Military rounds up lumad rights defenders in Agusan del Sur – religious group

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Law worker Julito Otacan (photo courtesy of RMP-NMR)

MANILA, Philippines — A religious organization has raised the alarm over the arrest of five members of the Banwaon tribe of Agusan del Sur and a field worker for a European Union-funded project on indigenous peoples’ rights.

The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-North Mindanao Region said in a statement that soldiers who had arrived in Barangay Balit in San Luis town early Friday morning, October 27, onboard two military trucks, a” war tank,” two patrol cars, and two white vans, first seized Julito Rivera Otacan, a lay worker it had engaged for the EU-funded Protecting and Promoting Indigenous Human Rights in the Philippines project undertaken in partnership with Relief International, from his home.

Otacan was taken to the village’s covered court where he was joined by Alejandro Barluado, Jonas Acosta, Noli Tahudan, Marlon Talatayod, and Joel Trasona, all members of the Banwaon organization Tagdumahan.

Like other lumad organizations throughout Mindanao, “Tagdumahan has long been targeted by the military because of their vocal assertion of their rights to the Banwaon’s ancestral domain targeted by logging and mining companies,” according to the indigenous peoples’ rights group Katungod Lumad Monitors.

During the Balit roundup, Katungod said the soldiers claimed to have found grenades, firearms, and other equipment in their homes.

In many instances in the past, the government and state security forces have openly accused lumad organizations and communities of supporting or being part of the communist rebel movement, often using this to justify arrests or the occupation of villages and facilities such as schools.

Maridel Fano, program coordinator of RMP-NMR’s Rural Poor Organizing Support Program and manager of the Protecting and Promoting Indigenous Human Rights in the Philippines project, said in the statement that Otacan’s work involved “going around the Banwaon communities in Agusan del Sur, to organize and facilitate the training of community members in their capacity as human rights defenders.”

However, she noted, since President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23, soon after fighting broke out in Marawi City, “attacks against (human rights defenders) had been heightened, with community organizers and legitimate community meetings put under surveillance of state forces.”

Katungod also confirmed that “since the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, military personnel have been going to Otacan’s house, looking for him.”

Although community members immediately flocked to the covered court, they “were not allowed to go near the detainees,” who were eventually taken to the police station in Rubako, San Luis, except for Tahudan, who was reportedly brought to the headquarters of the 26th Infantry Battalion in  Talacogon town.

“We are demanding their immediate release and for the government to ensure their protection while they are doing their legitimate work for indigenous peoples’ rights,” RMP-NMR said.