Just how big is the paramilitary group that is allegedly behind the killing of Emerico Samarca, executive director of the tribal school Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Alcadev) in Lianga, Surigao del Sur? Samarca’s body was found bound and stabbed and with the throat slit open in a classroom of the school on Sept. 1.
The same paramilitary group, called Magahat-Bagani, is also accused of forcing the residents of Lianga out of their homes, setting fire to the building of a community cooperative, and killing two more men, both Manobo lumad: Dionel Campos, who headed an indigenous people’s group that fights for the preservation of ancestral land against mining operations and land conversions, and his cousin, Bello Sinzo.
Magahat-Bagani must be a sizable group to be able to carry out these violent operations, right? But Surigao del Sur Gov. Johnny Pimentel made a startling revelation in a report that ran in this paper last Sunday: The paramilitary force has only 30 members. Heavily armed, to be sure, and well-trained to kill, harass, terrorize and inflict maximum damage on the activist organizations in the area that it has been made to target.
But 30? An army battalion consists of 300-800 men; a brigade would be three or more battalions, and the Philippine military happens to have the 401st and 402nd Brigades stationed in or near the areas where Magahat-Bagani operates. They should amount to an overwhelming force of 1,500-5,000 elite soldiers, so 30 homegrown terrorists should be chicken feed. How, then, is Magahat-Bagani able to operate with such impunity?
Apparently because, as Governor Pimentel has confirmed, the military is behind Magahat-Bagani. Like the Alamara, another paramilitary group accused of crimes against indigenous peoples and activist organizations in Davao, the killers of Samarca, Diones and Sinzo have been armed, and are actively supported, by elements in the military as part of its counterinsurgency campaign in the area. “Where will [the group] get the money?” Pimentel pointed out. “An armalite rifle costs at least P150,000. The firearms came from the Army… This is the creation of the military. But they created a monster they could no longer control.”
To date, the “monster” that has been unleashed on remote communities in Surigao has forced over 2,000 persons, or about 500 families, to flee their ancestral lands to escape the terror. Hundreds of lumad evacuees have been crammed for months in a church compound in Davao City, where they thought they would be safe from the militarization that has displaced them from their homes and properties. But in July, state violence visited them once again when North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco, chair of the House committee on indigenous peoples—in what amounts to a most cruel irony—led a police force that barged into the compound, supposedly to “rescue” the evacuees who she said were being held hostage by the activist groups that had helped feed and shelter them. The resulting melee resulted in two cops and 17 lumad getting injured.
In Davao, in Surigao, in Bukidnon, the story is the same: of militias going on a rampage against indigenous peoples as part of the military’s ruthless campaign against the communist insurgency. “It is a form of ethnocide, but it is worse because there are specific characteristics of impunity and killings targeting the lumad. And what is alarming is that it is happening all over Mindanao,” said Dulphing Ogan, secretary general of Kalumaran, a confederation of various tribes in Mindanao.
Has any of the Army brigades in the area launched an operation to neutralize Magahat-Bagani? It has—with words: “We shall not let these criminals roam and threaten the peace-loving people of Surigao del Sur,” said the commander of the 402nd Brigade, Col. Isidro Purisima. “We will let them face the crimes they’ve committed.”
The criminals doing the threatening and killing number only around 30. If the military can’t rout such a puny band with its outsize firepower, it deserves to be condemned for inaction and apparent collusion with lawless elements. The widespread violence, harassment and militarization going on in Mindanao is nothing less than a throwback to the playbook of the Marcos dictatorship. President Aquino must put a stop to it, lest it become his bloody legacy.
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