BULATLAT SPECIAL REPORT:
A village in Kitaotao, Bukidnon is being militarized after its residents asserted their right to get drought assistance from government.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Manobo datu Juanito Binaton, 45, was in Manila when he heard the painful news: the Fr. Fausto Tentorio Memorial School in his village in White Culaman, Kitaotao, Bukidnon province had been shut down.
“We are the ones who worked hard to put up that school. We built it with our own hands, every wood, bamboo, nail, all came from us,” Binaton told Bulatlat.com. The boarding school is run by the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundaton Inc. (Misfi), and was named after the slain Italian missionary, known as “Father Pops.”
The closure of the school, branded by soldiers to be harboring New People’s Army (NPA) members, is the latest among the atrocities attributed to military presence in White Culaman. Binaton had evacuated from the village since late August, after soldiers arbitrarily arrested 13 Lumád leaders, and began harassing residents.
It was the price they had to pay after showing their unity and asserting their rights, most recently, to avail of the government’s calamity aid.
From late August up to last week, the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (Karapatan) documented cases which it said comprise “a state of martial law:” arbitrary arrests, military encampment in civilian facilities and homes, illegal searches, indiscriminate firing, arson, and coercion, which took the form of forced recruitment into the Barangay Defense System, forced surrender, and doing chores at the military detachment.
A fact-finding mission in September even reported how soldiers in civilian clothes coerced residents into barricading the village to prevent the entry of the mission.
White Culaman’s case fits a pattern seen in militarized areas during Martial Law and during the implementation of Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya, when villagers were so gripped by fear, that they either leave, or follow the soldiers’ every order.
Then, and now under Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan, the state terror machine is used to strike fear to keep in check a population that has become critical of government, and has learned to assert their rights.
Binaton, his daughter Bai Marissa Ejanel and other Lumád evacuees from White Culaman are with the protest caravan, #Manilakbayan2015, which calls for the withdrawal of the military from villages.
“Then and now, the Lumád get no respect from government,” Binaton said.
The price of asserting their rights
The Lumád peasants from White Culaman became military targets when they led a protest at the Kitaotao municipal hall in June, asking for the release of the P8 million ($2 million) drought calamity fund. In a dialogue, the local officials agreed to release 1,000 sacks of rice to the protesters, with a pledge to release 2,000 sacks more, plus fertilizers and seeds.
Soldiers and policemen arrived on Aug. 26 at Poblacion, the village proper, and called for an assembly.
Ejanel, recalled in an interview with Bulatlat.com: “A soldier asked those gathered: ‘Who wants to join Alsa Masa? Raise your hands.’ Nobody did. ‘So, nobody wants to join because you’re already with the NPA,’ the soldier said. And people were forced to raise their hands,” Ejanel recounted.
The police had a warrant of arrest for 64 people – among them leaders and members of organizations — in connection with their protest at the town center. They picked out several residents, tied their hands, and brought them to the village hall.
Among those nabbed were Binaton’s relatives, Noeyda Manlumaray and Ellen Manlimbaas, the chairperson of Nagkahiusang Mag-uuma sa Barangay White Culaman (Namabaw). Sixteen residents were arrested, five of them women, and four children. On Aug. 27, they were forced into a helicopter and flown to the Maramag police station. The three children and Josie Labaninay, a nursing mother were released after three days. The rest were detained at the Malaybalay provincial jail on charges of rebellion, which were dismissed after a month.
Ejanel said that the people were terrified, when they saw the arrests. But it was just the beginning.
‘State of martial law’
After the assembly, the soldiers encamped in the village hall and the 7th Day Adventist chapel in Poblacion. Then they went to the sitios (sub-villages), and told residents to “surrender” themselves in three days, or they would be arrested and jailed. Soldiers put up detachments in at least four sitios of White Culaman, including sitio Sagasaan, where the schools run by Misfi and the Department of Education (DepEd) are.
A Karapatan report said that at around 1 p.m., classes at the Misfi-run school was disrupted when they heard gunshots fired at the nearby health center. The teachers and students went to the hillside and laid flat on their stomachs in fear, for an hour. The firing stopped at 3 p.m. but it started again at 4 p.m., as soldiers fired their guns as they passed by.
The teachers tried to resume classes the next day, but everyone was already jittery. Fear and panic have begun to spread. There were rumors that soldiers were going to bomb the school.
That afternoon, Ejanel’s eight-year-old daughter came home and said soldiers walked in their midst as they headed home from school. The soldiers asked the children if they see any NPA.
In another incident, Ejanel said a woman confronted soldiers who offered money to her son, in exchange for pointing out an NPA. “She was angry because her son is only 10,” she said.
“That’s what the soldiers did, they threatened to arrest people if they don’t surrender, they forced people to go on duty, to sign (surrender papers). And that’s why the people evacuated,” Ejanel said.
On Aug. 27, Ejanel and a handful of residents decided to slip out of the village. With her husband and three daughters, they walked for three hours towards Kabalantian village from 3 p.m., from where they took a habal-habal to Arakan, North Cotabato.
It was a discreet evacuation, as families left in small groups, anxious not to get the attention of the soldiers, who threatened to burn the houses of those who will evacuate.
The evacuees from White Culaman eventually reached 400. They joined other Lumád seeking sanctuary at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Haran House in Davao City.
While at the evacuation center, Binaton learned that four houses in sitio (sub-village) Malinaw were set on fire by suspected soldiers on October 3: his house, and that of his daughter and two neighbours. Residents managed to put out the fire, but some of the walls, household items and clothes were burned.
Ejanel said they learned that the villagers were forced by soldiers to go on patrol duty at the detachment. “The soldiers sleep so well, while the civilians stay up all night,” she said.
Isidro Indao, spokesperson of the Kahugpungan sa Mag-uuma sa Kitaotao (KMK), is now being threatened after he refused to head the Barangay Self-Defense System, and instead left the village.
White Culaman: a village that stood up
Binaton likened the current situation in White Culaman to the time of Martial Law, when soldiers ruled and committed similar abuses. He recalled how his father, Fortunato, a datu and village leader, was stripped by soldiers, who pressed his testicles with pliers. People had to sign the soldiers’ logbook to be allowed to go to their farms.
He recalled that he was only seven years old when four people were killed by soldiers and the private army who opened fire on the residents.
The ranch, owned by businessman Virgilio Bueno, had been in the village for 10 years, and had affected their farming, as the cows ate their rice and corn crops. The Lumád community consented to the ranch after Bueno promised to give a cow to each resident. But the cattle overpopulation had become a pest to their livelihood, and they decided to end the agreement.
The rancher’s retaliation came soon enough. The “cowboys,” or the ranch guards, told the villagers that a cow had fallen into a ravine, and it was theirs to be slaughtered for food. The unsuspecting community went to the site, but there was no cow. Instead, they were met by a volley of gunfire from soldiers and “cowboys.”
Binaton recalled those killed as one named Rudy Liwanag, a pregnant woman and two children. Their deaths fortified the villagers’ unity and signalled their resistance to outsiders.
“We kicked out the ranch,” Binaton said.
Their unity took the form of an organization, the Malupa. However, in later years, one of its leaders, Veloso Suhat, was coopted by government to form the Alsa Lumád, under the Supreme Tribal Council for Peace and Development.
In 2003, the communities then formed another group, the Tilalanon, Kulamanon Lumadnong Pakighiusa, or Tikulpa, uniting Lumád in Kitaotao, Bukidnon and Arakan, North Cotabato. This group had been targeted by government under the former Arroyo administration’s Oplan Bantay Laya and now, under Oplan Bayanihan.
In 1989, another set of outsiders came, who claim to be from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), drilled a hole in the ground and took a soil sample. They returned with an offer to the community. “They brought with them a palm oil seed. It will not only bring in cash, the oil can be used for many things aside from frying, and it can also be eaten,” Binaton recalled the outsiders’ words.
Nobody took the offer. “One look at the palm oil and we knew it won’t sustain us. What will sustain us is our own crops, rice, corn, camote,” Binaton said.
Then another set of outsiders offered to plant banana and pineapple, enticing them with promises of big cash. “We told them that we have our own traditional banana and pineapples, with many varieties. We don’t need their plantation,” Binaton said.
Then in the mid-2000s, a representative of the National Irrigation Authority (Nia) came about the Pulangi V hydropower project. “They wanted to put a dam on Culaman river. We didn’t want it. The river is our market, our source of food and many needs,” Binaton said.
The Pulangi V hydropower project is set to affect 10,000 people, when it submerges 40,000 hectares of ancestral domains in the towns of Kitaotao, Kibawe, Dangkagan and Damulog in Bukidnon, and Roxas in North Cotabato. The burial site of the Manobo ancestor Mamalo is believed to be in the areas to be affected, although this is still being contested by some experts.
Many indigenous and environmentalists oppose the project because of its destructive impact. They also suspect that it actually only aims to dam Pulangi to drain the Liguasan Marsh, targeted for its rich oil deposits.
‘Help us return home’
The Misfi school administration had filed charges of abuse of authority against village chief Cabugnason, who now faces an investigation by the Kitaotao municipal council. But the soldiers are still there.
Binaton said the evacuees long to go home to White Culaman. “We ask for the help of other sectors – the church, teachers and youth – to join us in our call to pull out soldiers from the communities, so that we can go home.”
“We also call for a stop to Lumád killings. We are only defending our ancestral lands, the source of our livelihood, food, life…the military should respect our rights, and they should leave,” Binaton said.