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Struggle for Bangsamoro Human Rights
Volume 22 Number 2
Tuesday, 19 January 2010 14:14

by Daniel Conejar

Many continue to claim that the reported number of human rights violations against the Bangsamoro people in Mindanao, especially in the Muslim autonomous regions wherein communities experience constant fear and intimidation as the war rages on, is way below the actual number. The conflict between the government and the separatist groups compounded by the drive against the acts of terrorism resulted to the massive number and grave cases of human rights violations. But these are not fully exposed due to the risk and difficulty of monitoring and documentation, lack of cooperation of the victims and worst, suppression of truth that comes out in the media. This is not only true at the present state of virtual lawlessness and subtle repression, but also during the martial law years and post EDSA revolution. The Bangsamoro people suffer poverty, corporate aggression and now the unnerving war on terror. Nowadays, when you are a Muslim or when your name sounds like one, you are already fifty-percent tagged as a potential terrorist, worse if you are engaged in human rights advocacy, media, counseling and even as a mere sympathizer to their plight. In any case, a simple slip of the tongue or action against the government will make you a terrorist. This sounds absurd but this is the reality in Mindanao.

The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), along with other human rights organizations in Mindanao, is undertaking a gargantuan task to expose the injustices and gross human rights violations against the Bangsamoro people that have been hidden from the public eye for a long time.
This is made more difficult when you are dealing with people who have become accustomed to war and regard their situation as a normal consequence of their struggle for independence. And that the interest for justice – redress in the proper court of law - has waned over the years of suffering impunity, neglect of government services and abuse by their leaders. By looking at their plight, a great number of the civil society organizations also just find comfort and solace in merely managing trauma and delivering relief services after the incidents of war. The challenge to carry out the advocacy for human rights has not gathered so much interest compared to such initiatives. Even the peace talk between the Philippine government (GRP) and the Moro International Liberation Front (MILF) has failed to regard human rights among its major agenda for discussion. It can be seen that people gather on the streets chanting calls for peace, resumption of peace talk, and justice, but failing to realize that the respect, protection and fulfillment of human rights is a means to peace and justice. It can never be an end.

Drawn out from the Martus community  website in Mindanao, http://mindawitness.net, there were already 14 cases of human rights violations committed mostly by the Philippine army, navy and intelligence agents since January this year compared to more than 40 cases reported last year against the Bangsamoro people.

One hundred thirty-five (135) families are dispersed in Indanan and Patikul in Sulu and more than 3,000 villagers from Tilucab, Upo. Mindipok and Maguling in Maitum of the Sarangani and portion of the Sharif Kabungsuan provinces. However, there is a failure to account the casualties in the sporadic wars in Central Mindanao and in Sulu and Basilan provinces since April this year where aerial bombing and shelling continue hitting civilian communities. These military operations against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and MILF forces are under the pretext that these separatist armed groups are providing haven to the Abu Sayyaf and other international terrorists who are believed to conduct trainings in their camps. The stalled peace talk between the GRP has been compromised as a consequence.

Women and children were not spared in the military operation. On August 19, 2007, several Moro minors were taken with their parents from Tulay Zone III in Jolo to the military camp. They were alleged by the Rangers and Army Special Forces as supporters of the Abu Sayyaf group and their fathers as members. The fathers were threatened to be killed and their children were put under psychological and physical torture for them to reveal where their guns were hidden. The case against the military is still pending under the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

On February 4, 2008, elements of the Special Warfare Group of the Philippine Navy and Light Reaction Company, conducted a military operation in Barangay Ipil, an islet dotted with mangroves and situated near the mainland town of Maimbung, Sulu with a population of more than 30 households. The military operation was based on a false intelligence report of the presence of the Abu Sayyaf Group holding a local Chinese businesswoman as a kidnap victim.

When gunshots were heard, the families of Lahim, Akub and Failan went to the shoreline to ride a bangka or wooden boat to flee for safety to the mainland town, Maimbung.  There were eleven of them inside the bangka when they encountered soldiers, on board a rubber boat, who started shooting at them. The women shouted and pleaded to the soldiers to cease firing because they had already been hit. Six of them, including a pregnant woman and a four-year old child died on the spot and two others were wounded. Only five survived. In a separate incident, residents were rounded in their house, told to kneel down and a certain Ibno Wahid was shot point-blank in front of his wife and relatives. Those who scampered for cover were either killed or wounded when their houses were peppered with bullets and ransacked.  Their valuables were also taken. There were many other incidents in the islet which told of gross human rights violations that day.

Due to the pressure by the civil society, mostly through mass mobilizations demanding justice for the victims, the local government of Sulu has been moved to act.  Urgent actions resulted to the creation of a prosecution team commissioned by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an investigation. However this investigation has been preempted by the military’s own investigation report that exonerated those pinpointed as involved in the incident. A congressional inquiry is also underway. The victims, aside from the meager cash assistance they received from the local government, continue to hanker for justice.  It is sad to note that their cases have been stalled in the prosecution office giving way to the current deluge of investigation. Local lawyers as well as politicians, who once announced their support in public, are becoming silent. This supports the claim that no cases of human rights violations can be prosecuted in Jolo and Basilan. There are a number of NGOs who also wish to aid the victims but are constrained with resources to deal with the cases.  

Unlike the other victims of human rights violations who have more recourse to justice, the Bangsamoro victims lack the necessary support from their leaders who often used them for political gain; legal practitioners who lack the courage to handle their cases; media whose coverage are smoke-screened by the military especially in Sulu and Basilan; and civil society organizations which find comfort in peace and relief operations. To fill the gap in the work for human rights, there should be a strategy to address these concerns:

a.    Bangsamoro civil society organizations should put prime importance on human rights work alongside peace and development concerns. It is high time for them to realize that other human rights organizations are shifting their focus to socio-economic rights leaving so much work behind on civil and political rights. The task of recording and documenting human rights violations is the least challenge to take on.

b.    Media has the key role to constantly expose the dire consequences and the collateral damages wrought by the government’s war on terror that results to widespread fear, branding and intimidation of the Bangsamoro people. With the aid of urgent actions, that can be carried out internationally, more international support can be drawn to Mindanao.
c.    Legal practitioners among the Bangsamoro people to organize themselves in order to generate a network of support in aid of the victims.
d.    Mechanisms of support to be set up by the Commission on Human Rights to war-prone areas whereby victims of human rights violations can have ready access for redress of grievances.
e.    When the poor people lack the ability to defend themselves even with the knowledge of their human rights, a more creative approach in human rights education should be employed, involving state agencies such as the police and military and especially the local government units to fulfill human rights obligations.
f.    Register support for the pending human rights bills in congress that would set up effective mechanisms for the rights to peace and privacy, cessation of hostilities and prevention of war, protection of civilians in times of war and the elimination of torture and discrimination.

In its part, TFDP works with the Bangsamoro civil society organizations (CSOs) in Mindanao emphasizing the importance of documentation work as a basis to determine the appropriate intervention for the victims, produce trustworthy reports and define the focus of human rights advocacy work.  TFDP helps strengthen the capacity of these organizations to be able to identify, process, respond to human rights violations by building on their capacities and linking with the CHR.  

Since most cases of torture happen in Mindanao and victimize mostly the Bangsamoro people, TFDP has been actively campaigning for the elimination of torture and respect for the rule of law among government agencies. It has gathered anti-torture resolutions and set up torture-free zones in the past and now actively works with other human rights organizations at the national level to lobby in congress the enactment of an anti-torture law and ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). Endorsement by governors are also sought to add pressure for Congress to take action.

On top of all these efforts, TFDP, along with the Bangsamoro Lawyers Network (BLN) and the CHR, assists victims of human rights violations seek justice in the court of law.  Impunity remains the number one problem in the country that is constantly fed by poverty, ignorance of human rights and abuse by authority. Under the new mechanisms introduced by the Supreme Court, namely: Writ of Amparo, Writ of habeas data and the establishment of the special courts throughout the country for the prosecution of extra judicial execution cases, Amnesty International noted that there are at least 80  cases pending results of prosecution. Only when we can demonstrate that the poor victims can have protection under the law and the perpetrators are meted out with justice, then, and only then can impunity be addressed.

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