Top PH Church officials on the Mindanao Crisis and Extrajudicial Killings
By Dyan Ruiz
As the nearly three-week gun battles in Mindanao grabbed international headlines and extrajudicial killings and disappearances rage on in the Philippines, Bishop Melzar Labuntog and Pastor Noriel Capulong are in the epicenters of these calamities. These top church leaders came to Toronto and talked about these crises.
Labuntog, from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Northwest Mindanao and Capulong, a Biblical scholar, pastor and Chair of the UCCP Commission on Faith and Order spoke to a group of about three dozen people on the evening of Oct. 19. The event was called “Building Peace, Building Solidarity: People’s Movements and Churches in War-Torn Mindanao” and was held at the OISE Building on Bloor St. West.
The armed clash last month from Sept. 8 to 28 between the Muslim rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and forces of the Philippine government put the Northwest Mindanao city, Zamboanga, under siege. As gunfire from high-powered rifles blasted through the streets, more than 125,000 people became displaced, over 200 were killed and more than 10,000 homes were destroyed.
He told the audience that there were a series of protest actions by MNLF in other major cities of Mindanao, but it was only in Zamboanga that it became violent because the government outlawed the protest actions in that city. This led to a standoff between the MNLF and Philippine forces.
In an interview with The Philippine Reporter after his presentation, Labuntog said he received updates from his friends in Zamboanga the day before. Some of the displaced people whose homes were not burnt have now returned. “There are about 24,000 families left now and about 20,000 children still in the evacuation centre,” he said.
Labuntog also discussed the peacemaking challenges in Mindanao and some of the issues that are preventing successful negotiations between the government and rebel groups. He said the Moro struggle for self-determination should be supported, including control of the natural resources. The Philippine government should have discussions free from foreign intervention, especially the US military. Also, negotiations should involve all stakeholders, including factions within MNLF.
Canadian mining companies are very much present in this part of Mindanao and their security forces have been accused of harassing and even killing local people who oppose their mining projects. When asked about this in an interview, the Bishop said he had personally not been harassed, “but communities of our churches in some parts of Zamboanga peninsula have been harassed. We have church leaders who have been filed with trumped-up charges, especially those who have stood up against expansion,” he said.
He urged Canadians to look into whether any companies they invest in, such as mining companies, harass people or violate human rights, or exploit and plunder natural resources.
Capulong talked about the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, of which his brother was a victim. His brother, Nolie Capulong, was an advocate for the protection and preservation of critical ecological areas in Southern Tagalog. He organized youth and other sectors to advocate as well. On May 27, 2006, a hooded gunman riding on the back of a motorbike ambushed him in his jeep. “He was killed instantly after receiving four bullet shots in his face and body,” Capulong told the audience.
“Nolie was the 136th victim of extrajudicial killings in Southern Tagalog alone. By the end of the Arroyo regime, there were more than 900 cases of extrajudicial killings and involuntary disappearances or abductions,” he said to the audience.
To this day, no one has been jailed or held responsible for these killings and disappearances and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s successor, current President Benigno Aquino III has shown “no firm resolve,” Capulong said, in prosecuting those responsible.
President Aquino “knows what it means to be a victim of human rights violations because his own father [Ninoy Aquino] had been unjustly assassinated,” he said in an interview with The Philippine Reporter, “and that is why we expect so much of him.”
Capulong said that the security forces of the government are implicated in all of the cases of killings and disappearances, which were part of the Oplan Bantay Laya policy under Arroyo that targeted “so-called Leftists or rebel groups in the country. The supposed plan or goal was to decapitate the people’s movement,” he said to the audience.
Despite this continued climate of impunity in the Philippines, Capulong told the audience “There will always be hope as long as there remains people like you who are willing to care enough and are willing to lend their voices to the cries of justice to all the victims.” He also draws his hope from the “people who are part of the continuing struggle there,” he said.
Capulong told The Philippine Reporter that he draws on this Christian faith to persist in his work despite the dangers. “I will not be true to what I’m teaching if I do not try to do something about what’s going on,” he said, “There will always be a continuing danger, but we have to go on because it’s simply the right thing.”
“Listening to the facts compels us to do something,” said Connie Sorio, Partnerships Coordinator for Asia-Pacific at KAIROS, who moderated the discussion. After the presentations by Bishop Labuntog and Pastor Capulong, she asked the audience to brainstorm what could be done about the crisis in Mindanao and the killings and disappearances.
After much discussion, there was a general consenus that continued advocacy and raising awareness internationally of these human rights issues is one of the most effective ways to bring progress.
The event was organized by the International Committee on Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP)- Toronto, Philippine Solidarity Group-Toronto, Filipino Christian Fellowship, and the United Church of Canada- Church in Mission. Their 2-week trip also included visiting United Church of Christ seminaries in Vancouver, and Saskatoon.