PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III met Tuesday with leaders of indigenous peoples’ groups in Malacañang and vowed to address their concerns, a Palace spokesman said.
“Earlier today, the President, along with key members of the Cabinet, met with leaders from the indigenous peoples sector,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
“He heard the totality of their concerns and issued directives to come up with concrete action plans to address these, both in the immediate and long term,” Lacierda added.
The Cabinet secretaries present at the meeting were Education Secretary Armin Luistro; Budget Secretary Florencio Abad; Health Secretary Janette Garin; Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras and the head of the Presidential Management Staff, Julia Abad.
Almendras said the meeting between the President and lumad representatives was “fruitful” but declined to give any details.
“They were able to express themselves to the President. The lumad were accompanied by priests and nuns,” Almendras said.
“There was an agreement on a course of action. The President instructed certain members of Cabinet to address those issues,” he added.
One source who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, said some who were in the meeting asked if the lumad were really refugees or if they were being used by the communist rebels in Mindanao.
One Cabinet official, for example, asked if the 700 tribesmen who sought refuge at the Haran Center of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Davao City, were speaking freely, or if they were being coerced to say by people who were detaining them at the center.
An evangelical bishop on Tuesday denied alleged claims from the military and North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco that the tribal evacuees encamped in the UCCP Haran compound are being held off against their will.
“That claims came from the military, that’s Catamco’s story. Evacuees from Talaingod [in Davao del Norte] have always considered Haran as their sanctuary, their second home even before,” bishop Modesto Villasanta, former Bishop of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines told, The Standard in a phone interview.
Villasanta said that some 668 lumad evacuees coming from Talaingod town in Davao del Norte have cordoned themselves at the UCCP’s Haran church due to fear of reprisal from various groups, including security forces and paramilitary groups alike who’ve troubled their lives since.
In October, a village leader led a mob of townsmen and some soldiers to destroy a school run by an organization and named after an Italian priest who was killed for championing the rights of the lumad or indigenous people.
Leftist lawmakers denounced human rights violations and “the state of impunity” in Mindanao, and criticized the lack of government action.
“It is a pity that the village chief is taking its cue from the military, and espousing the lie that these lumad schools are the makings of rebel groups, and its teachers and students are rebel supporters or rebels themselves,” said Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares.
“Instead of supporting the efforts of churches and non-government organizations to provide the education that his tribe members need, he is the first to vilify and attack the school that provided free education for lumad children,” Colmenares said.
“The demolition of this school is a crime against the lumad children who benefit from this school, to the memory of Fr. Pops Tentorio who had built lumad schools all over Mindanao before he was murdered, and to all lumad people who are struggling for their right to their lands and to self-determination,” Colmenares said.
Kitaotao Vice Mayor Rodito Rafisura said the town council started a probe into the demolition of the school.
The attack against lumad schools were among the issues raised by Manilakbayan 2015, a caravan from Mindanao that arrived last month.
Many schools in Davao, Agusan, Bukidnon and Surigao have been repeatedly forced to suspend their operations amid allegations that they were being supported by communist rebels.
In Surigao del Sur, a director of another lumad school, the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development together with two other tribal leaders were killed inside the school compound in September, triggering fear among the community and forcing them to flee their homes.
During Senate budget hearings for the Commission on Human Rights, the sponsor of the commission’s spending plan, Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, was asked what was being done to address the problems of the lumad.
“They are coordinating with the police for purposes of investigation. The CHR chairperson also said they are coordinating with Department of Justice and the Philippine National Police to complete their investigation,” said Angara, in response to a question from Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile.
Enrile also dismissed the CHR claim that it was coordinating with the “generals on the ground” but not with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
“For heavens sake, those generals will not move without orders,” Enrile said, citing the need to bring Gazmin into the picture.
Enrile, who served as defense secretary during the Marcos administration, said the country had a similar problem before and this needed attention at the highest level.
He also underscored the need to do something about the ordeal of the lumad at the hands of paramilitary groups and said the CHR was “evidently paralyzed” on the issue.
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