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‘Climate of fear’: Western Visayas bishops hit killings of Tumandok indigenous

Christian Deiparine (Philstar.com) – January 17, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — Catholic bishops from Western Visayas have condemned the killing of members of the Tumandok from state forces’ operation in end-2020, saying “little or nothing at all” has been done to serve justice.

The joint operation by the Philippine army and police had resulted in nine leaders of the indigenous group in Panay dead, while 17 others were arrested last December.

DOCUMENT: UN report on human rights abuses, persistent impunity in Philippines

They were said to have opposed a government-led project to build a mega dam in Jalaur in Iloilo, which they fear could submerge their ancestral lands and force them out of it. Prior to the incident, tribe members had also been “red-tagged” or linked as supporters or members of the communist armed movement.

“We empathize with the fear and insecurities of those displaced by the atrocities,” the bishops said in a January 15 pastoral letter. “We condemn in the strongest possible term, all the killings and especially, the killings of our brothers — the Tumandoks.”

A probe has since been launched by the human rights commission, while members of the Makabayan bloc in the House have sought a congressional inquiry over the killings and arrests.

Archbishops Jose Cardinal Advincula and Jose Lazo of Jaro along with six other bishops described the incident as having created a climate of “fear and uncertainty.”

The Capiz prelate, whom the Pope recently elevated as Cardinal, had served in the previous years as a member of the Commission for Indigenous Peoples within the Philippine bishops’ conference or the CBCP.

“Fear forced many to leave their communities and migrate to more secure places in the Poblacion or in the houses of relatives,” they said. “Fear also forced many to surrender to authorities to clear their names or admit that they were former members and supporters of the CPP-NPA.”

The Church leaders in Region 6 demanded that a comprehensive probe be held along with a dialogue “to listen to the legitimate cries” of the Tumandok, as well as reforms within law enforcement.

These include a stop to what they said was a militarization of indigenous communities, “that PNP and AFP follow conscientiously the ethical standards” in their operations and the use of body cameras by cops.

“We call on everyone to be highly vigilant in defending the sacredness of life in respective and protecting the rights of all,” they said. “We urge everyone to discern and pray for the will of God amidst all the killings and violations of human rights, and to act guided by the principles of nonviolent action.”

One bishop added that such had been a continuation of the “mass killings and arrests” of other activists in the central part of the country in recent months.

Members of the indigenous are among those who had been subject to “red-tagging,” an issue which has since heightened over the past year as led by government and military officials.

Often it has exposed those tagged to dangers, with activists and human rights advocates having to face threats to their life, intimidation and some ending up being killed.

In June 2020, the United Nations’ Human Rights Office said red-tagging has posed a “serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression” in its report on the situation in the Philippines.

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