THE Palace denied Thursday allegations that President Benigno Aquino III authorized the Armed Forces to close down and occupy lumad schools in Mindanao and that he had a direct hand in the campaign of violence and harassment against tribal communities.
The denial came after UN envoys called for a full and independent investigation into the killing of three lumad leaders in Surigao del Sur and denounced the military occupation of schools.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., however, turned down a request that UN special rapporteurs be allowed to visit the country to conduct their own investigation.
“The Philippines needs to undertake its own internal processes to look into the incident in Surigao. It is best to let these internal processes take place before any international bodies even come into the picture,” he said.
Coloma also denied the accusations by ACT Teachers party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio that the President had a direct hand in the anti-lumad campaign.
“There is no basis and truth to the allegations,” he said.
“According to Education Secretary Armin Luistro, the DepEd [Department of Education] is doing everything it can to maintain peace and order in all schools and that all teachers are doing what they can to ensure the safety of the students,” Coloma added.
Tinio on Wednesday said regional Education Department officials admitted there was a plan to close down some 24 community schools and replace them with schools run by soldiers. The plan, they said, was hatched during an April 23 meeting called by the Regional Intelligence Committee, which was convened by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, which reports to the President.
Earlier, the Catholic Church urged Aquino to address the human rights violations against the lumad, who were being driven away from their homes by paramilitary groups linked to the Armed Forces.
“The administration is continuing to address the issue. More than a week ago, a peace caravan was even sent to the place where representatives from different departments of the government took part… to show the government’s concrete commitment to continue the programs on livelihood, economic development, and indigenous peoples,” Coloma said.
Coloma said Justice Secretary Leila de Lima also met with civil society groups and the representatives of lumad to ensure an honest and fair investigation of the killing of three lumad leaders.
The UN special rapporteurs on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and on the situation on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, called on the Aquino administration to launch a full and independent investigation into the killings of the three human rights defenders in Surigao del Sur.
One of the human rights defenders killed was the director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Development, a school providing education to indigenous youth who live in the mountains and service communities in the Caraga region. He was found murdered in one of the ALCADEV classrooms in the town of Sitio Han-ayan on Sept. 1.
This occurred immediately after members of the Army and alleged members of paramilitary forces had occupied the school’s function hall as well as its grounds, and after members of the paramilitary had detained the director. As a result of the forced occupation by the Army and paramilitary troops of the school’s premises, 2,000 residents have had to evacuate to nearby Tandag City.
“Military occupation of civilian institutions and killing of civilians, particularly in places such as schools which should remain safe havens for children from this type of violence, are unacceptable, deplorable and contrary to international human rights and international humanitarian standards,” the Special Rapporteurs said.
Two other representatives of the Manobo community, including a tribal chieftain and the chairperson of MAPASU, an indigenous organization protesting against human rights violations, mining operations and land conversions, were shot in front of their community members by alleged paramilitary forces.
Following the murders, the military is hindering the access of indigenous communities from spending long periods of time needed for tilling in the mountains where their farms are located, the UN envoys. The communities are also denied access to the sacred burial sites also located in those mountains.
The incident followed another set of brutal murders which took place on Aug. 18 in Mendis, Pangantucan, Bukidnon, Northern Mindanao where five members of an indigenous Manobo family, including a 72-year-old blind person and two children, were murdered, allegedly by members of the Army.
“We take note of the announcement made today at the Human Rights Council in Geneva by the delegation of the Philippines that an investigation is under way,” they said. “We urge the Philippine authorities to ensure that such investigation into these tragic events be carried out independently to identify and bring perpetrators to justice, to ensure the safe return of the indigenous peoples displaced by the recent violent events, and guarantee redress to the victims’ families in compliance with their indigenous traditions and the demilitarization and restoration of peace in regions affected by armed conflicts including in Surigao del Sur and Bukidnon.”
The special rapporteurs expressed serious concern about the increasingly pervasive insecurity and rising unlawful killings of human rights activists in the conflict-prone regions of the Philippines. Forst urged the government to finally accept his repeated requests to visit the country in order to assess, in the spirit of dialogue and cooperation, the environment in which human rights defenders operate in the Philippines.
The experts’ call has been endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns.
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Philippines), is a human rights activist working on indigenous peoples’ rights. Her work for more than three decades has been focused on movement building among indigenous peoples and also among women, and she has worked as an educator-trainer on human rights, development and indigenous peoples in various contexts. She is a member of the Kankana-ey, Igorot indigenous peoples in the Cordillera Region in the Philippines.
Mr. Michel Forst (France) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in June 2014. Michel Forst has extensive experience on human rights issues and particularly on the situation of human rights defenders. In particular, he was the director-general of Amnesty International (France) and secretary-general of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998.
The Commission on Human Rights, which earlier urged the government to take action on the lumad killings, welcomed the plan of the UN High Commission on Human Rights to conduct an investigation.
“We welcome it,” CHR spokesperson Banuar Falcon told The Standard.
“Last May, we hosted the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, and the special rapporteur on the right to food in June. We also welcomed its rapporteur on the internationally displaced persons.”
The Foreign Affairs Department, however, could not confirm that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had asked that two UN rapporteurs be invited to the Philippines to report on the killings of lumad in Mindanao.
The human rights group Karapatan earlier brought the killings and displacement of lumad in Mindanao to the attention of the United Nations and urged it to investigate.
An official of the UNCHR in Manila said that UN rapporteurs can come to the Philippines as tourists but cannot conduct any report or investigation without the permission of the Philippine government.
Witnesses, including the child of indigenous leader and farmer Dionel Campos who was killed, said soldiers and militiamen working for them were behind the killings.
In Congress, Education Secretary Armin Luistro came under heavy fire for failing to condemn the military takeover of schools.
During budget hearings in the House, Luistro said he was ready to give his life to students caught in the crossfire of armed conflict.
“Without any second thoughts, a teacher’s first move is to protect children,” he told the ways and means committee.
But Vencer Crisostomo, Anakbayan national chairman, blasted the Education Department’s Memorandum No. 221, which he said would allow military and paramilitary groups to camp in schools.
“DepEd’s continued silence on the killings implies support and encouragement to military and paramilitary groups attacking the lumad,” Crisostomo said.
But Luistro said the same department order being questioned by leftist groups ensures “the universal rights of the child and condemns any form of threat against children in schools.”
Aquino, however, drew support from his allies in the House, who denounced Tinio’s accusations.
In separate interviews, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr., Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone and Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano said Tinio’s accusation against the President was serious and that he should be able to produce solid proof.
“He is just trying to get attention,” Belmonte told The Standard, saying the accusation against the President went “against all logic.”
Barzaga said the burden of proof was on the accuser, Tinio said.
“An accusation is easy to make. Congressman Tinio must have some solid evidence considering that he is accusing the highest elected official of the country,” he said.
He added that Tinio’s credibility was “impaired” because he was one of the President’s harshest critics.
Evardone and Albano also dismissed Tinio’s charges against the President as “unbelievable” and “preposterous.”
Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan, however, rallied behind Tinio and denounced the Department of Social Welfare and Development for exposing a 14-year-old lumad girl who was raped to soldiers.
“We have been informed that the lumad child and her mother were placed in a DSWD shelter next to a military detachment. Do they not know the trauma that militarization and sexual violence bring? Why put the victims in that facility near their possible perpetrators, when it could have used other shelters farther away from their tormentors?” Ilagan said.
She said the DSWD, headed by Corazon Soliman, was remiss not only in implementing child protection laws but also adhering to the international human rights standards.
Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano, commanding general of the Army, said he welcomed a Senate inquiry into the Surigao killings.
The inquiry will focus on the killing of three lumad leaders, ALCADEV executive director Emerito Samarca, and two other lumad leaders, Dionel Campos and Bello Sinzo. The three were killed on Sept. 1.
Senators Grace Poe and Francis Escudero came to the President’s defense Thursday, saying they did not believe he ordered the closure of lumad schools.
“I know that President Aquino is pushing for the establishment of more schools around the country,” said Poe, who is running for President against the ruling Liberal Party candidate in 2016.
Escudero, who is running for vice president alongside Poe, also said he doubted whether the President would issue such an order.
It was the second day that Escudero defended the President. On Wednesday, he accused the United States of judging Aquino’s anti-corruption record unfairly.
Senator Sergio Osmeña III said the President had no direct responsibility but must report to the nation why the killings were taking place.
Senator Teofisto Guingona III, chairman of the Senate committee on peace, unification and reconciliation, said they will also look into the issues surrounding the reported closure of schools.
He said he hoped the Senate investigation would curb the violence in the region. With Vito Barcelo and Rio N. Araja
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