People in Manila flock to an exhibition on rights violations against indigenous people fighting against the encroachment of big development projects on their ancestral lands. (Inday Espina-Varona)
Religious leaders and human rights workers condemned the killing of eight tribal members during a military offensive on Dec. 3 against communist rebels on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
A military spokesman claimed all the dead were members of the New People's Army (NPA) who died fighting against government troops.
Two soldiers were killed and three others wounded in the clashes, Second Lt. Ranjan Palacio said
But Father Ariel Destora, Social Action Center director of the Diocese of Marbel in South Cotabato province said tribal chieftain, Datu Victor Danyan was not a rebel but the chair of a legal organization, the T' T'boli-Manobo S'daf Claimant Organization (TAMASCO).
The group is fighting to prevent coal-mining firms setting up mines on their ancestral lands.
"We mourn what happened to Datu Victor," said Destora, who said three other members of Danyan's family also died.
The human rights group Karapatan told ucanews.com that three other tribal leaders were killed and two injured in the military attack. The rights group did not dispute army claims of a clash with NPA rebels but said the dead men were civilians.
Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez has requested a meeting with military officials to clarify the matter, Danyan said.
Ryan Lariba, a coordinator of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, an alliance of left-wing organizations, said all the victims were civilians opposed to coal mining and coffee plantation ventures in their area.
"There are NPA rebels operating in the area but those killed were not communist rebels but civilians," Lariba said.
Chinkie Pelino-Golle, executive director of environment group Interface Development Interventions, described the slain tribal leader "as a man of integrity."
"He was one of the IP [indigenous peoples] leaders who inspired me to work on upholding environmental and social justice. I've never heard of him ask for anything but only to own back and manage their lands," she said on social media.
"Datu Vic(tor) was not an NPA member. There was even an assurance that their community would not be touched because he is not part or a member of the NPA," Pelino-Golle said.