Satur C. Ocampo | Blaans fight for their rights

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Let me share with you this heart-tugging story, still unfolding, of six Blaan tribal communities in Malapatan, Sarangani province: Dlumay, Datalnay, Dungan Bahay, Alna, Q-gam, and Siman.

These communities are part of the hinterland barangay of Upper Suyuan. Yet they are not included in the official map of the municipality, probably because they lie on the other side of a high mountain peak reachable by trekking for 8 to 10 hours.
Until three years ago, the communities did not receive any government attention. They had no school, no health services, and no aid to improve their primitive agriculture.

In 2008, a nongovernmental organization, Center for Lumad Advocacy and Services (CLANS), came into the area and began providing much-needed social services.

A key project is a literacy program via the Blaan Literacy School and Learning Center, a non-formal school set up in Dlumay. A partner NGO, Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya (SIBAT), has constructed a micro-hydropower plant, intended to light up the villages at night and power a multi-grain mill that it has built in the community.

The school had 75 students (aged 5 to 21 years) in school-year 2009, and 87 in 2010 — 115 of them enabled to read, write, and do basic math. This year, 205 students were expecting to graduate.

But the hopes of the 205 students were dashed last March 17 when the school was forced to shut down. The seven community teachers and five school staff were advised by community leaders to leave temporarily, fearing their lives were threatened by soldiers of the 73rd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army.

The 17th IB came into the area on Nov. 4, 2010, encamped in the community of Datalnay and, in full battle gear, regularly conducted foot patrols in the villages. They waged a campaign to discredit CLANS by alleging that its officials and staff are CPP-NPA members. On March 10, 2011, the soldiers encamped in the center of Dlumay, near the schoolhouse.

Here’s how CLANS depicts what happened:

“The soldiers continuously interrogated the teachers and community leaders; took pictures of the staff, and in full battle gear camped by the waiting shed near the schoolhouse. They also directly harassed some 36 schoolchildren and their teacher.
“A boy was forced to carry an M-16 rifle, his picture was taken against his will while the soldiers threatened him with a needle and thread and said they would sew his navel. Another boy was tied inside a sack for three hours until (he) defecated in his pants.”
“Community leaders were systematically interrogated and harassed.”

After leaving the community, CLANS filed complaints of human rights violations, backed up by affidavits of victims and witnesses, with the Commission on Human Rights and the Ombudsman. Six officers and soldiers of the 73rd IB, including the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Adolfo Espuelas, have been charged with harassment, threat and intimidation, and violation of RA 7610 which provides stronger defense and special protection against child abuse, exploitation and discrimination.

Expressions of support for CLANS and its Blaan projects — and against the acts of the 73rd IB — came from lawyers, doctors, teachers, youth and students, church people, media and lumad organizations. On May 17, an alliance was formed, called SOS: Luwason Kabataang Lumad.

Later this alliance was broadened into a national network of 30 organizations, named Alayon (Visayan term for cooperation), which this week carried out a “Peace and Solidarity Mission in Defense of Blaan Children’s Rights” in the six communities.

The larger alliance was spurred by the action on May 29 of 16 Blaan men, women and children who made their way down from the mountain and sought out CLANS in Alabel, Sarangani. They implored CLANS and the teachers and staff to go back and resume their work.

That act of courage and determination emboldened 209 Blaan leaders and villagers to sign a petition, sent to the barangay captain and council of Upper Suyuan, the Malapatan municipal government, and the provincial government. The petition demanded the following:

1) Immediate pullout of the soldiers, banning them from camping out in their communities
2) justice for the victims of human rights violations
3) return of the teachers and staff to resume classes, and completion of the mini-hydropower plant and multi-grain mill projects.

Among the institutions supporting CLANS and the Blaans is the Missionary Benedictine Community at St. Scholastica’s Academy in Marikina City, which has adopted the Blaan literacy school. In a message read at a press conference in General Santos City, signed by six nuns holding key positions and 10 oblates, the Benedictine Sisters asserted that the Blaan Literacy School and Learning Center is recognized by the Department of Education under its Alternative Learning System (ALS).

Paying tribute to CLANS and SIBAT for their “unstinting, self-sacrificing service” to the Blaan communities of Upper Suyuan, the feisty nuns declared the NGOs to be their mission partners in the area.

To the military, the nuns were firm:

“Let it be known to the AFP’s 73rd IB that if any harm happens to our Blaan and NGO partners in Upper Suyuan, we Benedictines will take it personally.”

Wow! AFP, take heed!

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