MANILA, Philippines - President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to launch attacks against the underground Left and legal activist groups threatens Church workers and programs serving tens of thousands of indigenous people, religious leaders warned this week.
The northern Mindanao office of the ecumenical Rural Missionaries of the Philippines told ABS-CBN News that police and other armed men claiming to “work for the government” visited the family of 22-year old Kathleen Cabardo, coordinator for Bukidnon province of a European Union-supported human rights project for indigenous peoples.
The group, quoting Cabardo's family, said police demanded to know her whereabouts. State agents, they added, also visited the family of another female staff, and warned of reprisals, including "rape" if she did not "surrender."
The RMP is a national, inter-diocesan and inter-congregational organization of priests and lay people that has been working among Mindanao’s peasants and IPs since 1969.
Mary Louise Dumas, interim coordinator of the Rural Missionaries’ sub-regional office, said their programs sprawl across a hundred indigenous communities in northern Mindanao and nearby regions.
The RMP’s biggest projects, partly funded by the European Union, aim to increase capacity for human rights reporting in 86 communities with a combined population of 20,000 tribal folk, Dumas told ABS-CBN News.
The aid comes under the projects “Healing the Hurt” and ‘Promoting and Protecting Indigenous Human Rights in Bangladesh and the Philippines.”
There are also 16 communities served by the RMP-NMR Literacy Numeracy Schools with close to 500 students, Dumas said. Most are targets of a military force that believes 70% of the NPA membership in Mindanao come from Lumad communities.
Other rural aid projects backed by Philippine churches now face dislocation as the Armed Forces steps up attacks on perceived bastions of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
In Lianga and San Agustin towns, Surigao del Sur, more than 700 students and 59 teachers of nine church-supported Lumad schools fled their campuses on November 26.
The evacuation came three days after soldiers arrived in their communities and put up checkpoints, requiring residents to register their movements.
Many of the students come from the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) and the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS) education network, award-winning schools regularly targeted by government soldiers and paramilitary forces.
The schools’ trustees include Roman Catholic and United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) clergy and the Missionary Sisters of Mary.
This is their second evacuation under Duterte. The former Davao City mayor promised to protect indigenous folk during his election campaign. But in July, he threatened to bomb Lumad schools, accusing them of supporting the NPA and operating without permits.
In 2015, during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, the same students were forced to watch as paramilitary troops murdered community elders; they discovered the butchered body of their head teacher a few hours later
Duterte accused the National Democratic Front (NDF), the umbrella network of Asia’s oldest communist insurgency, of engaging in "acts of violence and hostilities" while negotiating for peace.
Duterte’s move to terminate talks came as government and rebel negotiators prepared to finalize the Comprehensive Agreement on Economic and Social Reforms (CASER), as a step to negotiating a bilateral ceasefire.
There has been no ceasefire between the NDF and the government since February this year.
Rebel and government troops clashed in different parts of the country this month, including in areas that had not seen armed guerrillas in years. An NPA ambush in Bukidnon on November 9 killed a four-month-old baby that was in a car following the target vehicle
The President has vowed to declare the CPP, the NDF and the New People’s Army as “terrorist organizations.” He also threatened activists in suspected “legal fronts” of the same treatment.
Duterte’s new spokesperson, Harry Roque, said groups and individuals suspected of involvement in “a conspiracy” with underground leftists groups would be included as targets
The rights group Karapatan said attacks on church workers started shortly before Duterte terminated peace talks.
Gunmen shot dead United Church of Christ of the Philippines lay pastor Perfecto Hoyle on November 16, Jabonga, Agusan del Norte.
Since the President terminated the peace talks, two legal activists have been killed and three reportedly abducted and still missing, according the the human rights group Karapatan.
Armed men also strafed the house of a woman peasant leader in Agusan del Norte.
Coming under fire is not new to Philippine churches, according to Nardy Sabino, secretary-general of the Promotion of Church People’s Rights.
The group lists 31 church workers slain since 2000.
Thirteen priests have been murdered since the late Ferdinand Marcos launched his dictatorship until the end of Aquino's administration in 2016, Sabino said.
All the slain priests lived and worked in poor grassroots communities. Many of the church-based targets help environmental activists and farmers defend lush fields and forests coveted by big business, Sabino said.
The National Council of Churches of the Philippines held the second national conference to end impunity a day before the President terminated the peace talks.
The event was partly sponsored by the European Union, a recent target of Duterte.
The President ordered the rejection of all aid from the EU this month, resenting criticism of human rights violations, including the thousands of suspected extrajudicial killings linked to the crackdown on suspected drug addicts and dealers.
Mattias Lentz, minister counsellor of the EU delegation to the Philippines, said the justice department, the courts and the Philippine National Police have been beneficiaries of aid aimed at improving the justice climate in the country.
"Support for human rights defenders is also one of the major priorities of the EU’s external rights policy,” Lentz told the conference, assuring continued partnership for existing and new programs.
Dumas said the RMP will start on December 1 another EU-funded project on advocacy initiative and dialogue targeted at policy makers and private corporations to ensure rights of the IPs.
The missionary group also implements small scale socio-economic, livelihood, communications and protection projects for IP communities in Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, and Agusan del Sur funded by the Catholic Mission Australia, Frontline Defenders, Samdhana, World Association for Christian Communications and UNHCR.
The Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform, an alliance of five Catholic and Protestant churches supporting the peace process, warned that the collapse of the talks would further escalate violence in the countryside.
"War is intensifying, and it can only get worse," the group said, urging the government and the NDF to build on the "positive results from the talks" and address “the roots of armed conflict.” #30