Words by Antonio Ongdueco
The Philippines is home to roughly 14-17 million indigenous peoples (IPs). They each belong to different tribes, mostly situated in the highlands. Igorot tribes live in Northern Luzon, while the Lumad live around Mindanao. Other unique tribes, such as the Badjao, Aeta, Tumandok, and Mangyan, are all scattered across the archipelago. They are said to be living proofs of an uncolonized culture who are considered experts in the preservation of indigenous arts and protection of the environment, among others. While carrying various ethnicities and traditions, they are very much like us, still citizens of the country.
So, it is only reasonable that we protect and uphold their rights, safety, and resources. However, despite being one of the most vulnerable sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic, the native communities continue to be demonized and attacked by existing prejudice brought by a system that deprives them of education, exploits their resources, and enforces physical and psychological abuse.
Demonization of indigenous communities
Colonizers used to describe natives as “primitive” and “uncivilized” to justify their exploitation over our lands, manpower and natural resources. Although anthropologists discourage the use of such slurs nowadays, oppressors have found other words to add to their artillery against IP communities.
Last year, a self-learning module drew flak online for discrimination against Igorot, specifically their traditional clothing. In response, the Department of Education (DepEd) distanced themselves from the material, saying that it was locally produced and has been pulled from circulation. Nevertheless, besides raising questions on the quality of remote learning materials, the incident unmasked a culture of casual discrimination against the IP group; a mere rehash of our colonizer’s rhetoric of prejudice.
Caught in the crossfire of the government’s intensified crackdown on the rebellion, indigenous communities have become common victims of red-tagging, branded as affiliates of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF). Constant red-tagging creates grave consequences given the state’s history of inhumane treatment towards communist and other leftist groups and individuals. Incidents such as the incivility of the military to the fallen bodies of members of the NPA. In one instance, a tribal leader, whose intentions were questioned by IP defender groups, even red-tagged his fellow IP leader and party-list representative.
In December 2018, President Duterte established the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which aims to take on a “whole-of-nation approach” counterinsurgency program. But consecutive incidents show that the task force is best known for its spokesperson’s red-tagging habit, which has since victimized the Makabayan Bloc of the House of Representatives, progressive groups, and an Inquirer reporter. Still, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) condoned this, downplaying the gravity of the situation.
During the horrific Marawi Siege, President Duterte placed the entire island of Mindanao under Martial Law. The decree was extended twice after the end of the battle: the first time for the “total eradication” of insurgents, and then, to fast track rehabilitation efforts. For two and a half years, locals, most especially indigenous communities had to live with red-tagging, harassment, and the looming threat of becoming “collateral damage” in the self-styled war against terror. While the proclamation of Martial Law met its end in December 2019, another flare was fired with the passage of the much contested Anti-Terror Law (ATL).
Moreover, authorities employ many forms of harassment against IP groups to further sully the latter’s already maligned images. Through warrantless arrests, trumped-up charges, and other forms of state harassment, the government misleads the public into believing their narrative of red-tagging. Such was the case of the seven Lumad who were detained after an illegal search, which the Save Our Schools Network (SOS) touted as part of a “systematic attack to demonize” the IPs.
While IP groups are firmly fighting back against discrimination and red-tagging through legal means, their lives and liberties are still in danger. Once again, indigenous communities are demonized, further exposing them to oppression and abuse.
Desecration of ancestral lands
Many IPs are situated in their respective ancestral domains, often spanning multiple hectares of land. This rendered them as victims of land-grabbing brought by the corporate interests of mining, energy, logging, and development corporations. More often than not, these companies mislead the landowners into signing contracts with short-term profits, but a long-term catch: a shift in ownership of land. This unfair act seems to be condoned, or even encouraged, by the national government. (Read: Driven from home, Philippine indigenous people long for their land)
The most blatant example could be traced back to 2018 wherein amidst qualms over the first extension of Martial Law in Mindanao, Duterte declared that he would ”open ancestral domains in Mindanao to investors to generate wealth.” In anticipation of backlash, he was quick to add that the IPs “did not use” their land anyways. This demeanor may have made sense of a 2019 anthropological study which detailed how current legislation and enforcement on the indigenous peoples’ land rights were so weak that a lone corporation was able to dislodge Aetas from their land.
Because of these conflicts, many IPs were forced to move to makeshift shanties in nearby plantations and cities, becoming internally displaced persons (IDP) or basically refugees in their own country. Lumad leader Kerlan Fanagel, said, “In the past centuries, we have been driven away from our lands to satisfy the hunger of greedy colonizers; today, it is the turn of big businesses.”
Despite these attacks, they stood their ground. In 2020, indigenous leaders from Quezon and Rizal voiced their tribes’ opposition to the construction of the Kaliwa Dam in the midst of the pandemic. Besides displacing indigenous people and the risk of environmental damage, they also took notice of the involvement of Chinese contractors in the project, another hint of Duterte’s subservience to China despite the disputes on the West Philippine Sea. (Read: What the Build! Build! Build! Program truly destroys)
Laws meant to safeguard their rights also remain futile like in the case of R.A 8371 or the 1997 Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA). IPRA fails to recognize and respect any land title obtained before 1997, debilitating the ancestral land claims of the IPs acquired before the imposition of the said law.
Another point of criticism is the formation of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). While mandated to “protect and promote the interest and well-being” of IPs, it does not comprise of sectoral representatives, rather, it is composed of mere appointees. This naturally led to several protests, usually directed at the commission’s warm and favorable stance on mining companies and their support towards the state forces attacking indigenous communities.
In 2019, NCIP chairman Leonor Quintayo was investigated for corruption by the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC). Later that year, he was eventually replaced by Allen Capuyan, a retired colonel who was involved in wire-tapping operations and alleged smuggling of drugs; he is also the current executive director of the NTF-ELCAC.
Denial of education
Education has been pegged as the great equalizer and liberator. As such, every child’s right to education should be fulfilled. Yet, many of the IP youth have been withheld this right even before the pandemic.
After being pushed away from their ancestral domains, IPs, like the Lumad, opened up their own schools to ensure the education of their youth. In defiance of the DepEd’s prescriptions, these schools had a “nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented” curriculum, weaved with sustainable agriculture.
Following his declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, President Duterte threatened to drop bombs on these community schools. He justified risking the lives of children with allegations of NPA recruitment and training in the schools, as well as their lack of permit from the DepEd. The bombing and attacks on Lumad schools by the military persisted, even after the end of Martial Law and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The attacks forced the schools to close down and threatened to delay, if not end, the education of the Lumad children, among other IP youths. To make matters worse, many of the IP children, although far away from the firefight, carry trauma from the violence they experienced firsthand. These attacks prompted local progressive groups to teach the evacuees in small schools aptly called ‘Bakwit,’ a slang word for ‘evacuate.’
The government did not stop after the previous incidents and proceeded to naturally shut down these Bakwit schools too. On February 15, 2021, the Philippine National Police (PNP) detained 19 Lumad students and seven teachers from a Bakwit school inside the University of San Carlos-Tambalan Campus in what they claimed to be a “rescue” from NPA indoctrination. However, footage of the incident posted by the SOS, showed that contrary to a “rescue mission,” it was a graphic video of children screaming as the police forcefully took them away.
The university administration, Societas Verbas Divini (SVD), echoed the SOS’ denial of the PNP’s allegations, saying that the Bakwit school was not an initiative of the NPA, but the Archdiocese of Cebu. According to a report by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), even the worker from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) assigned to the Lumad children said they were never indoctrinated with the NPA’s principles and ideologies.
It is worth noting that DepEd, together with the police, dispersed a peaceful protest forwarding the IPs’ right to quality education last December 3, 2020. These attempts to deprive them of their right to education seem to serve an ulterior motive: to silence these indigenous communities’ calls in their endeavors to seek justice due to the complete disregard of their rights. (Read: Deprived dreams of the Lumad)
In response to the recent developments, a Lumad student from a Bakwit school in the University of the Philippines Diliman even invited officials from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), DepEd, and DSWD to sit in their classes to disprove the latter’s claims.
Death by tyranny
Because of the valiant stances taken by IPs on issues like environmental preservation and civil liberties, the threat of violence is never far-fetched. In fact, it is normalized.
On December 3, 2017, Victor Danyan, a datu (tribal leader) who fought for his tribe’s ancestral land in Mindanao, was killed in a rain of bombs and bullets, along with his two sons and five other tribe members. The military maintained that the eight casualties were affiliates of the NPA, and that the operation was legitimate. However, their families as well as various human rights organizations denied that the eight individuals were rebels. This so-called “operation” was conducted after the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao that year.
Three Aeta, including Japer Gurung and Junior Ramos, from the Zambales province were taken into custody by the military officers from the 7th Infantry Division, only to be beaten, with one being forced to eat human feces last August 21, 2020. The AFP denied these reports by Umahon—a land rights non-governmental organization (NGO)—stressing that their attacks in the area targeted local NPA units and not the Aeta community. The military then threatened to file charges against those who shared Umahon’s post on social media.
On September 14, Gurung and Ramos were charged with terrorism and the illegal possession of firearms and explosives, making them the first victims of the Anti-Terror Law. They filed a petition against the ATL but it was unanimously dismissed by the Supreme Court (SC) for undisclosed reasons.
Last December 30, outrage sparked as police raided the villages of the Panay Tumandok community, arresting 16 Tumandok and killing nine in what is now known as the Tumandok Massacre. Included in the list of casualties were the chairperson, a Barangay chieftain and a kagawad. Once more, authorities labeled the IPs as hostile communist sympathizers. But local human rights groups asserted that it was done because of protests against the construction of dams in nearby ancestral lands. This massacre happened only five months after the Philippines was named the “2nd deadliest country in the world for land rights activists.”
The residents fled the area for fear of their lives, but still, the attacks persisted. In January 2021, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) published a memorandum stating that the Tumandok group was “not one of the indigenous cultural communities duly validated and recognized by the NCIP.” This act further stripped the IP community of their rights, all because they were not “validated and recognized” by the state which refuses to hold themselves accountable for their gruesome actions. To add insult to injury, a barangay captain who blew the whistle on the massacre was recently shot and killed. According to nearby residents, members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) were looking for her on the same day of the shooting incident.
The use of state violence against IPs is neither new nor exclusive to the Duterte administration. Documented abuses can be traced back to the Marcos Regime, particularly the assassination of indigenous leader and fierce opponent of the Chico River Dam project, Macli-ing Dulag; while former President Noynoy Aquino’s term was marred with controversies involving Lumad killings.
If these documented cases of state violence against IPs are already terrifying, what about those which occur in far-flung areas, with little to none media attention and coverage?
Constant demonization, exploitation, and repression have driven IPs to become self-reliant.
When they were barred from freely expressing their cultures, they filled the streets with their colorful clothing. When armed men stole their land, they rebuilt their homes and communities. When they were not provided education, they molded their own learning; and when their lives were endangered, some of them took their battles in court but others found home in the countryside.
The government is infamous for labeling these minorities as affiliates of the NPA, but they, themselves, fail to solve the roots and causes of armed struggle. The revolutionary movement thrives on perpetual negligence and fascism that exacerbates living conditions; indigenous communities join the democratic revolution not because they want to be pegged as “terrorists” who defy the state but because they want to be given a chance to live. A life where they are granted the right to self-determination and the freedom to make their own choices, much enjoy their futures.
We should demand accountability from government officials and state forces for their innate culture of red-tagging and to make them more proactive in protecting IP rights as well as to heed the demands of the said sector like the calls for the prioritization and passage of a bill for IDPs. The government should also punish and deter the perpetrators of land grabbing, massacres, and other human rights abuses committed against indigenous communities whether it be from the private sector or from state forces themselves.
Besides the return of ancestral lands, the entire nation should become a safe space where indigenous communities can grow and prosper, free from the inevitably violent intrusion of the armed forces. We must see the indigenous minorities as fellow Filipinos who must be integrated into our society, provided the necessary assistance and opportunities, and not to be treated as mere second-class citizens.
Because before anything, the indigenous peoples are human beings. Just like us, they have families, friends, hopes, and dreams. Until they are given the liberty to live as themselves, free from both oppression and attacks, these communities will continue to suffer at the hands of the state. [P]
Photo by Kristine Paula Bautista