Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

It is supremely dissonant that, on what is supposedly Indigenous Peoples’ Month in the Philippines, the local police of the province of Kalinga proposes to demolish the monument to three historical figures to the Indigenous struggles of the Cordillera region.

This was reported by TAKDER, a Cordillera youth organization on their Facebook a few days ago. TAKDER wrote that the provincial PNP (Philippine National Police) had written the provincial government to “enact a resolution to remove the monuments” of leaders Macliing Dulag, Pedro Dungoc, and Lumabay Gayudan located in Bugnay village, Tinglayan town. As of the time of this writing, the provincial government does not seem to have issued a response yet.

Dulag, Dungoc, and Gayudan were leaders in, and eventually martyrs for, the anti-Chico River Dam struggle during the Martial Law period. Dulag is perhaps the best known of the three. He was assassinated by suspected soldiers on 24 April 1980 after he refused to budge on his opposition to the Chico River Dam. Dungoc and Gayudan were also leaders and public faces in the opposition, but with Dulag’s murder and the increasing threat of violence against them, they decided to take up arms themselves and joined the New People’s Army that was gaining strength in the Cordillera at that time. Though Dungoc died from injuries after an accident and Lumabaya died from illness, they are still upheld as martyrs for the cause against development aggression in particular and the right to Indigenous self-determination in general (you can read more about them here).

The memorial was built by Cordillera artists on land that the family of Macliing Dulag had endowed. TAKDER also said that community consultations were held, and that representatives of local organizations and the local government attended its unveiling, which took place on the 2017 Cordillera Day Celebration (a week-long celebration every end of April that marked Dulag’s death anniversary). I haven’t seen the memorial myself, but based on photos, it’s apparent that a lot of thought and a lot of feel for the local context went into the conception and execution of this work.

The memorial is composed of three high-contrast portraits of Dulag, Dungoc, and Gayudan rendered in steel in such a way that the mountains behind the memorial can not only be seen, but is integral to how one experiences the memorial. It’s a brilliant harmonization of the individual figures of the persons being commemorated and the land that they defended and laid down their lives for. If the Kalinga PNP has its way, this memorial will be pulled down.

This is not the first time that this has happened in the Philippines. A couple of years ago, a statue commemorating “comfort women”—who were prostituted and abused under the Japanese occupation during World War II—was removed along the very busy Roxas Boulevard in Manila after the Japanese embassy reportedly complained about it. Even as civil society groups defended it and the statue even bore the mark of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, it was nevertheless removed not even six months after it was installed. The Department of Public Works and Highways cited public works technicalities as the reason, in a similar way that the Kalinga PNP is now also citing public works technicalities in saying that the Dulag, Dungoc, and Gayudan memorial is illegal.

The threatened removal of the Cordillera monument is additionally supremely dissonant during this time when statues and monuments of colonizers, monarchs, and slave owners are being toppled through direct action by communities in the wake of anti-racism protests all over the world. Activists, artists, and even academics recognize that this is part of a long overdue historical reckoning that, at the very least, questions socially naturalized values and ideals. These sorts of monuments are the landscape and spaces planning equivalent of “history is written by the victors,” and these recent episodes of knocking them down can only be the expected response from “history’s losers”—or more appropriately, people who were rendered to have never had a chance.

Even though these acts don’t seem to have any direct bearing on matters of restitution or restoration of lands and other resources, this does tell us that protesters recognize that structures of exploitation and oppression need to have symbolic underpinnings and reinforcement, and monuments—especially those in public spaces and are often large, grand, and imposing—serve that purpose.

But reversibly, it is this same recognition of the symbolic power of monuments that people and movements from below seek to harness when they create their own memorials, and this is what I believe the families of Dulag, Dungoc, and Gayudan and their communities intended to do. In a way, the people of the Cordillera had chosen to respond differently to the challenge of the times to confront and contest the markers of colonialism and imperialism in the landscape: instead of acting to remove them (say, by targeting places that commemorate purveyors of American colonial rule, and there are plenty across the Cordillera), they decided to build their own. The State should recognize this as a productive and well-rooted way to symbolically deal with longstanding issues of marginalization and lack of justice and recognition for Indigenous peoples.

“The act of removal is a highly political act,” reflected Tlingit/Unangax artist Nicholas Galanin. But he wasn’t just referring to the direct removal of contested monuments, but of the experience of his colonized people: “In the process of colonization of our homelands, everything was removed—objects, words and language, our children were removed, our rights to subsist and survive—all these things were removed.” In other places we have seen dramatic scenes of how colonized and exploited peoples have responded with “violent” removals of their own. But with this heroes’ memorial, the response of the communities in the Cordillera has been to create and to create anew.

If the monument is only in violation of a public works technicality, could it not be possible to re-locate it elsewhere, with full support of the local government, and not directly demolish it as some seem to be so keen to do? Relocation may be a compromise, but it must be non-negotiable that the monument remains highly visible to the public and retains its material integrity. If local officials remain unbudging, then it may indeed be true (as others have said) that this is a demolition job not just of the material monument itself, but of the memory and legacy of the three. (davaotoday.com)

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