Updated: January 16, 2018 04:50 AM GMT
Human rights activists protest the killing of tribal people in Mindanao during a demonstration in Manila. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Eight tribal people, who reportedly died in an armed clash with Philippine troops in Mindanao last month, were killed in a massacre, according to an independent investigation conducted by the Philippine church and human rights groups.
In its report, the fact-finding mission rejected claims made by the military that the victims were communist guerrillas who died after an armed encounter with troops near Lake Sebu town in South Cotabato province on Dec. 3.
Dr. Benito Molino, a forensic expert who was part of the investigation, said at least 300 empty and live shells from M14 and M16 rifles were recovered from various sites where soldiers apparently fired their weapons.
"Based on physical evidence ... it appears that there was no clash," said Molino.
Lita Wali, sister of slain tribal leader Victor Danyan, said all the gunfire came from the soldiers. "We heard gunshots and my brother rushed out to see what’s happening," she told members of the fact-finding team.
"He was gunned down. There was no exchange of gunfire," said Wali. She admitted, however, that her brother was carrying a homemade gun.
Sister Susan Bolanio, executive director of the Oblates of Notre Dame's Hesed Foundation, said Danyan was the target of the attack for being vocal in a tribal people's claim over a contested piece of land.
"He was deliberately targeted to silence dissent in the area," said the nun whose foundation has helped organize local tribal communities against mining and logging incursions into tribal lands.
Danyan was chairman Tamasco, a tribal group formed in 2006 to reclaim 1,700-hectares of ancestral land that was planted with coffee by an agri-industrial company.
The organization was also protesting the entry of coal mining operations on their ancestral land.
Aside from Danyan, his sons Artemio and Victor, son-in-law Pato Ceraldo, and his neighbors in Datal Bonlangon Samuel Angkoy, Mating Balabagan-Bantal, Toto Diamante, and Toto Danyan were also killed.
The villagers have since fled to nearby areas.
"We will continue the fight to reclaim our ancestral land even with the death of my father," said Danyan’s daughter, Tarcela, who was also the wife of Pato Ceraldo. "Right now, we want justice for all the victims," she added.
The military, however, claimed that the Dec. 3 encounter resulted in the taking over of the "largest [communist] guerrilla base" in the area.
Military spokesman Captain Arvin Encinas, said a firefight erupted around noon of Dec. 3 when communist fighters opened fire on patrolling soldiers near a "terrorist cave hideout" in the village of Datal Bonlangon.
The firefight also resulted in the wounding of five tribesmen, including an eight-year-old child, and the displacement of at least 200 villagers.
Members of the independent fact-finding mission have issued a statement calling on the Philippine government to conduct a thorough probe into the incident and for the military to withdraw troops in the area.