The other side of the story: Lumad leaders from Agusan del Sur talk about the abuses by the National People's Army
(L-R) Jesse Acevedo, former NPA rebel Marcial Belandres, and Datu Martin Acevedo talk about the abuses done by NPA rebels to lumads in some parts of Mindanao. Photo by David Lozada/ Rappler
Amid reports of the Philippine military’s alleged killings and abuses of the Lumad, the indigenous people of Mindanao, a group of Lumad leaders from Agusan del Sur claimed that it is the New People’s Army (NPA), not the military, who is responsible for the killings.
In an exclusive interview with Rappler on Wednesday, September 30, Martin Acevedo, a datu from Prosperidad, La Purisima in Agusan del Sur province, said that in their area it is the NPA who make trouble and kill Lumad.
“The NPA imposes taxes on civilians. They charge each family a monthly tax of P10. Say you have 4 children, you'd have to pay P20 monthly – P5 per head. If the civilian can't pay, they compute the price for their life,” Acevedo said. (READ: TIMELINE: Attacks on the Lumad of Mindanao)
He added: “Once they finish computing – and the farmers still can’t pay – the NPA will catch them and kill them in the mountain, where the graves can’t be found. That’s what they did in our area.”
Martin, whose father and two siblings were allegedly killed by the rebels in 1992, said no Lumad in their area has joined the NPA, mainly due to the military’s presence.
“Despite the NPA’s aggressive recruitment, nobody from our place went with them because we made the people in our area understand what would happen to them there,” he added.
Military as friends
“The military are our friends because they give us ways to improve our livelihood, while the NPA only imposes taxes,” said Jesse Acevedo, younger brother of Datu Martin.
According to Jesse, the NPA has given the Lumad nothing but pain and hardships. He claimed that in January 2014, NPA rebels burned the Lumad's rubber plants and livelihood materials because of their insubordination.
“Why did the NPA burn the plants we need for our livelihood? Understand that the goals of the NPA are not to promote our welfare but to take advantage of the Lumad. If we continue to be recruited by them, it will come back to haunt us,” Jesse said.
Farmers who do not pay the “revolutionary taxes” imposed by the rebels, according to Jesse, are either kicked out of their land or killed.
“So we'd rather just pay because we have nowhere else to go. In some areas, like in Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur, if we are unable to pay the tax, the NPA will kill us. On the government's end, their only instruction to us is to let our children go to school and to continue to protect our children’s future,” Jesse said.
He added: “I can promise you that it is not the military who cause the problems because they give us help with livelihood and education for our children.”
The statements of the two datus contradict reports that Lumad in Surigao del Sur are being killed and displaced by paramilitary and military personnel.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has repeatedly denied the military’s involvement in the incidents. AFP Chief General Hernando Iriberri, during the budget hearing for the Department of National Defense (DND) on September 8, denied that the Magahat Bagani Force paramilitary group, mainly accused of the killings, is working with the 36th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army.
Rights groups like Karapatan and Kalumaran have repeatedly accused and condemned the government for allegedly perpetrating the killings.
UP Professor Winnie Monsod earlier accused leftist groups of using the Lumad to their advantage, for which she was slammed by Lumad and rights groups.
Two United Nations special rapporteurs Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Michel Forst already urged the Aquino government to investigate the killings in Mindanao, calling the issue “unacceptable, deplorable.”
The Senate Subcommittee on Justice, led by Senator Teofisto Guingona III, has already scheduled a hearing on the Lumad killings on Thursday, October 1, in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur.
Marcial Belandres, a member of the NPA for 25 years before surrendering to the government, told Rappler that the abuses reported by the Acevedos continue till now.
“There are still a lot of CPP-NPA in Surigao. They have rights groups there that they call legal but the backing are actually illegal. I witnessed, and sometimes participated, in the wrongdoings of the NPA,” Belandres said.”
He added that he surrendered to government forces because he wanted a better life for his family.
“Now that I am on the government’s side, I am being treated well. I am given food and help to send my child to a proper school,” said Belandres, who is being hunted by the NPA.
‘We need to understand Lumad culture’
Lawyer Levito Baligod, who brought the Lumad to Manila, said the government needs to understand the Lumad culture better before making any drastic decisions. (READ: Is the military innocent in Lumad killings?)
“The problem is that the government is lost on how to understand the situation. If the government will render their support to the Lumad datus, who signed a manifesto against the NPA, we can solve the problem. The datus themselves are already asking help from the government,” Baligod, who rose to fame during the pork barrel scam, said.
Baligod pointed to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) statement a few days back which said that the baganis were responsible for the Lumad killings.
“The baganis are the Lumad's warrior class, next to datus (chieftains) and baylans (priests). They are cultural guards. There are baganis who sided with the NPA and there are those who were assigned to defend their tribes. We cannot generalize,” he added.
The lawyer added that he is trying to link with the government the Lumad who came to him for help.
“We will try to ask the government to provide protection for the Lumad people because if the government is not present in their areas, the CPP-NPA would easily be able to enter, infiltrate and impose their will,” he said.
The Acevedos and Belandres are calling on other Lumad tribes to veer away from the NPA.
“I can say from my heart that it is not true that it’s the soldiers killing Lumad. The true killers are the CPP-NPA. Even if we'd live in the forest for one year, we’ll be fine as long as we're able to have our livelihoods. But with the NPA there, finding a livelihood is problematic,” Belandres said.
Jesse added: “I'm calling out to my Lumad brothers who are living in the mountain: I plead that if there is someone who recruits you from the CPP-NPA do not go with them because they are the ones causing havoc in our tribes.”
As the government and various rights groups continue to investigate the cases, the Lumad continue to be caught in the middle of the war between the government and the communist rebels.
"I'm calling on those Lumad who are still in the mountain to surrender so we can live a normal life and be given a livelihood by the government," Jesse said.