Tribal refugees in Philippines refuse to go back home

Military refuse to sign agreement to leave communities alone, saying document could hinder operations against rebels
Tribal refugees in Philippines refuse to go back home

Soldiers block a road to prevent about 1,600 tribal people from marching to the provincial capital of Surigao del Sur in the southern Philippines on July 30. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Tribal people in the southern Philippines who fled their homes last month have vowed not to return to their villages after the military refused to sign an agreement banning soldiers from entering their communities.

About 1,600 tribal people from villages in the town of Lianga, Surigao del Sur province, left their homes on July 16 because of alleged harassment by soldiers who accused them of being rebel sympathizers.

Armed forces spokesman, Major Ezra Balagtey, said that while the military would agree to a "temporary withdrawal" of troops in the villages, "we cannot ignore our duty to conduct security operations."

On July 30, local government officials mediated a dialogue between the tribal people and soldiers who agreed to move out of the communities and allow the villagers to return home, but refused to sign the agreement.

Balagtey told ucanews.com that "groups with political motives" could use the document to hinder the military from conducting operations against communist insurgents in the area. 

Colonel Maurito Licudine, deputy commander of the Philippine army's 401st Brigade, said the soldiers' presence in the villages aims "to protect the community from armed elements," adding that it is the duty of the army to go after armed rebels.

"We will not cease patrols because there are threats posed by rebel forces," he told ucanews.com. He said if rebels enter tribal villages, "we have no option but to hunt them down in those places."

Communist rebels have been waging almost five decades of guerrilla warfare in Philippine rural areas. Peace negotiations between the government and the rebels stalled after President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly postponed the talks.

Tribal group leader Sarry Campos, spokesman of the group Mapasu, said people would not go back home without the military signing an agreement.

"We want an assurance that the army will not go back and occupy the villages," she told ucanews.com.

"We cannot just rely on their word because even signed agreements in the past were not honored," she added. 

Protestant Bishop Modesto Villasanta, chairman of human rights group Karapatan's Surigao del Sur chapter, said problems in communities occur because security forces do not keep promises made to the people. 

"These indigenous communities have been subjected to forced evacuation many times because of military operations and occupation," he said. The prelate added that soldiers should go after rebels in the forests instead of harassing tribal communities.

"The absence of armed forces in any civilian community can prevent rights abuses, which the tribal people have been complaining about," Bishop Villasanta said. 

Catholic priest Raymond Montero Ambray of Tandag Diocese said the tribal people are already "traumatized" by the presence of soldiers because of past incidents, including the killing of three tribal leaders in 2015.

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The killings perpetrated by an armed militia backed by the military resulted in the evacuation of more than 4,000 people who only went back to their villages a year later after the military ordered the withdrawal of troops from the area.

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