‘Don’t give us platitudes in exchange for our grief’

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Italian missionary Fausto Tentorio foresaw six years ago that he would “die of bullets” someday. Although he was proven correct, that didn’t make his death right.

Last week, Fr. Tentorio was shot dead outside his parish church in Arakan, North Cotabato. Typical of most extrajudicial killings since 2001, the gunman escaped with an accomplice on board a motorcycle.

Oddly (or expectedly?), Philippine Army soldiers doing a “peace and development” project at the public school nearby didn’t respond to the incident.

Could this have been because, as the indigenous people’s group Kusog sa Katawhang Lumad avers, Fr. Tentorio had criticized the AFP’s peace and development program in the Arakan Valley, under Oplan Bayanihan, as “contrary to the people’s aspirations?”

Like his fellow priests from the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME), Fr. Tentorio lived as humbly as the people he served for 33 years. That already says a lot. Still, he was no ordinary human being.

Fondly addressed as “Fr. Pops” by his parishioners and the indigenous peoples, Fr. Tentorio headed the Tribal Filipino Apostolate of the Diocese of Kidapawan. He had special concern for the youth, as denoted in Facebook comments posted by young people he had worked with.

One comment says: “I met Fr. Pops when he invited us to give basic theater workshop to peasant folk’s children of Arakan Valley… Why kill (him) who takes care of the oppressed?” Another, from Cleo Capiloy, muses: “He was so kind to us, when we were there giving training to their youth…”

Fr. Tentorio organized the Tina-nanon-Kalamanon Lumadnong Panag-huisa (Tikulpa), which has defended the tribal peoples’ rights against land-grabbing and varied forms of exploitation by foreign-owned and local agribusiness plantations and corporate businesses in Arakan Valley.

Tikulpa’s struggle has cost the lives of Lumad leaders. Among them were Higaonon Datu Lapugotan and his nephew, Solte San-ogan of Esperanza, Agusan Sur, and Jimmy Arion, Nicomedes dela Pena Sr., his son Nicomedes Jr., and Ruben Gatong of San Fernando, Bukidnon.

Fr. Tentorio was the 54th victim of extrajudicial killings under this administration — the third churchperson and first Catholic priest to be so killed. (The two others were Benjamin Bayles of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, and Abe Sungit of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.)

He was killed as Tribal Filipino Month was being celebrated, the Koalisyong Katutubo at Samahan ng Pilipinas wryly notes. It declares: “It is not only Fr. Tenorio who is the victim here, but also human rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, advocacy for the environment, liberty, and justice.”

Already in 2002, in Arakan Valley, a human rights worker, Beng Hernandez, was killed by paramilitary forces operating in the area; Fr. Tentorio campaigned for justice for her. The very next year, in 2003, he himself escaped death at the hands of the “Bagani Force” — an auxiliary of the 73rd Infantry Brigade — because the Lumad community hid and protected him.

The Bagani Force is just one of several paramilitary groups operating in pursuance of the government’s counterinsurgency program. Some of the others, sporting such names as Alamara, Task Force Gantongon, Wild Dogs, are implicated in the killing of tribal leaders. Among them are Datu Mampaagi Belayong, Datu Aladino Badbaran, Datu Alvie Binungkasan, and Datu Arpe Belayong, according to KAMP, the indigenous peoples’ alliance.

The Commission on Human Rights has recommended the revocation of EO 546, issued by ex-President Arroyo in 2006 directing the recruitment of paramilitary groups for counterinsurgency. But P-Noy has not acted on it.

KAMP points out that Fr. Tentorio’s killing brings to mind the “low-intensity conflict” strategy of the Cory Aquino government, under which, in 1985, paramilitary agent Norberto Manero brutally murdered Fr. Tullio Favali, also from PIME, in Tulunan, Cotabato.

Fr. Peter Geremia, parish priest of Columbio, Sultan Kudarat who has worked in Mindanao for 39 years, dismisses insinuations by certain officials linking the NPA to Fr. Tentorio’s murder. “Even during the time of Fr. Favali,” he recalls, “they had the same pronouncement, but it was proven (to be) the opposite.”

The Catholic Bishops’ national social action center forcefully declares:

“Beyond the usual expression of ‘condolences’ and ‘condemnation,’ government and state authorities have not really done anything that will reverse the trend of senseless killings in the country. (We) do not need these futile words; rather we desire to see these killings stop than be consoled by the platitudes they give in exchange for our grief.”

But the forthright challenge to stop the atrocities and pinpoint the source comes from the martyr himself. Prophetically, Tentorio spoke at a peace forum organized by the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform in Davao City last year:

“It is clear that it is the military that rules the country. They have been empowered by martial law,” he said then, according to the online newspaper Bulatlat.

“For me, as long as the military will not bow to civilian supremacy, no peace will come to communities. Even if we discuss the substantive agenda (in the peace talks), the military will find ways to subvert it. Unless we have a strong president, maybe we cannot do that. The future does not look bright.”

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E-mail to: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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