After expressing her intent to collaborate with the forces of the New People’s Army on development projects in the province of Agusan del Norte in Southern Philippines, Gina Lopez of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was quickly reminded by the Armed Forces of the Philippines to instead work with the real champions of change in the province.
To be precise, the army spokesperson noted in an ABS-CBN report last April 20, “We got wind of Sec. Gina’s pronouncement regarding Agusan’s development. We are with her and recommend she work instead with the real champions of change in the area…our ever reliable LGUs, your armed forces, the police, our concerned government agencies and recognized IP (indigenous peoples) leaders”.
Not only is the entirety of this statement problematic. In fact, each of the point raised was disputable and thus, needs political contextualization in defense of the sector plagued by the army spokesperson – the indigenous peoples.
Two arguments can be drawn from the army’s statement. First is the obnoxious message that they and only they, especially the military and the police, are the real champions of change in protecting mineral-rich lands like Agusan del Norte. I shall revisit some key incidents in the past to disprove this pronouncement. Second is the assertion that only the indigenous leaders recognized by the military can be trusted. This too misses the point because what needs recognition are the genuine demands of the indigenous groups on the basis of their fundamental rights to land, livelihood and demilitarization and not on the basis of recognition bestowed upon by the powers-that-be.
One solid ground to refute the claim of the military is through the Manilakbayan and later Lakbayan – the nationally-coordinated resistance movements of various indigenous groups against the militarization of their ancestral lands. During the elitist regime of Aquino III, some 40,000 members of the Lumad indigenous groups were forcibly displaced due to the presence of the military within the mining sites in Mindanao, according to the organizers of Manilakbayan 2015. The military and its affiliated private armies were also implicated in the killings of at least 57 Lumad under the watch of Aquino III, as documented by the Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamayan ng Pilipinas (formerly KAMP, now KATRIBU).
The police had its fair share of the misery of the indigenous peoples.Remember how the police violently dispersed the protesters near the US Embassy last 19 October 2016? The protesters including the Lumad delegates of Lakbayan were denouncing the military agreements – like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) forged by the US and Philippine governments – that intensify the militarization of indigenous communities. As the protesters were about to leave the site, a policeman out of his logical being drove a police vehicle to deliberately attack the protesters leaving at least three badly hit and some 50 others injured.
Going back to Manilakbayan and Lakbayan, mobilizing thousands of indigenous peoples to put forth a common cause means that the misery induced by the powers-that-be has become structural. Simply put, the misery has already reached its apex because the very same institutions that the military claimed to be the real champions of change – especially the military, the police and concerned bureaucratic agencies – failed to fulfill the legitimate demands of its peoples. Instead, these institutions assented to the capitalistic desire of multinational mining corporations in exchange of sabotaging the way of life and oneness of the indigenous peoples.
And this is where the second problem of recognition comes in.
The military spokesperson articulated that they would only honor the legitimacy of the indigenous leaders they deem recognize. By doing so, the military is inculcating a sense of political division among the indigenous populace. Those who are not recognized are threatened, and worst, confronted with military might once they defy the “order” made by the military and its affiliates, thereby leaving the indigenous peoples defenseless in their own ancestral lands.
In addition, what makes the line “recognized indigenous peoples leaders” unfounded is the way it skews the legitimacy of progressive groups. Such recognition serves as a military propaganda to exclude groups and individuals it sees critical of government forces. Remember how the military and the police came up with its list of an enemy of the state or the alleged order of battle? The supposed list included progressive organizations and press freedom advocates like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and College Editors Guild of the Philippines which campaign for freedom of speech and press freedom.
To further satisfy its public opinion warfare, the military does falsify a group’s legitimate demand by conveniently associating it with what it labeled as a “terrorist act”. And this has been the apparent fate faced by marginalized groups like the Lumad in the hands of the institutions that pride itself of championing change. Legitimate demands such as the campaigns against the killings of indigenous peoples and against the demilitarization of their ancestral lands are mere terrorist acts in the eyes of the military as it attempts to purge critical voices who dare to challenge its way.
Real champions of change, really?