Naturally, my first thought was, not again.  Last February 25, almost ten months to the day, I found myself in the same function hall in the same hotel in downtown Davao, standing on the same side as the same Manobo leaders (but this time, with a few more leaders from other provinces), facing the same men in uniform, in a “dialogue” that was supposed to thresh out what are essentially the same issues that had been discussed all those months previously.

For the second time in under a year, Pantaron Manobos from communities under the Salugpungan organization have traveled down to Davao City, sought refuge with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, all to call for the stop of what they say is the militarization of their communities.

No different from last year’s dialogue, the military brought some tribal leaders with them.  These leaders complained about NPA presence in their areas, also like last year.  And just like last time, they parroted again and again the same lies that the military has been peddling not just in the Davao region, but throughout the nation:  that mass organizations, including the Salugpungan, were one and the same as the NPA and the underground movement, a lie that has caused, and been used to justify, the killing and disappearance of thousands of unarmed civilians whose only “fault” was to belong to these groups.

Appalling, but not exactly something I have not heard before.  Also as expected, terms such as “customary law” and “ancestral domain” were repeatedly mentioned.  But what stood out this time was the beginning of the revision of these terms towards a direction that is hurtful to the integrity of the genuine practice of self-determination for the lumads.

As anthropologists, we pay attention to how people articulate concepts that they deem important to their lives.  Regarding “ancestral domain”, a Talaingod datu on the military’s side asserted, “gibahin na nato ang yuta” (we have divided the land) into “kanya-kanyang teritoryo” (each’s own territory;  note that he used the Tagalog kanya instead of the Visayan iya).  He unequivocally claims the Pantaron to be theirs alone, as he vehemently tells off the leaders on the other side:  “Pangita na lag mo’g inyoang domain, kanang inyoa ba, ayaw… mag apil apil sa among domain… wala tayo’y hilabtanay, kami bitaw wala mi’g nag adto adto sa inyo!” (Look for your own domain, yours, and don’t… have anything to do with our domain… we shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, we don’t even go over to your place!)

These were directed as much as to fellow Pantaron Manobos as it was to other lumad leaders (Blaan and Agusanon Manobos) among the complainants.  From these pronouncements (I and other members of the media recorded the proceedings), two disturbing trains of thought emerge.

First was the construal of “ancestral domain” almost like it was private property, a matter of land divisions with borders that could not be trespassed.  Now, I am no lawyer and I will leave the legal quibbling to them, but let me share my thoughts as an anthropologist as to the validity of this model when it comes to IP concerns, specifically what our research has shown among the Manobos of the Pantaron Mountain range.

Just like many indigenous groups throughout the Philippines, the lumads of Mindanao traditionally do not hold land to be something that could be privately owned;  it was communal.  Usage was another matter, in that a family that planted a plot of land with rice or other crops could lay claim to its harvest, but that is pretty much it.  But beyond matters of ownership is the matter of mobility and interaction between these people, across villages and even across groups.

Our surveys over the past years have shown that the Manobos move rather frequently, either through marriage, or for their families’ welfare, such as to look for work, or for trading, or to avoid the periodic conflicts that may erupt between villages.

With regard to marriage, Pantaron Manobos tend to be exogamous, meaning they marry outside of their immediate group or village, and they are matrilocal, meaning when a couple marries, it is the groom who moves from his own village to live in the wife’s.  Many of these movements entail crossing the Pantaron, or transferring from one river to another.  As a referent of their identity (those from the Salug River call themselves Matigsalug, those from the Langilan call themselves Matig-Langilan, and so forth), the latter is doubly important to signify not only a change in spatial location, but a shift in the reckoning of personal ties, with a new family and kin network, while retaining those from one’s village of origin.

And this is also why post-marriage moving is a viable option, whether to make a living, to conduct exchanges of goods, or avoid tribal wars (or more recently, encroachment by private firms).  Across the rivers and the Pantaron mountain range, there are villages and house clusters where one can stay or seek refuge.  Indeed, even today it is not unusual, for example, for us to go to one village to visit a certain person only to be informed that he or she had transferred a few weeks or months before for one reason or another.  Just like what the urbanite vacationing in Lola’s barrio in the province discovers, this is simply a place where everyone is related to everyone else.

This blatant denial of a reality that characterizes not just indigenous communities but Filipino life in general was very puzzling.  In fact, it could not be sustained because a few minutes later the same datu invokes a common epic ancestor, Tolalang, of his and one of the leaders on the complainants’ side.

The second sinister train of thought to emerge was the idea of “kanya-kanya”, that one group should absolutely have nothing to do with the affairs of others, as uttered by the aforementioned datu.  Paradoxically, the military officer that spoke before him waxed poetic (in Tagalog) about how the AFP wanted nothing more than for Mindanao lumads to be united for everyone’s greater prosperity, etcetera.

Anyone present during the dialogue would have noted that sitting in front of that officer and listening to his verbose description of what seemed to him to be some far-off lumad utopia was the actualization of what he was paying lip service to.  As I mentioned earlier, other lumad groups were present on the complainants’ side.  There were also non-lumad representatives, including Catholic nuns whose school was used by soldiers as a barracks, a lawyer-advocate who is Muslim, and poor Visayan farmers, like Julia Poloyapoy, whose three sons were last seen alive in the custody of military men (one was later found shot to death, the other two remain missing to this day).  It was this coalition that stood together during that dialogue, in the strongest show of force possible to match the stern sea of black and olive green that did not even deign to speak in a language that they could understand.

It is nothing if not backward to assert that one oppressed sector must not have anything to do with others, because what weapon does the marginalized have other than the organization and unification of their ranks?  Make no mistake, I do not wish to make it appear that that particular datu knows nothing of his own culture.  But what I do want to point out is that like any person, IP or otherwise, they may be open to manipulations, or they may choose or be pressured to pursue narrow interests instead of wider ones.  The dialogue on that Wednesday revealed some tribal “leaders” who have utterly imbibed the rhetoric of the State – because no one else’s interests are served when you preach private property among an erstwhile communal people, and when you seek to keep them divided and disunited in the face of such a hegemonic and powerful creature.

Contrasted with the group on the other side of the dialogue table, whose unities organically grew out of the similar worldviews (experiences, dreams and desires) of the oppressed, it is clear who are wielding the old colonial tactic of divide and conquer.  Contrasted with the group on the other side of the dialogue table, whose demands remain as correct and as just all those months ago until today – that they be able to build and attend their own schools, that they be able to make a living on their farms, that their movements and traditional networks not be restricted, that they not live under the shadows of uniformed men with high-powered firearms, to defend their way of life – it is clear who are increasingly proving themselves guilty of that other old colonial crime:  genocide.

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