A church official in the Philippines called for the immediate withdrawal of armed men, state and non-state forces, from tribal communities.
Bishop Valentin Dimoc of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples made the call following reports that at least 95 tribal families fled their village in the southern Philippines on Feb. 29.
Human rights group Karapatan said people left the village of Diatagon in Lianga town, Surigao del Sur province, amid military operations against communist rebels last week.
In its report, Karapatan said government forces allegedly fired at houses, wounding at least three people, including a 5-year-old child.
The military has denied the allegations, claiming that it was the rebels who made the attacks “to trigger an evacuation.”
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ezra Balagtey told LiCAS.news that the attack was initiated to “disrupt the establishment of a government school for the tribal children.”
He said the enforced vacation is an “old strategy” of the rebels and organizations sympathetic to the communists “to put the blame on the military and pressure us to pull out our troops.”
He said military presence in the area ensures the “safe implementation of government programs” for conflict-affected tribal communities.
Bishop Dimoc of Bontoc Lagawe appealed to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples to declare tribal lands as “peace zones” and prohibit the entry of armed groups.
“The military and the communist (rebels) must honor such policy,” said the prelate, adding that it will avoid enforced displacement, violence, and bloodshed that put people in constant state of fear.
On Feb. 29, exiled communist leader Jose Maria Sison said the rebels remain open to the resumption of the stalled peace talks with the government.
Sison issued the statement in reaction to the appeal of peace advocate Augusto Miclat, executive director of Initiatives for International Dialogue, to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to press for the resumption of the peace talks.
Sison also called on the president to heed Miclat’s appeal “to act for the resumption of peace negotiations and to leave a legacy of just peace.”
Earlier last week, three Catholic bishops — Bishop Isabelo Abarquez of Calbayog, Bishop Emmanuel Trance of Catarman, and Bishop Crispin Vasquez Borongan in Eastern Samar — have been named by the local government of Samar in the central Philippines to lead “localized peace negotiations” with communist rebels.
In a statement, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process said “[the] religious sector is more credible than the politicians in leading the localized peace engagements with the rebel group.”
The rebels, however, have repeatedly rejected the “localized talks” and accused the government of fabricating reports on the massive surrenders of armed rebels.