OPINION: Killings of 7 youths spark tensions in new Muslim autonomous region

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Oct 29 2019 11:51 AM

Officials of the new regional autonomous government in Muslim Mindanao are conducting a separate probe into reports that seven youths, including several minors, were massacred by government troops on October 23 amid an outpouring of anger on social media in southern Philippines provinces, towns and villages.

Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) Spokesperson and Minister of Interior and Local Government (MILG) Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo on October 28 urged the regional parliament and cabinet for a separate probe into the killings of seven youths, aged 11 to 19, even with the ongoing investigation of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Region 12 office. 

“To be very objective, we need an investigation,” Sinarimbo replied on Tuesday when sought for comment on reports. He said the BARMM’s regional human rights commission would undertake the probe.

The CHR regional head, according to Mindanews, has announced that officers involved in the joint military and police operation would be facing charges of human rights violations.

The killings happened in Sitio Narra, Barangay Tumbras, one of 13 of 57 villages in Midsayap that voted for inclusion in the BARMM. The town of Midsayap itself belongs to Region 12.

Rage

Citizen-taken photos and media reports of families grieving over the remains of their kin went viral over the weekend, as military officers struggled to explain the contradictions in their statements. 

Shared thousands of times, the posts received hundreds of comments, divided into agitations against injustice, appeals to await the results of the investigation, and impatient calls for the BARMM government to move swiftly.

Taher Guiambangan Solaiman, a journalist and member of aid organizations, spoke for many outraged brethren in a poem:

Tikom ang bibig ng bawat isa
Takot na balikan ng mga may sala
Animo sila ay walang nakita
Paano makamit ang hustisya?

Hindi na nila maisigaw na sila’y walang kasalanan
At sila lamang ay napagkamalan
Nakahimlay na sila sa kanilang libingan
Lalabas pa kaya ang katotohanan?

Hintayin pa ba natin na ang maging biktima
Ay magmula mismo sa ating pamilya
Saka natin imulat ang ating mga mata
At doon pa tayo sisigaw ng HUSTISYA?

(Everyone tight-lipped, 
scored of being the killers' next targets. 
Everyone playing blind. 
How do we win justice? 

They cannot shout out their innocence, 
not the killers' wrong judgment. 
They are now cold in their graves. 
Will we ever find the truth? 

Do we wait until the next victims 
come from our families 
before we open our eyes 
and cry out for justice?)

The families of the victims showed photos of their remains and when they were still alive, some sporting dyed hair and earrings. Those killed were neighbors and part of hundreds of residents displaced since April 2019 by clan feuds in the area. Kin said they had gone fishing and were sleeping in a makeshift hut for common use of villagers when set upon by soldiers.

The anger is expected to further polarize parts of southern Philippines, which has been under martial law since May 23, 2017 at the outbreak of a five-month war that reduced the Islamic City of Marawi to rubble. 

While there is a growing clamor to lift martial law, President Rodrigo Duterte, whose base of support is on the island, raised the possibility last July of another extension. 

The Sangguniang Panlungsod (SP) of Cotabato City also passed a resolution on October 1, calling for the extension of martial law, according to the state-owned Philippine News Agency. 

Contradictions

“If it is true that these are minors and not part of the armed group, specifically a terrorist group, then people would have to be accountable," Siunarimbo said. “If it is found out that they are members of the armed group, then we can exonerate the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines].”

A Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) initial report said a joint military and police operation had killed Mama Macalimbol, an alleged Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF) sub-commander in the area of Midsayap, North Cotabato.

Officers of the 602nd Brigade ng Philippine Army said six other BIFF “fighters” were killed in a firefight in Sitio Narra, Barangay Tumbras, one of the 13 of 57 villages in Midsayap that voted for inclusion in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The report was wrong. Macalimbol was not among the dead. 

The military then said their target, the subject of an arrest warrant for multiple attempted murder raps, had escaped, wounded. The dead, they claimed, were newly recruited “child soldiers” of the BIFF.

But the spokesman for the BIFF local command told TV Patrol South Central Mindanao that Macalimbol was not a member. Neither were the slain youths known to the command.

“We have no members among the slain,” said Abumissry Mama, spokesperson of BIFF Bungos group, which operates in the area. “Bawal yan sa international law,” he added, referring to the ages of the victims. 

Halima Baundi, whose son Jarod, 15, a student at an alternative learning center, was among those killed, railed at the injustice.

“He is not a rebel, he does not know about arms. I am angry. They shot him while he was sleeping helpless,” she told TV Patrol.

Mindanews, meanwhile, quoted CHR-12 chief Erlan Deluvio as saying the agency will help families file charges against the government troops, for violating the International Humanitarian Law, particularly “the principle of distinction in non-international armed conflict.” 

Among those slain, he pointed out, included four minors, two 18-year-olds and a 25-year-old. Neighbors and relatives, he added, testified that all were ordinary youths who had simply gone fishing before rice harvest tasks.

Photos shared by the families showed the victims suffered multiple head and leg gunshot wounds.

The mother of one of the victims, called “Angelo,” an overseas workers, posted on Facebook: 

“Ang sakit sa akin ang ganoon marinig ko sa anak ko. Nandito po ako sa ibang bansa para maghanap buhay para sa mga anak ko. Yun pala pinatay sila ng kawalang kalaban laban. Tulog sila ng pinagbabaril sila.” 

(It pains me to hear this news. I am away to work for my children. But then they get killed in a helpless state, sleeping.)

Major Gen. Diosdado Carreon, commanding officer of the 6th Infantry Division, said he welcomes probes into the incident. But he added, “It is normal for some parties to claim na hindi. We have seen that before.”

Reprise

The alleged Midsayap massacre also raised memories of the September 2018 Sulu massacre of seven fruit pickers, whom the armed forces claimed were Abu Sayyaf members.

Both incidents showed the same pattern: the military issuing a statement of victory against “terrorists,” swiftly followed by an uproar by the victims' kin and friends. 

In both cases, the victims were from displaced communities. The seven in Sulu had actually logged with military officers their plans to visit farms to harvest fruits, veteran Inquirer reporter Julie Alipala found within a day of the incident. 

The former director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) was later tagged by Facebook pages linked to the AFP as a hack for terrorists, raising an angry response from the NUJP and other media organizations.

“Martial law has bestowed on the military a misplaced sense of arrogance, brutality, and protection from violation,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of the human rights group, Karapatan. “There is no transparency in Mindanao where the military considers themselves exempt from accountability." 

Citing reports from the families, Cristina said the operation showed the “nanlaban script which has been recycled countless times to whitewash the brutality of drug-related killings in police operations, including the killing of children.”

“In counterinsurgency operations where children are killed, the latter are declared by the State as 'child soldiers' or 'collateral damage' to justify their untimely deaths,” Palabay added.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.