July 4, 2023
Groups call for solidarity, ask support from the international community
Organizations from Pakistan, Myanmar, the Philippines, West Papua, Palestine, and India recently unveiled Silenced Suffering: Stop Rural Bombings, a solidarity and monitoring platform dedicated to addressing bombings in indigenous and rural communities. Farmers, indigenous peoples, and rights advocates led an online gathering last Friday to launch the platform.
“We, as people’s researchers, indigenous people, rural poor, and human rights workers, are sounding the alarm about the significant increase in state-led attacks, particularly aerial bombardments, on rural communities. These attacks have resulted in widespread death, injury, displacement, and destruction,” stated Azra Sayeed, Chair of the Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN), during the public launch.
According to APRN, the majority of these rights violations go unreported and unaddressed. Last year, the UN signed a landmark political declaration against explosive weapons in populated areas after reports showed a marked increase in civilian casualties.
The use of explosives in populated areas has had a devastating impact on civilians, with non-combatants accounting for over 90% of those killed. Ground shelling, airstrikes, and improvised explosive devices have caused deaths, injuries, and psychological harm to affected populations.
Suffering in Myanmar
During the event, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), a grassroots organization led by the Karen people, shared the tragedies amid the military junta’s violent campaign in Myanmar. “There have already been 160 airstrikes in Karen State, severely affecting civilians,” said Hsue Saw, Advocacy Officer of KHRG.
Clinics, schools, hospitals, religious structures, and homes were among the buildings that bombings destroyed, according to KHRG. They reported over 200 incidents of ground shelling from 2021 to 2022, resulting in 162 injuries and 47 deaths. From January to May 2023, there were 69 incidents of shelling, causing 39 injuries and 17 deaths. The ongoing indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes have severely restricted communities’ freedom of movement.
The affected villages primarily belong to the Karen people, an ethnic group that has inhabited Burma for over two thousand years. They have long advocated for their land and autonomy within Myanmar, but their calls for independence were not recognized upon Burma’s independence in 1948.
Airstrikes, militarization on plundered land
In January 2023, the Indian government launched an aerial bombing campaign in Bastar, targeting the border regions of Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. Tathagata Roy Chowdhury from the Indian youth group Revolutionary Students’ Front highlighted that this was not the first such operation in the area. Chowdhury explained, “Whenever the government conducts aerial strikes, it aims to clear mountains and forests of villagers, enabling corporate organizations to exploit the resources.”
Iron ore mining in Chhattisgarh has led to deforestation and raised concerns about the rights of indigenous communities. Chhattisgarh holds about one-fifth of India’s iron ore reserves, and the extraction of these resources has destroyed forest land.
The Northeast Indian state of Manipur has recently experienced an escalation of ethnic violence, leading to a major humanitarian crisis with thousands displaced and dozens killed. Jiten Yumnam from the Centre for Research and Advocacy Manipur (CRAM) highlighted the role of state forces in the violence. “Despite being one of the most militarized regions in Asia, Manipur has seen extensive deployment of the Indian army under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958,” said Yumnam. He also pointed out that the Indian security forces are directly responsible for targeting the media, and indigenous women, and supporting violence.
The people of Manipur have been resisting extractive investments, hydropower projects, and other large-scale infrastructure projects. These projects have resulted in massive displacements, environmental catastrophes, militarization, and the suppression of communities’ fundamental rights.
Similarly, the West Papuan people have faced widespread violence, including bombings of communities, as they struggle for independence. In April 2023, the military carried out a bombing in Nduga. However, the Indonesian government refused to take accountability for the attack, according to the Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL).
The attacks are rooted in the continued plundering of their ancestral lands, as Sayang Mandabayan of the Merdeka West Papua Support Network, a member of IPMSDL, explained. Mandabayan emphasized, “The suffering of the people of Papua is caused by the theft of our rich natural resources, which has turned our land from a gift into a source of suffering.”
In 2022, a large-scale operation was initiated to claim 40,000 hectares of land estimated to hold $200 billion of gold natural reserves. Freeport-McMoRan, a US-based mining company, operates the world’s largest and most profitable gold mine in Indonesia’s Papua province.
Recent bombings, rights abuses, and US Military Bases
Aerial bombings in the Philippines have dramatically increased over the past two years. “Since 2021, incidents of aerial bombing, shelling, and machine gun strafing by the military have intensified in Cagayan,” said Lina Ladino, an indigenous and local farmer representing the farmers’ rights desk Tanggol Magsasaka (TM-Defend Farmers).
According to Tanggol Magsasaka, from January 2022 to March 2023, at least 1,254 individuals were affected by aerial bombing assaults, with 900 of them displaced this year alone. In January last year, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) shelled four villages in Gonzaga, a neighboring town of the new US military base in Santa Ana. In February, another nearby town was bombed, forcing farmers and indigenous Agtas to flee.
Ladino emphasized that this year, three new US military bases are being constructed in their region as part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Three of the earmarked sites are in the Taiwan-facing region of Cagayan– the Cagayan North International Airport in Lal-lo, the Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana town, and Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela.
Indigenous peoples and residents are the most affected by the bombings. Their livelihoods are destroyed, and even carabaos have been killed by the bombs. Tanggol Magsasaka reported that fear of bombings and massive militarization has forced communities to flee, resulting in disrupted livelihoods and the closure of schools. Villages face heavy restrictions through checkpoints, and houses are ransacked, with rice and food stocks stolen by soldiers. Moreover, soldiers have enforced an information blackout, warning residents not to speak about the bombings.
Farmers’ groups are alarmed by the militarization and presence of US troops in their communities. Ladino stated, “[these] result in prostitution and the suffering of our women farmers. We are treated as pawns by our government for their exercises and as launching pads to oppress other people in other countries.”
Unreported, invisible, and threatened
A preliminary investigation by the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), a global rural peoples movement, revealed significant discrepancies between bombing reports from communities and readily available data. “This year alone, there have been sustained bombings in the northern Philippines and eastern India, yet the coverage of these incidents has been limited and no investigations have been pursued.
According to PCFS, the different capacities of communities to create verifiable reports and post-bombing assessments remain a challenge for local human rights workers. “Furthermore, attempts by civil society organizations and rights groups in the past two years to investigate have been met with further attacks, harassment, and threats from state forces,” said PCFS.
In February, the state forces prevented a fact-finding mission from accessing previously shelled villages in Telangana and Chhattisgarh, India. In the Philippines, similar patterns of harassment were employed against fact-finding missions investigating the bombings in Gonzaga, Cagayan, in 2022.
Need for solidarity, community-led monitoring
Amidst the tragic bombings of rural communities and the challenges of seeking justice and redress, farmers and indigenous rights defenders have expressed their immediate demands in their countries. RSF called on the international community, including human rights defenders, to not legitimize the Modi government and to demand an end to Operation Samadhan and Prahar. Jiten Yumnam of IPMSDL demanded that the government of India cease all forms of development aggression targeting people’s land.
Tanggol Magsasaka reiterated the call to end the bombings of communities and urged the governments to conduct an immediate, thorough, and truthful investigation. “We call on the people of the different countries to unite in condemning and speaking out about the injustices of these bombings that will destroy the source of livelihood for farmers,” says indigenous and Filipino farmer Ladino.
During the online launch, a unity statement was delivered, emphasizing the need for the international community to take urgent action to stop these atrocities and ensure that those responsible are held accountable. The organizations declared that they would no longer be silenced and urged other organizations and individuals to join them in speaking out against these atrocities and demanding justice for the victims and survivors.
The Silenced Suffering website was also launched to develop a community-run platform for real-time monitoring, enhancing movements’ capabilities to expose atrocities, build solidarity, and collectively seek justice. With the goal of having an early warning system in cases of aerial bombings and explosions, the online platform allows users to directly report a bombing incident in their country.
“We hope that through these safe spaces, we can encourage more voices to come forward and find a way to overcome the forces that are destroying our lives, livelihoods, lands, forests, and environment,” said Sayeed ofAPRN.#