(The following article came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer Opinion Page last August 29, 2015.)
For several months now I have been keeping track of the plight of the indigenous peoples (or lumad) of Mindanao, particularly those who have evacuated to the urban areas to avoid the intense military operations in their communities.
I was in Davao recently and took time to talk to the leaders of the lumad staying in the Haran Compound of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines. I met a dozen or so datus, including Manobo chieftain Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay, the woman who was supposed to be rescued by Catamco but who ended up berating the lawmaker for deceiving her own tribespeople.
The datus were one in expressing their fear, anguish and frustration with the way military operations are being conducted in their areas. The typical lament went this way: “When the soldiers come, they build detachments or stay in our schools even if we don’t want it. They don’t ask permission when they get our chickens or corn. They hurt or kill our leaders. They abuse and rape our women. They are always suspicious of the men. They have no respect for the way we do things. They sow confusion and discord and even make family members turn against each other.
“We are allowed to go to our farms for only two hours after which we are suspected of meeting with the NPA [New People’s Army]. If you are smart and have good answers to their questions, they tell you that you have been taught by the NPA. They want to close our schools because they say it’s an NPA school.”
They also complained of their men being forced to join the military-backed Alamara, a lumad paramilitary group in the tradition of the Tadtad and Alsa Masa. Those who refuse are considered NPAs or NPA sympathizers.
I also asked them about the NPA. Here was what they said: “They just pass by and don’t insist on staying in our communities or houses. They don’t build detachments or stay in our schools. If they want our chicken, they ask permission and pay for it.
“They listen to us and follow our rules like when we say ‘no guns’ in a place, they don’t bring their guns. When we have complaints about them, they listen and punish those among them who make mistakes. They respect us and our way of life. They teach us things and help us in many ways.”
Listening to their many comparisons between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the NPA, I sensed a certain fondness for the rebels and none at all for the government soldiers.
I’m sure the military will insist that the evacuees have been brainwashed by the NPA and “communist front organizations.” But even Magdalo party-list Rep. Ashley Acedillo concedes that 70 percent of the NPA in Mindanao comes from the lumad communities. If that were true, then the NPA guerillas must really be popular with the indigenous peoples.
So I asked the datus: “Why are you strongly against the presence of government soldiers but not against the NPA?”
The response was simple as it was unanimous: “The NPAs respect our rights, our ways and traditions while the soldiers don’t. Mga bastos sila. Also, when the soldiers come, they are there to protect someone else’s interest, not ours.”
Again, the military will say this is nothing but propaganda. That the lumad are just mouthing the words of the NPA. Therein lies the problem.
If the AFP wants to be effective, maybe it should start by giving the lumad the respect they deserve. This requires taking the natives at their word and understanding their plight. The indigenous peoples might be gentle, illiterate and often shy, but they are not stupid.
If the lumad want the AFP to pull out, then the AFP should respect that, pull out and not consider it a tactical defeat. Go find a better way.
The AFP insists that the lumad schools teach the children to hate the government. Its solution? Occupy the schools, threaten the parents against sending their kids to school or, worse, close down the schools altogether. But it’s a solution that has resulted in even more resentment.
Perhaps it’s time our soldiers engaged the lumad not as enemies, not as NPA sympathizers, not as ignoramuses or brainwashed simpletons, but as human beings who can think and act for themselves.