Tribal people in the southern Philippines who left their mountain communities for fear of being caught in crossfire between government soldiers and communist rebels have returned to their homes. About 1,600 people from 15 communities in Surigao del Sur province started the trek home on Aug. 8 after military officials agreed to temporarily withdraw troops from their villages. "We had a confirmation that the army has pulled its troops out of our village. Now, we can finally return," said Sarry Campos, spokesman of tribal group Mapasu. Campos, however, said they will "not hesitate to leave again" if troops insist on setting up camp inside their villages. He alleged that the soldiers were deployed in the villages to pave the way for mining and other projects on tribal lands. But military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jaime Datuin, said the aim of the soldiers was "to secure the area from armed elements that are endangering the communities." He admitted the military had received a request from local officials to clear the area of guerrillas because "government projects were being blocked by the communists." Charges filed
In the wake of the recent exodus, authorities filed charges against 30 tribal leaders and their supporters, including a Protestant pastor and a local journalist. Prosecutors alleged they instigated the evacuation to implement a "deceptive plan" by rebels. A witness presented by the government claimed the people were told to leave their homes or risk being killed by the rebels. The tribal leaders denied the allegations. "No one threatened anyone because the decision to flee was a collective one due to fear of military abuses
," read a statement from Mapasu. Church and rights groups condemned the charges, calling them "trumped up," and accused the military of trying to "discredit the legitimate grievances" of the people.
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Protestant Bishop Modesto Villasanta, chairman of rights group Karapatan
in the region, said the charges were "a desperate move" by the military. He said the inclusion of a Protestant pastor and a journalist was a "clear indication that the complainants do not really know the people on their list." Sister Elenita Belardo of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines
said it is "unacceptable" for authorities to throw accusations against victims of social injustice and inequality." The Union of Peoples' Lawyers in Mindanao said false charges were being laid against tribal leaders and human rights defenders in other parts of Mindanao. In Cagayan de Oro, where 53 displaced tribal families are staying in the provincial capitol grounds, 11 people were charged for coercion and child abuse. At least nine tribal people were also charged with various offences after they gathered on July 31 to bury their leader who died at a rally in the city of General Santos
. The lawyers said it has become "a pattern of repression" by the military "to push indigenous people to helplessness and disenfranchisement." Army spokesman Major Ezra Balagtey of the military's Eastern Mindanao Command said it is "up to the courts to determine whether the cases filed are trumped up or not." He said that military was only assisting in the implementation of the law.