Rights group highlights militarization, sexual harassment, strafing of indigenous farmers in recent fact-finding mission

Human rights alliance Karapatan strongly decries the intensified militarization in San Mariano, Isabela which has resulted in a spate of violations and harassment committed by the military, targeting farmers and indigenous people asserting their right to land and livelihood.
According to reports gathered from a fact-finding mission (FFM) conducted from August 8 to 10, five companies of the 95th and 86th Infantry Battalion as well as the Philippine Marines have been deployed across 15 barangays in San Mariano, as well as four barangays in Benito Soliven and three in Ilagan City for so-called “Community Support Programs”—mere fronts for intensified military operations and surveillance in the said areas as part of the Duterte regime’s counterinsurgency operations under Oplan Kapayapaan and further institutionalized in Oplan Kapanatagan.

"The farmers and indigenous people of San Mariano have long suffered from the feudal exploitation and backward agrarian crisis in the countryside, along with land grabbing and illegal logging by local and foreign corporations. Now, state-perpetrated attacks have likewise intensified with the deployment of more troops in civilian communities. The FFM team has documented various violations, including sexual harassment, encampment in civilian dwellings, indiscriminate firing, and illegal arrest and detention,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.

Among the cases documented by the FFM are cases of sexual harassment perpetrated by elements of the 95th Infantry Battalion who encamped in Brgy. Gangalan, San Mariano. Two women in the community were invited for a “boodle fight” in July 2019. As the night deepened, victim “Maria”, was asked to dance. “Kendeng ka pa, Nay,” the soldier said, thereafter bending over and dancing in front of the victim. When the victim was repulsed, she tried to go to a different area but was grabbed by the soldier. “Maria” also narrated that the soldiers were very drunk.

Another report was from “Gen” who was touched inappropriately by a soldier in her thighs. She protested and moved away. Another soldier, during the same “boodle fight”, kept pulling her and asking her to sit beside him. This prompted “Gen” to leave the event. Yet another woman reported that one of the soldiers told her: “Halikan mo ako at magpalitan nalang tayo ng laway, para pag natikman ko na ang laway mo, para marunong na ako mag-Ilocano” (Let us kiss and exchange saliva. When I taste your saliva, I might know how to speak Ilocano.”

Families in the community have also fallen victims to indiscriminate firing, likewise perpetrated by the 95th Infantry Battalion. The family of a peasant leader in the San Mariano was strafed at the 10PM in July 2019. The leader’s wife, two children, and 2-year-old grandson were in the house when the incident happened. No one was hurt, but it prompted the family to leave their home and transfer from one place to the next. The 2-year-old child was also traumatized and would always be disoriented when he hears thunder, mistaking it for gunshot.

“The military is staying in communities and justifying it under different names. Now, it is called the Community Support Program. Regardless of the program’s name, the face of militarization remains the same. Residents report that soldiers allegedly stay in people’s houses or at the day-care center, drinking alcohol and calling the male population to “clear their names.” They are not following any due process and are putting the entire community under a coercive circumstance where giving an unfavorable answer will result in possible worse violations. People are forced to say “yes”, to submit to the orders of uniformed armed men as if civilian supremacy is a thing of the past,” explained Palabay.

The Karapatan official slammed the military for starting this baseless initiative to declare groups and organizations as persona non grata. After further investigation, the FFM team was told that the resolution was “handed down” by the military. They called all barangay officials and unilaterally declared it as a meeting, whereby the resolution was submitted and passed without discussion and in the presence of the military who drafted it.

“This is looking more like military rule to us. This is what we mean when we say there is a backsliding of civilian autonomy in militarized areas. The military even tried to organize a rally against factfinding mission members, featuring pictures of people marching together with banners urging the FFM team to leave. However, the team later found out that residents were whisked from their breakfast, was told that the governor was coming, and thought they are welcoming politicians. As for the placards, the residents, mostly indigenous peoples deprived of education, were not literate and could not read. This is deception and the military is putting its resources in frustrating our efforts to expose these human rights violations,” added Palabay.

“Military presence in communities has done nothing but sow fear, repression, and impunity. They may tirelessly try to cover up for their crimes, but the people themselves find a way to report these, courageously standing up to the towering figures who want to reduce and silence their voices. Karapatan strongly urges the pullout of military troops in the communities in San Mariano, Isabela, and the withdrawal of counterinsurgency program Oplan Kapanatagan, among other repressive policies. It is high time for the government to address the roots of social unrest, to listen to the legitimate demands of the people it claims to serve, rather than answering them with bullets,” the Karapatan official ended.