Philippine government officials and paramilitary leaders are using a landmark law on self-determination for tribal people to justify the murders of indigenous activists and their supporters, critics say.
On the same day that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila visited displaced tribal people from Mindanao and called for an end to the military occupation of their schools and communities, a pro-government militia leader spoke before the Philippine Congress to defend the murder of a school’s head teacher.
On Nov. 11, Cardinal Tagle called for peace and an end to human rights violations linked to resource conflicts when he visited a protest camp in Manila for displaced lumad, Mindanao’s indigenous peoples.
Meanwhile, the congressional Committee on Indigenous People was meeting to discuss the Sept. 1 murders of a teacher and two tribal community leaders. Effectively, the committee heard support for the actions of militia and paramilitary leaders accused of the same rights violations Cardinal Tagle had condemned.
‘They applaud his murderous logic’
No law in the Philippines allows the rationale for murder. Yet legislators, including the controversial chairwoman of the congressional committee, used the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 — intended to support tribal communities — to defend actions against lumad schools.
Emerito Samarca, head teacher of a school for lumad children in remote Surigao del Sur province, was gunned down on Sept. 1, allegedly by a militia group backed by the Philippine army and paramilitary groups.
“He poisoned the minds of the people,” Datu Jumar Bucales told the congressional committee when asked why militia would have killed Samarca.
Bucales, called as an expert witness in the congressional hearings, is no ordinary village elder. The governor of the province previously named him as one of the paramilitary leaders.
Congresswoman Nancy Catamco, head of the committee, asked if Samarca’s death was punishment for teaching “an alien ideology” that went against tribal culture.
Yes, Bucales replied. The tribal school, he claimed, specialized in training militants.
Michelle Campos, the school’s last valedictorian, wept with rage as she listened to news broadcasts of the congressional proceedings.
Her father, Dionel Campos, was killed along with Samarca. He was chairman of an organization that covered 22 lumad communities.
“They applaud his murderous logic in Congress,” she told ucanews.com. “What kind of country do we have, where lawmakers applaud murder?”
Witnesses to Campos’ murder say his killers said Bucales was their leader. Witnesses to the 2014 execution of Campos’ predecessor also identified Bucales among his assailants.
Some 4,000 tribal people continue to live in makeshift shelters in Surigao del Sur province after they fled their homes following the Sept. 1 killings of two village leaders and a school director. (Photo by Vincent Go)
Advocacy groups say there have been at least 400 attacks on lumad schools since 2010.
It’s part of longstanding pressure on Mindanao’s indigenous communities, who say they face unwanted attention for their resource-rich traditional lands. Many tribal communities are also caught up in the conflict between the government and communist rebels, with paramilitary groups often labeling civilian villagers as combatants.
It is a tragic turn of events for the first country in Asia to recognize indigenous people through a legal instrument.
The Philippines was lauded for passing the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, which recognized the “historical marginalization” of Philippine tribal people and provided them with means of redress.
The legislation sought to protect indigenous communities. However, it can also be used against them, such as in cases where members of tribal communities align with paramilitary groups.
For example, the act stipulates that outsiders coming to indigenous lands require prior consent from tribal leaders. This can mean that lumad schools, which are often supported by outsiders like Catholic nuns, are accused by militias of being “alien” entities on ancestral lands — effectively the same argument Bucales used to justify Samarca’s killing before Congress.
Less than two decades after the implementation of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, government policies have upended its intentions, according to Arnold Alamon of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines in northern Mindanao.
“Redress mechanisms have become instruments for continued … marginalization and, in many cases, provide the imperative for the spate of extrajudicial killings and forced evacuations of indigenous leaders and their communities.”
Alamon cited the 2012 killing in Bukidnon province of anti-mining Matigsalog tribal leader Jimmy Liguyon.
A paramilitary leader — who had an ancestral claim to 52,000 hectares of indigenous land — shot Liguyon dead in front of his children.
Indigenous children attend classes in a makeshift shelter inside an evacuation center in Surigao del Sur province. (Photo by Vincent Go)
Fuel for madness
Under President Benigno Aquino, military and militia offensives have killed at least 60 lumad people and displaced more than 40,000 others, according to activists.
“What provides motive and fuels this madness in Mindanao is the lucrative potential for mining,” Alamon said.
Cardinal Tagle also hinted at the cause of the problems during his Nov. 11 visit to the lumad protest camp.
“Some of them have been killed. Many have been forced to leave their homes and the lands of their ancestors,” the cardinal said in a statement.
“They have lost their livelihood. The children have stopped their schooling. The old people, the sick, children and women are suffering. The environment is being destroyed. What rules is strife and violence; their communities know no peace nor justice.”
In the same congressional hearing where Bucales offered his excuse for the indigenous teacher’s death, former military officers-turned-lawmakers urged the closure of alternative schools and the filing of charges against administrators and staff, alleging that they challenge traditional lumad institutions.
“They forget we, the lumad, built those schools,” the orphaned Michelle Campos pointed out. “My father said he cried on my first day of school. He had never gone to school. There were no schools before.”
“We, the lumad, sought help from the churches and other groups because the government ignored us,” she added. “A government that sees the teaching of human rights and love for the environment as crimes is a government that wants the death of our people.” | Inday Espina-Varona, Manila