TYRONE A. VELEZ
As October marks peasant month, the B’laans (an indigenous group in southern Philippines), along with environmental and church groups in Columbio, Sultan Kudarat continue their firm opposition to militarization and mining in their villages.
Recent military operations conducted by five battalions last September displaced residents of Sinapulan and Datalblao in Columbio. The church-based La Bugal B’laan Tribal Association reported that four farmers, including three of their members, were jailed without warrant. Soldiers also destroyed crops and properties after residents fled their homes, the association also said.
The church group said in the morning of Sept. 2, about 20 soldiers barged into the homes of residents of Blesa, Sinapulan. They took four farmers from their homes and brought them to their headquarters in Mabuhay. The four – Romeo Mural, Remy Gusanan, Daniel Gusanan and Roderick Amante – were blindfolded and tortured, it also reported.
Accused of killing a neighboring barrio chieftain, the four were consequently jailed in Tacurong, South Cotabato. Mural and the Gusanans were later released after the court ruled that their arrest and detention were illegal.
Another military patrol in Lamgawel, Datalblao also on Sept. 2 saw soldiers interrogating farmers on their alleged connections with the New People’s Army (NPA) and coercing them to act as guides to lead them to NPA camps.
“They kept pressing that we are with the NPA, and even presented a list bearing our names and claimed that this is a list of NPA members,” said village leader Sima Diagone.
Diagone said that one of his men was even threatened by a scout ranger at knife point. The soldier pointed out that his man bore a mole in his face that was similar to a tattoo of the NPA.
A solidarity and sympathy mission here last week reported these and other military atrocities committed with “wanton disregard of life, liberty and property of civilian farmers during the conduct of their operations.”
According to the mission report, soldiers sexually harassed a B’laan woman and held a 12-year old boy as collateral while they ordered the father to go on an errand.
The report found that the military operations disrupted the farmers’ harvest period, resulting in the damage of rice and corn harvest, while some crops such as peanuts, vegetables, and camote (sweet potato) were either missing or destroyed. Livestock and kitchen utensils were also reported missing. Traditional weapons such as bangkaw (spears) were broken.
The mission stressed that those responsible for the atrocities are the 25th, 27th, 38th, 39th and 40th infantry battalions under the 6th Infantry Division. The group demanded the military to engage in a public dialogue with the community where they will give full indemnification and a public apology for the damages inflicted on the village.
Giving support to the mission were 35 organizations from Socsargen and Davao regions including church-led groups, environmental alliances and peace advocates.
Organizations closely working with the affected communities see this latest string of militarization as a continuing campaign to drive away B’laans from their communities to give way for mining operations of Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI).
Columbio is home to the B’laan communities and the La Bugal Association, which has launched a decade-long fight against large-scale mining firms. The La Bugal filed the case with the Supreme Court in 1996 questioning the legality of then President Ramos’ Mining Act of 1995.
In the Mineral Policy Institute report, the B’laans first encountered the Australia-based Western Mining Corporation (WMC) in mid-1990s which occupied nearly 100,000 hectares in Tampakan and Columbio. The company’s entry brought a string of military operations every year.
In 1996, an international fact-finding mission reported that two children and three adults were killed by the military inside the WMC’s concession area.
Massive protests were held by the B’laan communities demanding the expulsion of WMC. This included a road blockade in Davao del Sur staged by 600 B’laans and 107 former WMC employees in 1997.
WMC has already ceased operations and gave its concession area to SMI and its foreign partner, Indophil Resources, Inc., another Australian firm. One of the majority shareholders of SMI is said to be Paul Dominguez, a close ally of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Dominguez was presidential assistant in Mindanao during the term of President Fidel Ramos.
Although there is no direct link established between SMI and military operations, La Bugal and its support groups believe the military is out in their communities to intimidate those who are against the giant mining firms.