and credible investigation into these attacks, and prosecute those responsible.”