Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Philippine military must be patting itself on the back for what they claimed was the surrender of renowned Talaingod Manobo datu GuibangApoga early this month.  But based upon media reports it seems unclear precisely why or for what Datu Guibang is surrendering. We can speculate that it is for charges related to waging a pangayaw (traditional warfare) against the logging company Alcantara and Sons in the 1990s, though an army spokesperson had already said that those charges had previously been “temporarily dropped”.  Judging by this report and its headline (perhaps repeated from the army’s press release?) it would seem that what they are really trying to trumpet is (directly quoting from the news item) the “[virtual] ending [of] one of the fiercest resistance (sic) by indigenous peoples in defense of their ancestral lands.”

I leave it to the reader to judge for him or herself what sort of state apparatus celebrates such a thing as the defeat of a minority, relatively powerless population that has only acted to protect what is theirs.  But what we cannot let slip by without comment is what I think to be a poor understanding of the nature of the resistance of these lumads, and what it tells us about our own current political predicaments.

The first point needs a very quick digression into Philippine history and lumad culture.  Majority of Filipinos grew up with the authoritative historical discourse that tends to see the course of historical events as largely being determined by exceptional individuals.  I saw this most recently as many of our kababayans commemorated the birth anniversary of Jose Rizal by lauding his personal accomplishments as novelist, polyglot, and medical practitioner, but without properly situating him in hisoverall milieu.

What we have to remember is that this way of looking at history (and ideals of heroism and leadership) as exemplified in individual achievement is the product of a very specific time and cultural context.  Ultimately we can root this phenomenon to feudal times when supreme authority and benevolence resided in individuals like the landlords and aristocrats, but it has survived into the emergence of nation-states and the modern necessity of “imagining” it as facilitated by “national” symbols such as flags, hymns, and yes, national heroes-cum-individuals.  Having said that, then there are possibly other ways of imagining collectivities and their symbols that are different to the framework to which we have gotten used.

I think that DatuGuibang’s people, the Manobo of the Pantaron Mountain Range, gives us one such example through their epic entitled Tolalang.  Aside from chanting during ordinary occasions,they chant these epics during gatherings of local leaders whenevertheir group faces a threat.  The epic’s performance helps strengthen their resolve in making decisions and taking action.  Evoking the figure of Tolalang effectively evokes all the other datu(leaders), bagani (warriors), and ancestors that have gone before them to guide them during times of crisis.  As one datu put it (as he told us that they had the Tolalang chanted before they agreed to launch their pangayawin the 1990s), Tolalang becomes all the Manobo who defended their ancestral domain, in the way that all Manobo who took a stand become Tolalang in turn.  In the same way that the epic-hero fought fiercely, so they should as well.

The figure of Tolalang could show us a different model of heroism and leadership that is not necessarily based upon the exaltation of any“real-life” individual.  While Tolalang as a character is that of a single person, he actually distills the values, lessons, and ideals (conveyed in oral chanting, an expressive form that the Manobo enjoy) that remind the Manobo of who they are and what they must do as Manobo.  This is no less effective in creating a sense of belongingness in and love for the wider community, and in mobilizing actions that respond to its needs.

Without this perspective on lumad culture, we can see how the media report can uncritically repeat the self-congratulatory army claim of having ended the indigenous resistance in the region purportedly because of one person’s “surrender”.  But if we try to see it from the point of view of the lumad based upon their own ways of depicting their history and how they construe leadership and heroism, the matter is not as simple as that.This then begs the question why the army and the state it represents is invested in showing it as such, and thus brings us to the second point.

It seems to me that the reason why this “surrender” is being played up the way it is is because those who do so rely heavily upon a style of leadership that is based upon adulation for a single person, and the rendering of ideals and principles as only relevant in accordance with the rise and fall and moods of individuals.  Nothing exemplifies this more at the moment than the he-can-do-no-wrong fanaticism on which the Duterte regime thrives.  In parading DatuGuibang like some kind of trophy-catch, this government assumes that the lumad and their supporters possess this same backward and narrow view of leadership, and so blithely tout this moment as the “end” of the lumad resistance.

Such a sweeping statement from the army, and as repeated in the media, is but another instance of their refusal to understand resistance from the point of view of those who have chosen to wage it.  They wish to belittle the conflict by imposing their own reading of its causes and solutions, and ultimately usurp the lumads’ control of their narrative away from them.  What they don’t know is that, if the spirit of the epic is that with which they live by, the lumads’ defense of their way of life cannot simply be framed in terms of the achievement of a single individual, or the blind following of one.

Even if the military claim that DatuGuibang had completely capitulated is true, what he and the other datu had accomplished all those years ago have grown beyond just Guibang himself.  Their challenging of a large logging company like Alcantara and Sons and successfully driving them out of their domain, and theirredefinition of traditional concepts such as pangayaw and bagani in the face of modern challenges,will endure along with Tolalang and the other ancestors, and future generations of Pantaron Manobo.(

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