Four Agusanon Lumad, including two minors, were on their way to the local Comelec to register as first-time voters for the upcoming Sangguniang Kabataan (Youth Council) and barangay elections when they were arrested, tortured and detained by members of paramilitary group Bagani forces.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – “End tagging children victims of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as child soldiers!” This is the call of child rights group Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC) as two minors were arrested and were accused as members of the New People’s Army (NPA).
According to a Davao Today report, on July 22, two minors BJ (not his real name), 17, and Arturo (not his real name), 16, along with their companions Rolang Sanglid, 19, and Rico Basilisco, 18, were arrested by the Bagani paramilitary forces at the highway of Kauswangan, Loreto, Agusan Del Sur.
The four, who are all Agusanon Lumad, were reportedly on their way to the local Comelec to register as first-time voters for the upcoming Sangguniang Kabataan (Youth Council) and barangay elections. According to the report, the three, except for Sanglid, were tortured by the Bagani forces and were threatened that they would be killed. They were accused of being members of the NPA. Sanglid was spared from the beating because a member of the paramilitary group that arrested them is his neighbor.
The two minors are now under the custody of the Social Welfare Department of Loreto, Agusan Del Sur. They are now facing murder charges filed by the paramilitary group. They were accused by the paramilitary group of killing Kauswangan village captain Ramon Diaganonon. Human rights group Karapatan in Mindanao is working for the release of the minors.
The arrest and torture of the minors were strongly condemned by child rights groups CRC and Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns. “The CRC condemns these multiple violations of AFP soldiers and its affiliated paramilitary. These children suffered enough from the moment that they have been illegally arrested and detained. But the soldiers did not stop, they even tied up the children while they were beaten and kicked in their face, neck and nape. BJ was burned by a cigarette in his lips and bullets were pressed between his fingers while a barrel of a .357 pistol was put in Arturo’s mouth while he was being beaten. The two also suffered suffocation after their heads were wrapped with a plastic bag and they were branded as members of the NPA,” Jacqueline Ruiz, CRC executive director said in a statement.
The CRC raised alarm over the recent cases of children being illegally arrested, tortured and tagged as members of the NPA by the elements of the AFP.
Ruiz blamed the counter-insurgency program Oplan Bayanihan for the increasing number of human rights violations committed against children. “This month alone two children were added to the increasing cases of branding children victims of human rights violations as child soldiers. Like the previous cases under Oplan Bayanihan, these children are civilians and in fact, victims of AFP’s rights violations,” Ruiz said in s statement.
The groups also condemned the “terroristic acts” by the 26th Infantry Batallion and the Bagani paramilitary forces in Lumad communities also in Loreto, Agusan Del Sur. According to Kharlo Manano, spokesman of Salinlahi, about 423 individuals, 224 of whom are children, were forced to evacuate their homes last July 28 in the villages of Kauswagan, Sabud, Mansanita and San Mariano after the military occupied their communities and harassed them.
Based on reports reaching the human rights group, the Bagani paramilitary forces and elements of the 26th IBPA have been making the rounds of Lumad communities, threatening residents and looking for suspected members of the NPA supposedly listed in their order of battle. Evacuations then ensued in at least four barangays including Kauswagan, Sabud, Mansanitas and San Mariano.
Manano said the affected communities were believed to be rebel-stronghold areas. “But civilians are the most affected by the military atrocities, especially the children. They even become the targets of attack of the AFP and state paramilitary forces.”
“This incident is an addition to the growing list of violations committed by state military troops. This further reinforces the belief that respect for human rights is merely rhetoric for them and belies their claim that their intrusion in rural communities, as licensed by the government’s Oplan Bayanihan, is in the name of peace and development,” Manano added.
Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan meanwhile, intends to push for an investigation into the reported torture of Lumad minors and the recent evacuation of families from the Agusanon Tribe, including the 224 children due to heightened military operations in Loreto, Agusan del Sur.
“Lumad families are forced to leave their homes and their sources of livelihood for fear of being accused as members or supporters of the New People’s Army. Counter insurgency operations under Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan repeatedly target far flung rural communities. This is not the first time that Lumad communities are displaced,” said Ilagan.
Ruiz expressed concern over the children affected by the attacks of soldiers in the said communities. “Like most cases, communities allegedly influenced by NPA are being harassed, civilians are being interrogated, arrested, tortured and tagged as members of the rebels, and it is saddening because children are not spared.”
She said the effect of these violations to the well-being of children is severe. They urge President Benigno S. Aquino III as well as the AFP to respect the rights of civilians, especially children. “The government must end its long practice of baseless tagging of children as child soldiers and reprimand the perpetrators.”
Manano criticized Aquino for remaining silent on issues of violations against children. “Not once have we heard Aquino reprimanding the military or making them accountable for their actions. As the commander-in-chief, we hold him responsible for the growing number of children being victimized by his Oplan Bayanihan scheme.”
The Gabriela solon also called for the immediate withdrawal of military troops in the area and the scrapping of Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan. “Now, Lumad children have stopped going to school and their parents forced to abandon their farms further aggravating their poverty. The constant threat to their lives and the displacement of Lumad families and communities compel them to rebel against the state and state authorities.”