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‘It is open season right now’: Martial law intensifies in the Philippines

protesters at same Jan.30 rally: photo courtesy of RMP-NMR.

  • A state of martial law was imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017, ostensibly to “suppress lawless violence” on the island of Mindanao. A military representative says military presence in villages is a “Community Support Program Team Deployment,” which is implemented in “conflict-affected areas.”
  • However, residents say it has only brought harassment, threats and danger to indigenous people and the organizations assisting them in their struggle for what they say is their ancestral land. They claim soldiers routinely come to their houses, sometimes in full battle gear and multiple times in a day, in order to profile them, conduct interrogations and coerce them to “surrender” as members of a communist insurgent group.
  • Residents report being wrongfully arrested and imprisoned. Most recently, a regional human rights organization alleges one of its staff members, Gleceria Balangiao and her mother had been detained by the military and coerced into signing a statement saying they are members of the insurgent group. Balangiao alleges she was threatened that if she refused to sign, harm would come to her family.
  • Local and regional organizations say military activity is centered in communities where residents say have been pressured to grow palm oil. An international investigation concluded that “the use of the Army troops and military deployment in communities with struggles for land and ancestral domain are clearly used to pursue the interests of corporate plantations.”

“Maybe what happened to my brother will also happen to me,” says Joseph Paborada, Chair of the indigenous organization Pangalasag. It has been over six years since his brother Gilbert, the group’s former leader, was shot to death in Cagayan de Oro city by two men aboard a motorcycle—but the atmosphere of fear and apprehension in the village of Bagocboc, Opol, Misamis Oriental has not dissipated. Joseph believes his brother was murdered for his opposition to a palm oil plantation owned by A Brown Company.

The agricultural arm of the corporation, A Brown Energy and Resources Development Inc. (ABERDI), began clearing the land in 2010/2011 under its subsidiary Nakeen Corporation. According to research by the Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization, this was done without first obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities in the area. Pangalasag members say the company’s armed guards barred residents from accessing their own farms.

Paborada says that while Paborada and other Pangalasag members have since resumed planting banana, mango, cassava and corn between the oil palm trees on the 520 hectares they claim as the ancestral territory of the Higaonon people, the presence of ABERDI remains a source of tension and conflict. And the state of martial law imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte on May 23, 2017, ostensibly to “suppress lawless violence” on the island, has brought more claims of harassment, threats and danger to the indigenous people (called IPs or Lumad), farmers and the organizations assisting them in their struggle for their land.

Joseph Paborada at one of the shelters erected by Pangalasag members on land to which they have moved back.  Photo by Brad Miller for Mongabay.

In an interview with Mongabay, Lt. Tere Ingente, spokesperson for the 4th Infantry Division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the AFP has increased its strength in the region by deploying additional combat detachments, with the Higaonon-populated palm oil territory of Opol, Misamis Oriental and Kalabugao, Bukidnon being patrolled by the soldiers of the 8th, 58th and 65th Infantry Battalions, which fall under the command of the 4th Infantry Division.

Years of military presence

In December 2017, two Special Rapporteurs for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced concern that “the ongoing militarization of Mindanao in the Philippines is having a massive and potentially irreversible impact on the human rights of the island’s indigenous Lumad communities.”

“It has really been a problem for the IP community,” says Kristin Lim, station manager of Radyo Lumad, which broadcasts indigenous news, cultural issues and music on an AM channel. She notes a number of destabilizing evacuations that affected hundreds of families from the Bagocboc/Tingalan area due to military operations against the New People’s Army (NPA), the communist insurgent group that has been battling the Philippine government for 50 years.

The presence of the AFP’s 4th Infantry Division in the villages is under what Lt. Ingente calls a “Community Support Program Team Deployment,” which is implemented in “conflict-affected areas.” While the AFP believes the problems in these localities can be solved through dialogue and the attention of the appropriate government agencies, they also have the “basic premise that conflict-affected areas have armed NPA inside the communities.”

According to Paborada, soldiers of the 58th and 65th Infantry Battalions have been conducting an ongoing house-to-house “census” in the community of Bagocboc to gather data. Lt. Ingente says the soldiers are using a standard NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) form, and that if residents “have nothing to hide,” then they “should not be alarmed.”

Soldiers of the AFP’s 4th Infantry Division on a civilian-military operation in Bagocboc, Misamis Oriental in 2017. Photo by July Orbe.

But Pangalasag members have reportedly stated that AFP soldiers come to their houses, sometimes in full battle gear and multiple times in a day, in order to profile them, conduct interrogations and coerce them to “surrender” as NPA. In one incident, Paborada says soldiers entered his house without permission or a warrant, causing a violent confrontation.

Lt. Ingente’s version of the event contradicts Paborada’s, saying it didn’t happen in Paborada’s house and that the AFP was instead called to a disturbance at a town dance where they had a confrontation with one of Paborada’s sons. She says the 4th Infantry Division has not received any complaints about soldiers forcing citizens to “surrender.”

However, Fides Cabana, an Information Officer of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Region 10 says they have been notified of these incidents not just in Opol, but other parts of Region 10, which is comprised of 20,000 square kilometers (around 7,700 square miles) in northern Mindanao and has a population of about 4.6 million. Cabana says that even under martial law, the security forces “must observe due process” and that police or military still need permission to enter someone’s home if they don’t have a warrant.

Paborada says the soldiers’ visits have caused fear and division within the Pangalasag organization, communities and even families, claiming that the military has employed residents to watch their neighbors and report back to the AFP.

Protecting palm oil

Paborada believes the military pressure is related to palm oil. While A Brown/ABERDI has not prohibited the planting of crops between the oil palm, farmers are not allowed to remove the trees, which, according to the company, they agreed to maintain for 25 years, until the year 2036. However, Pangalasag members insist they never signed such an agreement. Nakeen suspended its palm oil cultivation in Tingalan in the Fall of 2016, which Paborada said left its workers with broken promises of community development and no source of income.

The Environmental Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources ruled in October 2016 that A Brown/ABERDI was operating without an Environmental Clearance Certificate and ordered the company to cease any development. But Paborada says A Brown has tried to avert a total closure by convincing locals to embrace a piece-work grower’s contract where the farmers do the work, shoulder the costs and are required to sell their harvest to the company—an arrangement that Paborada says has brought economic hardship to those who accepted it. He also says he has been getting severely pressured by pro-company villagers, including members of the Tingalan Tribal Council, to sign over the 520 hectares of ancestral domain for such a deal. The Mayor of Opol, Maximino Seno, allegedly warned that if any oil palm trees were cut down, he would send in enough soldiers to arrest everyone in the village.

After an International Fact-Finding Mission held in April 2018, Chair of the Misamis Oriental Farmer’s Association (MOFA), Jerry Basahon, concluded that “the use of the Army troops and military deployment in communities with struggles for land and ancestral domain are clearly used to pursue the interests of corporate plantations…”

Oil palm fields in the Bagocboc/Tingalan area, Misamis Oriental. Photo by Brad Miller for Mongabay.

They have “really felt martial law intensely here,” says Radyo Lumad’s Kristin Lim, describing the village of Kaanibungan, Kalabugao in Bukidnon province, where A Brown/ABERDI also operated a palm oil plantation under the Nakeen Corporation until it shut down in the summer of 2016. She said AFP’s activity in the area peaked after a weeklong encounter between the government forces and the NPA erupted in a nearby village on Dec. 3, 2018.

Erlyn Namatidong and other members of the Kaanibungan Farmers Association (KAFA) described how soldiers camped out in the school and old Nakeen staff quarters, conducting checkpoints and interviews with the aid of the Philippine National Police. They allegedly applied a food blockade, limiting each family to bringing in 2 kilos (about 4 pounds) of rice at a time. The KAFA members said AFP rationalized that anything exceeding that amount would be given to the insurgents. They also said AFP imposed a curfew, where anyone not in their homes between 2 p.m. and 7 a.m. were considered to be NPA.

The KAFA members allege that 8th Infantry Battalion soldiers would arrive in the village and read a letter endorsed by President Duterte proclaiming that martial law means “military rule.” “It seems like there are no laws,” says Erlyn Namatidong, “as if all your rights are suspended.” But attorney Czarina Musni of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao asserts that “even under martial law, civil law still reigns supreme.”

Lt. Ingente of the 4th Infantry Division insists the military “recognizes the solution to armed struggle won’t be solved by armed force.” KAFA members agree – but they also feel that it is the military and current state of martial law that is driving the people into the mountains to take up arms. Erlyn Namatidong’s husband, Noel, has seven brothers, and he says that if anything happened to him they would all leave the village and join the New People’s Army.

Military presence has abated somewhat since 2019 began, but Namatidong says the 8th Infantry Battalion recently called in three people for “interviews,” demanding they give the names of any NPA organizers in Kaanibungan. They have been keeping KAFA under surveillance, she says, partly using neighbors they hired to “rat them out.”

KAFA is still functioning, but members lament that the pressure and divisive tactics used by the government forces under martial law have made organizing difficult. They say that after ABERDI/ Nakeen closed their doors, the people of Kaanibungan were left in a desperate situation, with no jobs and no land. Some have chosen to accept a piece-work grower’s contract similar to what was offered the farmers in Opol. But others, like the Namatidong family, “no longer want palm oil. We want to farm.”

KAFA members say that at a September 2018 meeting, ABERDI reminded them that a previous waiver they signed prohibited them from removing any oil palm trees for seven more years. Erlyn Namatidong says that with martial law, they may not live to see 2025.

Namatidong says that KAFA approached the Commanding Officer of the 8th Infantry Battalion with their palm oil dilemma, since he claimed he would open a dialogue with A Brown/ABERDI and any government agencies involved. But in the end, they feel the AFP is “just trying to protect the companies.”

A Brown/ ABERDI refused to answer multiple inquiries, made in person and by e-mail, concerning their current operating status, agreements with residents, and the potential influence of their palm oil plantation on the policies of the AFP.

Threats and arrests

With martial law extended until the end of 2019, Attorney Czarina Musni says the security forces feel they can do whatever they want, with the backing of President Duterte, because “this is their time.”

In February 2018, Duterte proclaimed he would pay “20,000 pesos a head” to any Lumad that killed a Communist insurgent. He later vowed in November the same year that he would form a “death squad” to hunt down NPA members and their sympathizers.

Father Allan Khen Apus of Karapatan-Northern Mindanao Region says the government tags human rights defenders, environmental activists and indigenous organizations as “red.” According to Khen Apus, advocacy groups helping people like Joseph Paborada and the Namatidongs resist the invasion of their ancestral land by the palm oil industry have been threatened, detained and arrested.

Kristin Lim claims the organization that founded Radyo Lumad, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Northern Mindanao Sub-Region (RMP-NMR), was forced to close down a training center in Bukidnon after soldiers stationed in the area began loitering around the premises and its staff has been receiving threats via text messages and accusations of being NPA were posted to their Facebook page.

After Datu (tribal leader) Jomorito Goaynon, Chair of the Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization was notified that his “wanted” poster was appearing in local bus terminals, he told the local media it was the government’s strategy to “paralyze the Kalumbay from helping the tribe….”

The threats turned into action when Jomorito Goaynon and Ireneo Udarbe, the Secretary General of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines) in Northern Mindanao, were pulled off a passenger jeepney by security forces in Cagayan de Oro City as they were on their way to a dialogue with the AFP and charged with illegal possession of weapons. Two days later, four members of the Misamis Oriental Farmer’s Association (MOFA) – cousins Gerald and Jerry Basahon and sisters Mylene and Marivic Coleta – were arrested on similar charges when their house/office in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental, was raided by a joint team of AFP and CIDG (Criminal Investigation and Detection Group) of the Philippine National Police.

In both cases, the arrested individuals and their organizations deny they are members of the NPA. They attest that the authorities had warrants of dubious merit and that the weapons were “planted.” Wenefrida Udarbe, Ireneo Udarbe’s wife, said at a Jan. 30 press conference that the authorities “want to silence him.”

Father Allan Khen Apus of Karapatan in northern Mindanao at a Jan. 30 rally in Cagayan de Oro demanding release of Goaynon and Udarbe; photo courtesy of RMP-NMR.

Then, on Feb. 11, the RMP-NMR reported that one of its staff members, Gleceria Balangiao, and her mother, Gloria Jandayan, had been detained by the AFP’s 4th Infantry Division and coerced into signing a statement saying they are members of the NPA. Balangiao alleges she was threatened that if she refused to sign, harm would come to her family.

On Feb. 22, activists and the relatives of the eight individuals recently arrested and detained (none of whom had been released as of press time) gathered at a hotel in Cagayan De Oro to convene a group called Hustisya (Justice)-Northern Mindanao. As the forum was in session, an unknown man dropped off flyers listing human rights workers, teachers, church leaders and journalists as recruiters of the NPA. One of the speakers, Secretary-General of Karapatan Cristina Palabay, noted how such accusations can lead to the named becoming “victims of extrajudicial killings.”

Arnold Alamon of the Mindanao Interfaith Institute on Lumad Studies says the “crackdown” on legal organizations helping the Lumad and marginalized communities is “putting people against the wall and giving them no choice. It is open season right now.”

In the hinterlands, rumors and gossip, called tsismis, travel from village to village, drifting across the rice paddies and oil palm fields like ground fog. And with the tsismis come fear, apprehension and division.

Corn planted by villagers in Bagocboc/Tingalan area. Photo by Brad Miller for Mongabay.

Josph Paborada roasts some fresh corn he has grown over an open fire, surrounded by the houses of his neighbors, some of whom he thinks are the military-employed informers that are spreading the rumor he is a Communist insurgent. He has received more death threats, and fears soldiers may “plant” weapons on his property. He is apprehensive because he has no title for the land he is farming and A Brown could return at any time; divided, pondering whether to succumb and grow palm oil for the corporation, or instead continue the struggle for the Higaonon’s ancestral territory.

Paborada places a plate of roasted corn on the table. For now the AFP has vacated the village. But he says the soldiers vowed they would be back next week.



Banner image: Protesters at a Jan. 30 rally against the arrest and imprisonment ofGoaynon and Udarbe. Photo courtesy of RMP-NMR.

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