The Western Visayas bishops, from top left: Cardinal Jose Advincula of Capiz, Archbishop Jose Lazo of Jaro, Bishop Patricio Buzon of Bacolod, Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos, Bishop Louie Galbines of Kabankalan, Bishop Marvyn Maceda of San Jose de Antique, Bishop Jose Corazon Tala-oc of Kalibo and Bishop Narciso Abellana of Romblon. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines)
A group of prelates and rights activists from the Visayas region in the central Philippines are disputing accounts given by security forces over the recent killing of nine indigenous leaders in the city of Tapaz in Capiz province.
In a pastoral letter issued on Jan. 15, Cardinal Jose Advincula of Capiz and seven bishops from nearby dioceses said eyewitness accounts contradict official claims that the nine men from the Tumandok indigenous group were killed after they opened fire on soldiers and police during an attempt to arrest them.
They were killed on Dec. 30 in a joint military and police operation which saw 18 other tribe members arrested.
The bishops called for a “thorough” investigation after several witnesses claimed the victims were unarmed.
“They fought it out, that’s why they were killed, the police claimed. But the families counterclaimed that the victims did not resist arrest. The firearms and explosives were planted. The victims were murdered,” the bishops said in the pastoral letter.
A local rights group said the dead men were yet more innocent victims of rights abuses being waged by government forces against indigenous people.
“Those killed were recognized indigenous community leaders ... They were civilians and not armed combatants. They have consistently opposed militarization and human rights violations in their communities as they upheld their rights as indigenous people,” rights group Panay Alliance Karapatan said.
Authorities often accuse indigenous leaders fighting for the rights of tribal people of being rebels and supporters of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines
Meanwhile, the bishops also said the killings had instilled fear among indigenous people, prompting many to flee their homes.
“This atrocity has created a climate of fear and uncertainty among residents in Tumandok communities. Fear has forced many to seek safety elsewhere, such as in the homes of relatives,” the bishops added.
They also said they received reports that several individuals were forced to admit they were communist supporters.
“We, the bishops of the Western Visayas, share the grief and anxieties of our brothers and sisters of the Tumandok tribe in Capiz. We grieve with the families of the nine Tumandok tribespeople who were killed,” they said.
The bishops called for the military to withdraw from the ancestral lands of tribespeople so that they can return and live normal lives.
They also demanded police and the military revise the way they go about apprehending suspects.
“We demand that the PNP [Philippine National Police] and the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] follow conscientiously ethical standards set out in the rules of engagement in operations,” the bishops said.
“Police officers should be required to use body cameras in all operations to protect themselves against false accusations. This will also protect civilians from the use of violence and abuse of power such as the planting of evidence, illegal arrest and even killings.”