Zamboanga City – MORE than a thousand troops from United States and Philippines took part of the 15-day joint military exercises and humanitarian missions in the country Starting on February 18. But civil society groups in Mindanao have questioned how these exercises have significantly resulted in raising the Filipino military’s fighting and community assistance capabilities. They particularly wondered how the exercises have lessened collateral damage to civilians, following the “massacre” of seven people in Sulu.
Although US military troops have been training Filipino soldiers for years, still numbers of civilians are being killed, human rights violation are still occurring, and civilian collateral damages are still prevalent, says Sammy P. Maulana, secretary general of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, Inc., an umbrella organization of 168 Muslims groups based in Mindanao.
On February 4, at least seven civilians, including a pregnant woman and children, and an off-duty soldier, were killed in the coastal village of Ipil in Maimbung, Sulu when the US-trained Light Reaction Company launched a pre-dawn operation against the Al Qaeda-linked Abu-Sayyaf group.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) regional office described the incident as an attack against “sleeping residents” and not against the Abu Sayyaf Group. The commission also recommended the filing of criminal charges against the soldiers based on their investigation.
“The question arises as to what our military troops learned from these joint military exercises when you see civilians being killed or caught in crossfire during military operation. Where is the expertise on warfare?” asked another civil society leader, who spoke in condition of anonymity.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in a statement said this year’s “Balikatan” was divided into two activities. Soldiers in Luzon underwent an extensive military exercises on counter-insurgency, while Filipino troops stationed in the Southern Philippines assisted US troops in medical missions and building basic social facilities in some communities such as health centers and schools.
“No military exercise happened in Mindanao,” said Major Eugene S. Batara, spokesman of the Western Mindanao Command.
At least 600 American troops joined this year’s Balikatan. Only US military doctors and engineers were deployed in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Lanao.
Major Batara said this year’s Balikatan exercise, which ended on March 3, was the 24th since it was started in 2002, at the height of the US-led global war against terrorism and during the Sipadan hostage crisis in Sulu and Basilan launched by the home-grown terrorist Abu-Sayyaf Group.
In its own investigation, the military has maintained that the Feb. 4 is a legitimate military operation against Abu-Sayyaf and the military incurred two deaths.
“The safety of the civilians during military operation is our main concern,” Batara said, adding that the military did not clear the 50 involved soldiers and officer.
The killing of the seven civilians sparked several mass action rallies in key areas in Mindanao against the conduct of the Balikatan, after one of the survivors in the “massacre” claimed that she saw four American soldiers on board the Philippine Navy boat during the operation.
The widow of the slain off-duty soldier, Rawina Wahid, “was also handcuffed, [and] was later brought to the naval boat together with the body of her husband. Inside, she saw at least four US soldiers. She also saw some of her properties and livestock onboard, apparently looted by this very same group,” the statement of the Consortium of Bangsamoro said, adding that “the presence of the US soldiers was later confirmed by vendors along the wharf of the Jolo port, because they saw them go off-board along with Rawina Wahid.”
The US embassy in Manila has denied that their soldiers were involved in that specific operation. In a statement, the embassy emphasized that US troops are barred from participating to join combat operations of the Philippine military.
United Voice of the Bangsamoro or SUARA Bangsamoro cited several misconducts of US forces during previous Balikatan exercises. These include the shooting and wounding of innocent Moro civilians in Basilan during the first Balikatan in 2002. They also cited the shooting and wounding of Buyung-Buyung Isnijal, a Yakan farmer who was shot by an American soldier who led the Filipino troops in their military operation in Tuburan Basilan on July 27.; the shooting and wounding of Arseed Baharun, a Tausug resident of Barangay San Roque, here who was shot and wounded by an American soldier who was conducting a marksmanship training as part of Balikatan training in June 2004; and “the hundreds of families who were forced to evacuate the designated combat areas of the Balikatan in fear of being made live targets of the US soldiers.”
The Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy also urged the government to “review and stop the Balikatan exercises from taking place in peaceful Muslim areas as such would create an impression of intrusion upon the peace and harmony in these areas.”