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Philippine tribal communities brace for deadly Christmas

Indigenous people voice fears as security forces gear up for festive season offensive against rebels

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Published: December 19, 2017 06:20 AM GMT

Updated: December 19, 2017 08:05 AM GMT

Philippine tribal communities brace for deadly Christmas

Members of tribal communities hold a demonstration outside the military headquarters in Manila to protest attacks in their communities. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

Church figures in the Philippines have expressed fears Christmas might be bloody this year, especially in the provinces, after the National Police announced it would be launching operations against communist guerrillas.

Sister Mary John Mananzan, a Benedictine nun who works with tribal communities, said she was "appalled" by news that indigenous people have become primary targets in the government's crackdown against the rebels.

Earlier this week, the director for operations of the National Police, Camilo Pancratius Cascolan, announced that "offense is always better than defense" after President Rodrigo Duterte ruled out a Christmas truce.

Sister Mary John said military operations in the southern province of Surigao del Sur have already prompted the evacuation of more than a thousand tribal people. The military has also blocked food aid to the displaced people, insisting they are rebel supporters.

"Many more civilians will be endangered," the nun told ucanews.com. "We will see many new evacuations and victims in crossfire. How much more suffering can tribal and poor people face?"


Offensive mode

The police's shift to "offensive mode" is aimed at deflecting rebel attacks following the termination of peace negotiations in November, Cascolan said. He has already ordered all police units to step up countermeasures against possible rebel offensives.

"Preventive and prophylactic combat patrols in coordination with the [armed forces] should be launched in addition to target hardening of all camps and vital installations," said Cascolan, director for operations of the National Police.

Last month, Duterte declared communist rebels "terrorists" and ordered the military to replicate what it did in Marawi to defeat Islamic State-inspired gunmen in October, including the aerial bombardment of suspected rebel positions.

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Duterte’s five-month war against militants in Marawi displaced about 400,000 people.

At least 1.5 million of Mindanao’s estimated 2.5-million tribal population lives in remote villages that the military has pinpointed as rebel bases.


Spike in killings

Duterte has also ordered the military and police to go after leftists and their alleged legal front organizations.

"Wanted" posters with the names and faces of leaders of legal organizations in the southern region of Mindanao have popped up in the past week.

Pamphlets with the same message have also circulated in some provinces of the main Philippine island of Luzon, where gunmen killed a priest and a pastor early this month.

Church workers told ucanews.com that recent military and police operations targeted civilians, not rebels, which saw the killing of eight tribal people on Dec. 3.

The military said the tribesmen with communist rebels, but witnesses said soldiers swooped down on their village after sustaining casualties in an earlier clash with rebels.

Sister Susan Bolanio, executive director of Hesed Foundation Inc., identified the victims of the attack as leaders of tribal organizations who were well known to local government officials.

"Many of our communities now live in fear," the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) said in a statement, adding that they were hoping for a reprieve from the killings this Christmas, "but people report a surge in surveillance [by the police and military], harassment, and extra-judicial killings."

"Tribal communities are the most vulnerable right now," said Maridel Fano a project coordinator of the RMP.

"They have long been accused of being members of armed groups. Their mere existence in their remote communities have made them a target," she said.

The military earlier claimed that 70 percent of rebel fighters in Mindanao are tribal people.

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