Philippine tribals fear for lives after leader's killing

Copertino Banugan slain for opposing presence of communist rebels on ancestral lands
Philippine tribals fear for lives after leader's killing

Tribal women lead the funeral procession of slain tribal leader Copertino Banugan in Davao Oriental province in the southern Philippines. (Photo by Ferdinand Zuasola)

Fear reigns in a tribal community in the southern Philippines following the killing last December of a tribal leader who opposed the presence of communist rebels in hinterland villages.

"Our communities are not and should not be the battleground of government and rebel forces," said one resident who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal by the rebels.

Communist New People's Army guerrillas shot and killed Copertino Banugan, a leader of the Mandaya tribe, his brother, and a nephew on Dec. 30 in the town of Caraga, Davao Oriental province.

Kristine Banugan, the victim's daughter, said the rebels are out to grab their ancestral land. "We will die fighting for it," she told

"We are a peace-loving people, we don’t like violence," said Banugan. "We hope and pray that [the rebels] will respect us."

On Jan. 13, tribal leaders from ten towns of Davao Oriental called on the government to investigate the killing.

"The brutal killing of Banugan is a clear violation of the indigenous peoples' right to self-governance and self-determination," read a statement by the leaders.

They demanded that the protection of rights of tribal people be given "preferential attention" during the peace negotiations between the government and the rebel National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

Government and rebel negotiators are meeting in Rome this week for a third round of talks aimed at ending an almost five decade old communist insurgency.


Appeal for sobriety

Father Roberto Ombon, head of the apostolate for indigenous peoples in Mati Diocese, appealed for sobriety.

The priest called on the Mandaya people "not to respond with violence."

"A tribal war declaration against the heavily armed rebels does not help. It will only worsen the already tense situation," Father Ombon said.

The priest said he was "deeply hurt" by the killing of Banugan whom he described as "a very good friend" of Bishop Patricio Alo of Mati.

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"[Banugan] should have been given the chance to defend himself in a court of law," said Father Ombon. "We mourn with his people," he added.

The priest said the killing "had a chilling effect on the [tribal people]. They are now so afraid of the rebels," he said.

"We hope the rebels will listen to us. Please stop the violence," added the priest.

In a statement, the rebels said they killed Banugan, his brother, and nephew because they were "fascist enemy forces."

Rebel spokesman Ruel Agustin said the killing of the Banugans "should serve as a warning to other warlords and fascist fanatic groups who abuse and terrorize the masses."

The military, meanwhile, said the will secure Mandaya communities following the rebel attack. "We are beefing up our forces," said Lt. Col. Michelle Anayron, commanding officer of the army’s 67th Infantry Battalion.

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