Army presence in Mt. Province town alarms residents

BESAO, MOUNTAIN PROVINCE –  Army soldiers have set up camp in a village here for a community project and medical missions, but residents have been alarmed.

They said some soldiers have occupied some of their houses and have been requiring farmers to secure “safe conduct passes.”

First Lt. Jade Gabino, commanding officer of a unit deployed by the Philippine Army’s 81st Infantry Battalion, said on Aug. 9 that the soldiers were tasked to secure the area because of a clash on July 15 with suspected communist rebels near Sitio Dandanac in Barangay Tamboan.

Some soldiers were taken in by some Dandanac families after the soldiers asked for the families’ permission, Gabino confirmed.

He also claimed that the Mountain Province government authorized the community projects and allowed the soldiers’ presence there. Neither Gabino nor local leaders provide details about these projects.

But some Dandanac families claimed that they were reluctant to turn away soldiers. Many of the soldiers were in full battle gear when they approached some households.

“The mere sight of them with their guns make us uneasy and we have been afraid to move around or proceed to our rice fields,” said an elder who asked not to be identified.

The safety passes have also restricted the movement of 72 residents, who have farms in the mountains that the military designated as risk areas.

The security protocols were meant to keep the villagers safe and to ensure no rebels would infiltrate the community, Gabino said during an Aug. 9 meeting with Cordillera human rights groups.

“We have no choice but to comply because we have to harvest and bring home our crops or the rains would damage them. We have to eat,” a local farmer said.

The farmer said he would need to return soon to prepare his field for the next planting season.

Fr. Joseph Requino, chairman of the Mountain Province Human Rights Advocates, said several farmers were scared of the soldiers and had not yet completed their harvest.

He added that the safety passes were meant to protect the soldiers, but not the community.

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