President Juan Manuel Santos on Wednesday asked indigenous groups in the southwest of Colombia for forgiveness over the suffering, deaths and human rights violations caused by the ongoing armed conflict, and promised improvement.
Santos met with representatives from indigenous groups in the southwest in the country to discuss ongoing tensions between the natives and the government over military operations on what the natives consider sacred territory.
The meeting between the head of state and the indigenous governors from the southwestern Cauca department was organized after the indigenous suspended talks with Interior Minister Federico Renjifo on Sunday, demanding the president’s personal intervention.
Complying with the indigenous’ wishes, Santos went to Cauca in an intent to ease tensions.
The president asked the indigenous communities for forgiveness for the suffering they have ben subjected to as a result of the ongoing armed conflict between the state, right-wing (neo-)paramilitary organizations and left-wing guerrilla groups.
“I want to tell you in all honesty that as head of state it breaks my heart. I want to ask your forgiveness for those victims, for those human rights violations, for all those deaths, for all those violations you have suffered for such a long time,” Santos said.
Santos vowed to remove army bases from territories considered sacred by the indigenous, claiming that the violation of these indigenous rights were never done out disrespect, but out of the army units’ ignorance of indigenous traditions.
In turn, the indigenous said they have no problem with the armed forces patrolling their territories, but objected to the army setting up military bases. Additionally, the indigenous wanted more control over their territory.
“Allow us to demonstrate that we are able to control our territory, allow us to show the country that we are able to govern and that the peoples here only seek to live in peace,” W radio quoted one indigenous leader as telling the president.
The president promised to seek solutions for the indigenous’ demands for more autonomy, respect of human and indigenous rights and an improved access to health care and education.
“Without education there is nothing. There is no peace. And without peace there’s no progress,” said Santos.
The president also promised he would talk to his health minister about the indigenous’ calls for improved health care, admitting that indigenous communities “unfortunately, in comparison to other Colombians, are suffering more health problems.”
The relationship between government and indigenous groups from the north of Cauca turned sour after the people of Nasa, tired of decades of war, forced army soldiers from bases on holy ground and arrested alleged members of guerrilla groups FARC for “disturbing harmony” in the community.
Since then, government officials and indigenous representatives have had tense talks that were suspended by the natives on several occasions.