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UPPER RIGHT HAND: Vulnerabilities of Lumad Communities in Mindanao

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KIDAPAWAN CITY (Mindanews/17 January) With the Philippine government’s all-out war against the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), Lumad communities in Mindanao have become vulnerable areas of conflict. They are the figurative string in a tug-of-war of the State forces on one side and CPP/NPA on the other side, pulling hard to win their support. But what is in there that one tries to win?

Lumad communities are generally situated in geographically-isolated areas with lack of access to social services, mainstream economic opportunities, education and political participation. Ironically, these communities are gifted with abundant commercially-viable natural resources like minerals, forests, rivers and streams which make them vulnerable to development aggression.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, Indigenous Peoples (IPs) remain to be the poorest and most disadvantaged peoples. They have been “subject to historical discrimination and marginalization from political processes and economic benefit. They often face exclusion, loss of ancestral lands, displacement, pressures to and destruction of traditional ways of life and practices, and loss of identity and culture. In extreme situations, social and political discontent has erupted into armed conflict.”

The Philippine Constitution declares that the State shall recognize and promote the rights of indigenous cultural communities within the framework of national unity and development. In 1997, Republic Act 8371, otherwise known as “The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA)” was enacted which becomes the cornerstone of national policy on IP. The law mandates the promotion of indigenous rich cultures and traditions as well as the development and protection of their ancestral lands. The struggles, particularly by IPs themselves, to pass IPRA was so passionate it even took the lives of a number of IP leaders and advocates.  It was a product of intensified campaigns which one of the authors of the law, then 2nd District Congressman of North Cotabato, Atty. Gregorio A. Andolana, described as “the living instrument of IPs’ struggle for their right to self-determination”.

Recently, however, Lumad communities are facing a new challenge and vulnerability brought by intensified anti-communist insurgency in their areas. The government’s campaign dubbed as “End Local Communist Armed Conflict (ELCAC)” under Executive Order No. 70 or “whole-of-the-nation approach” has apparently widened the divide among IP leaders and communities. The situation was aggravated by the government’s designation of the CPP/NPA as terrorist organization. Many of them are “red-tagged” as sympathizers of the CPP/NPA or alleged communist fronts.

The government’s anti-insurgency approach is obvious and simple: bring all agencies to the communities to provide social services and livelihood projects to win their hearts and minds; intensify information and education campaigns, in short, “propaganda,” to counter communist ideologies; gather more “surrenderers”  to show CPP/NPA has weakened their foothold in communities they used to dominate and declare them as “dismantled areas;” employ psychological warfare, in other words, “harassment,” against organizations and their leaders who will not cooperate in the campaign; and file trumped-up charges against alleged CPP/NPA supporters or sympathizers who will not “surrender.”

The disintegration of Lumad communities has been shown by the pronouncement of its leaders in a recent conference in North Cotabato. The gathering which was supposedly aimed at unifying the Lumads’ position on issues affecting their communities became a venue for propaganda, thus, creating more divisions. One leader claims that communists deceived them to rebel against the Philippines government. He said the church-based tribal Filipino program where he used to work for socio-economic development of Lumad communities were infiltrated by members of CPP/NPA and became its recruitment and organizing unit.

However, a fellow Lumad woman leader, shared a different story. She said the church-based tribal Filipino program has empowered them to fight for ancestral lands and promote their cultural values, customs and traditions. On the contrary, she said, the intensified military operations and crackdown of dissenters and perceived sympathizers of CPP/NPA in their communities have increased violations of human rights and limited their movement to do their usual economic activities. She and some members of her community experienced military harassment like compelling them to visit military camps to “clear” their names absent any charges. She has known many Lumad church and community leaders still languishing in prison due to trumped-up charges.

The Duterte administration has around one and a half years remaining in its timeline to end the communist armed conflict. At the center of this campaign are the Lumad communities in Mindanao. But looking at the way it is being pursued, it seems to be another regime of failure in addressing the insurgency problem.

First, there is apparent lack of sincerity in providing solution to the root causes of conflict. It employs piecemeal approach in addressing the socio-economic conditions of the communities. The “one time-big time” delivery of services of all government agencies in one community appears to be a charade or band-aid than a solution to a critical social illness. It has no clear direction and sustainability mechanisms. Experience tells us that without community participation in all phases of development from planning to implementation,  it is doomed to fail. It fails to provide a comprehensive development program taking into consideration the socio-economic conditions of the communities and their participation in its implementation.

Second, the crackdown on the perceived communists sympathizers and dissenters creates more enemies and hostile environment for peace. As one military strategist had said, “we cannot win the war through the barrel of the gun.” Violence begets more violence. Hatred brings more hatred. Filing of ridiculous criminal complaints, usually non-bailable offenses, against innocent civilians will only weaken the trust and confidence of the people in the government. As it goes, the anti-insurgency campaign prefers short-term targets and quotas than long-term solution and impact.

Finally, the government’s indiscriminate closure of Lumad schools baselessly accused of promoting communist ideology, coupled with massive social media propaganda campaigns, is another erroneous and myopic approach.

The right of Lumads to education is protected by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The UN stressed that as distinct peoples, Lumads “have developed their own knowledge systems, values, institutions, practices and economies, often based on sustainable management of natural resources” and they have “their own cultural methods of transmitting knowledge.”

The government’s anti-insurgency campaign, however, included closure of Lumad schools.

In addition, the military has been pitting the Lumad against their fellow Lumads in various parts of Mindanao. In North Cotabato, it organized the Bagani forces made up of Lumad members in the municipalities of Arakan, Magpet and Antipas. According to some members, they are under the supervision and control of a Datu who covers certain ancestral territory. Their task is to protect the Datu and the territory which includes intelligence information gathering against communist rebels. The military adopts this approach not only in North Cotabato but also in Northern Mindanao, Caraga and Davao regions.

A few weeks ago, a group of Bagani forces belonging to Tinananon-Manobo, arrested fellow members in Arakan, North Cotabato. The Bagani forces, despite having no authority in law, arrested two members and brought them to their “commander” for investigation, accusing them of  introducing a false organization and collecting membership fees.

As this situation escalates, Lumad communities remain to be vulnerable being the preferred battlegrounds of armed groups. Sadly, the gains that they have so far achieved in their struggle to address historical injustices are once again challenged and overwhelmed by another blunt of dirty war. This time, as pawns in a deadly game of fratricidal chess: Lumad vs. Lumad.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.  Upper Right Hand is a revolving column of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM). Atty. Dionesio T. Alave, Jr. is the Chair of People’s Peace Network, an alliance of local church and civil society organizations in Kidapawan City which is actively involved in peace-building and promotion of justice and human rights. He has been a rural development worker since 1994 and a human rights lawyer upon admission to the bar in 2012.]


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