Indigenous Filipinos accuse paramilitary group of murdering activists

The caskets of the activists killed in Lianga.
The caskets of the activists killed in Lianga.

Several thousand indigenous Filipinos are living in evacuation centres in the country’s south, after fleeing their villages following the killing of three of their leaders. They say these men were murdered by a paramilitary group working with the country’s military to grab their ancestral lands for mining.

The killings took place on September 1 in Lianga, in the southern island of Mindanao, which has been wracked by a Muslim separatist conflict for the past four decades.

Three civilians – the director of a local school, a tribal leader and a human rights activist – were all shot dead over the course of a single day in the town of Lianga. By all accounts, these men were never accused of belonging to the armed separatist movement. Residents report that men from the local paramilitary group Magahat-Bagani (which is only about 30 men strong) fired the shots, but that elements of the military’s 36th infantry battalion were also in town that day and did nothing to stop them.

A Lianga resident mourns one of the murdered men. Image courtesy of Karapatan Caraga, blurred by France 24. 

UN experts have urged an investigation into the September 1 killings. Army chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano has court-martialed a platoon leader for “what he did or failed to do by not stopping the killing of civilians” in Lianga, but stressed that no soldiers were involved in the murders, which the army blamed on tribal feuds. Though many Filipino human rights groups – as well as the local governor - accuse the military of working side-by-side with murderous paramilitary groups, the military regularly denies any links.

Last weekend, teachers and other supporters of the indigenous Filipinos held protest marches in Quezon, the Philippines’ most populous city, to demand justice. According to locals, the paramilitary are still occupying Lianga.

Protesters in Manila. The hashtag #STOPLumadKillings is being used by Filipinos all over the world.

“They shot them in public, in front of terrified community members”

Kerlan Fanagel is a human rights activist. He is the chairperson of the PASAK Confederation for the Lumad Organization in Southern Mindanao Region. The Lumad are the indigenous people of the southern Philippines.

The military and the paramilitary came in and occupied Lianga on August 28. They regularly do this in this region – they waltz into a village and set up in people’s homes, in their schools. They say it’s part of a community outreach program, for “peace and development”, but we know they’re really interested in what’s under the ground. In 2006, the government granted mining companies permits to explore the area, with the goal of creating open-air pits where they would mine for copper, nickel and coal. But since then, indigenous people have fought this project and refuse to budge.

That has led to repeated operations in which the military and the paramilitaries take over villages in order to intimidate people. They come in without nametags and don’t give their names, making it hard to identify any of them or report their actions. And if they catch you trying to film them, you’re dead.

According to indigenous rights groups, this photo was taken in Lianga in the days preceding the killings, and shows men from the military as well as from paramilitary groups. 

Evacuees from Lianga told me that on September 1, at about 5 am, paramilitary elements started banging on their doors, shouting the names of the three men they later killed. They first found Emerito Samarca, the director of a school called the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development that was set up as an alternative to government schools. They killed him in one of the classrooms. They then went looking for two other men, tribal leader Dionel Campos and his cousin Aurelio Sinzo, an indigenous rights’ activist. They shot them in public, in front of terrified community members. They also burned down the local cooperative store.

The burned down cooperative store. Screen grab from a video report by Kilab Multimedia. (WARNING: graphic images).

All of the residents fled; they said the paramilitary threatened to kill them, too. About 1,900 of them are now living in an evacuation centre set up in a gymnasium in the city of Tandag, where they survive with the help of local charities and human rights groups.

Displaced residents living in the Tandag sports centre. Screen grab from a video report by Kilab Multimedia. (WARNING: graphic images).

“Evacuations like this happen every year now!”

Not long after this tragedy, residents of another village nearby also fled. They said the military and paramilitary groups were harassing them too, and they feared people in their community would also be killed. That’s another 1,200 people, living in another gymnasium in the city of Marihatag.

Displaced residents in the Tandag sports centre. Screen grab from a video report by Kilab Multimedia. (WARNING: graphic images).

Sadly, evacuations like this have happened every year for several years now. Some villagers have been living in an evacuation centre for six months now! So long as their villages are occupied, they’re not going back; it’s too dangerous. Most of these people are farmers, so they lose their crops, their livestock, their entire livelihoods. Whenever a village becomes safe to return to, they find it ravaged, like a typhoon hit – even their farming tools are broken. So right now, we’re trying to gather donations of tools as well as seedlings, so that one day – hopefully soon – they can start again from scratch.

Catholic parishes are helping support the displaced. Photo published by Manassas Benedict L. Serrano on Facebook

Unfortunately, these latest killings are not isolated. Since indigenous groups started keeping track back in 2010, we’ve recorded 71 extra-judicial killings of indigenous people all over the country – and 58 of them were in Mindanao. They’re often drive-by killings and always target community leaders. Just last week, another activist was shot dead by men on motorcycles. This has to end.