It has been nothing if not a horrific past two weeks for lumad communities across eastern Mindanao.
As August drew to a close, fifteen civilians were arrested en masse, without warrants, and immediately and forcibly removed from their homes in White Culaman and airlifted to what was later learned to be Maramag, Bukidnon.
There are women and minors in the group, which includes a woman-leader of a legitimate peasant organization, but the military is now claiming that they are New People’s Army “bomb makers”, and that they are running a “bomb factory” in Kitaotao.
Shocking as this already is, we can still consider, in the narrowest sense, these individuals as lucky, for at least they are still alive. We cannot say the same for the five civilians brutally killed in the days that followed: the brothers Crisanto and Ely Tabugol, peasant leader Dionel Campos, his cousin Bello Sinzo, and Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev) Executive Director Emerito Samarca.
The killings of these five bear chilling similarities to each other: they were done in public areas, either in front of others or in spots where they were sure to be discovered by as many people as possible; they were preceded by threats or outright acts of widespread harm (the Tabugol brothers’ village was overrun by military and paramilitary troops the day before they were killed, prompting villagers to leave for safer areas; in Barangay Lianga, where Samarca, Campos and Sinzo were staying, troops descended in the wee hours of the morning, breaking down doors and dragging residents, students and teachers out into the open – many witnessed the shooting of Campos), and all victims bore injuries that went above and beyond the (grotesque as it may sound) minimum it takes to kill a person – Ely Tabugol had first been shot in the foot, he was shot again as he pleaded that he was a civilian, Campos and Sinzo were shot multiple times, Samarca had been hogtied and his throat slit. Samarca’s murder took place in the very school building in which he served; his body was found by teachers and students. These killings are not just killings. They were deliberately made to sow the highest degree of terror in these communities.
Paramilitary groups that recruit from among the lumad that are backed and harbored by the Armed Forces of the Philippines have been blamed for these acts. Even Surigao del Sur Governor Johnny Pimentel has gone on the record to say that both are working in tandem, pointing out that mere lumad “criminals” couldn’t possibly avail of high powered firearms without the assistance of the government-funded Armed Forces. He added that this has been a problem for years, but that these groups have remained intact despite repeated calls to disband them. This has further convinced him that these paramilitary are “monsters” created by the Armed Forces and enjoy the latter’s support and protection, even as they do the dirtiest jobs that the men in “legitimate” uniforms don’t even do themselves.
But in media interviews Eastern Mindanao Command spokesperson Alberto Caber’s own interpretation is conveniently uncertain. It’s just a feud, he said, a personal matter “like rido in Islam”, an exchange of killings by gruesome – but common – criminals. The uniformed personnel of the State are there to restore peace and order, nothing more.
As an anthropologist, the simplistic invocation of such a nuanced cultural phenomenon as “rido” (sometimes used synonymously with “blood feuds” or “clan feuds”) here is particularly bothersome (note, also, the bigotry in ascribing “rido” to the religion of Islam as a whole). I feel that it is invoked in order to first, downplay the situation, second, to “exoticize” the conditions surrounding the events.
Rendering it as a personal matter of “bawian” in Tagalog or “balosan” in Bisaya, or as conflict along kinship lines, completely obscures their political and economic underpinnings. The only thing left to say is that this is a private matter between two families that must likewise be resolved privately. Worse, this justifies the entry of more State troops with the reasoning that if the two groups involved cannot resolve it, then the military will do the solving for them.
Secondly, labeling it as rido for the mass public automatically turns it into a type of conflict associated with the “other”: temperamental tribals waging war over ruffled egos, or some other such reason that would be irreconcilable with the Western, “civilized” rules of engagement. It becomes a problem of race or ethnicity, long term solutions are hazy in the distance, and again, at the end of the day, troops need to be called in to settle the disputes.
All these serve to confine the readings away from more political signifiers of indigenous peoples’ struggle like “ancestral domain”, “development aggression” and “national patrimony” (all mainstays in present lumad-related dynamics).
Many peers and colleagues are or have been involved in studies regarding peace and conflict in Mindanao, often with universities or NGOs in other countries. There is much investment for this type of research from overseas institutions, no doubt with the good intention of finding long term solutions. But even without leaving the Philippines, we do not have to look far (fortunately/unfortunately) for comparative historical examples from which we can draw lessons.
The killings of these five bear chilling similarities not only to each other, but to killings that took place years ago, during the term of another president. Both were episodes of unbridled violence in the countryside, away from the eyes of the center in Manila, and barely covered by mainstream media (as I am writing this piece I am chatting with a fellow Anthropology major and now medical student, who lamented that while online news reports were available, the major broadcast networks weren’t covering these incidents, keeping many people in the dark about what is happening here in the south). Both were definitely terroristic, the public displays of murder designed to instill debilitating fear to as broad a group of people as possible. Both episodes were carried out by paramilitary goons who are not only financed and backed by the State through the Armed Forces, but are beyond the control and discipline of a legitimate army entity. As such, their acts are especially heinous, with unimaginably grisly elements.
Today they come by the names Magahat, Alamara, Bagani; back then, they were known as Ilaga or Tadtad. Though the former recruit lumads and the latter are Christian fanatics, make no mistake about it: they are both deeply imbued with the ideology of the terroristic, anti-people State by carrying out what the State actually wants accomplished but could not, for the sake of putting up democratic appearances and to wash their hands of these crimes.
Today it is innocent teachers like Samarca, back then it was selfless priests like Tullio Favalli. Today we see this as the “rush” to attain success for Oplan Bayanihan before Noynoy Aquino’s term ends, back then this was part of the low intensity conflict military strategy adapted from the US by the Cory Aquino government. It couldn’t be a more bitter validation for the people who voted Noynoy Aquino into the presidency in the hope that he will continue his mother’s legacy. Like mother, like son.
The “civilians being caught in the crossfire” thesis, so popular in mainstream analyses and tug-at-your-heartstrings, world peace sloganeering, has never been, and currently should not be seen as to capture the complete reality of the killings, harassments, injuries, destruction of property and livelihood, warrantless arrests that we can trace from the regime of the mother to the regime of the son, and even beyond. Neither is confining it within the realm of the “rido”.
What best sums up this deplorable state of affairs can be extrapolated from a quote coming from NPA commander Leoncio “Parago” Pitao: “This is not a war between the military and the NPA but the struggle of the masses for genuine change and democracy.” When the State unleashes its might against its own citizens, deprives them of their basic rights to education, a decent living, and most of all, to life, then this certainly is no longer just a matter between the armed forces and armed insurgents. Indeed, the very government that denies its existence has just validated the existence – and the reasons for its existence – of the people’s war.