In this file photo, indigenous people from Mindanao hold a protest rally in Manila to call for an end to military operations in tribal areas. (Photo by Maki Macaspac)
Rights groups in the Philippines claim a paramilitary group that has been linked to the unsolved murder of a prominent priest may also be responsible for the recent killings of two tribal leaders and a school director.
Human rights groups accused members of an anti-communist paramilitary group of being behind the killing of school director Emerico Samarca and tribal leaders Dionel Campos and Aurelio Sinzo in the town of Lianga in Mindanao's Surigao del Sur province.
Samarca, who was executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, was found inside the school, tied up and stabbed.
A consortium of nongovernmental groups that provide basic and technical education to tribal children runs the school.
Naty Castro, provincial spokesman of rights group Karapatan in Surigao del Sur, said Samarca was last seen being led away by members of the Mahagat-Bagani Force paramilitary group on Aug. 31.
Campos and Sinzo, meanwhile, were killed Sept. 1 when gunmen entered the village of Diatagon about 4 am and woke the entire neighborhood. The gunmen shot and killed the two tribal leaders in front of the villagers.
Witnesses to the killings identified the killers as Mahagat-Bagani Force members. The paramilitary group has also been accused of being behind the 2011 killing of Italian missionary priest Fausto Tentorio.
Campos was head of the indigenous peoples group Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod, or the Protracted Struggle for Next Generations. Sinzo was Campos' cousin.
The group is known for campaigning against human rights violations and the protection of indigenous people’s ancestral lands.
"These killings continue to happen with impunity despite the obvious presence of the military who are purportedly there for internal security," said Eliza Pangilinan, secretary-general of Karapatan in the Caraga region of Mindanao.
Pangilinan said the paramilitary group destroyed a community building on Aug. 31, soon after 30 soldiers arrived in the village with Mahagat-Bagani members and occupied the school as part of counter insurgency operations against communist rebels.
Castro said the paramilitary group also threatened to kill all the villagers if they did not leave the village in two days.
On Sept. 1, about a thousand villagers fled their homes and sought shelter in the town center.
Military spokesman Captain Alberto Caber denied accusations by rights groups that the army was working with the paramilitary group in counter-insurgency operations.
"The government has no interest in meddling with the Mahagat-Bagani Force," said Caber. "The human rights group's statements are always misleading [and] against us," he added.
"We do not have any kind of control over that paramilitary group," he told ucanews.com.
However, Castro alleges that the military's inaction over the three killings is proof that this is not the case.
"We call on law enforcement agencies and local prosecutors to seriously investigate the increasing spate of killings that are perpetrated by these groups," said Pangilinan. "This is the only way that communities can truly feel secure," she said.
Carlos Zarate of the leftist Nation First party in the Philippine Congress denounced the killings.
"It is incomprehensible why our government insists on keeping these paramilitary organizations when there have been scores of human rights violation and killings attributed to these mercenaries," the legislator said.