James Cameron’s 2009 box-office hit film Avatar, about an alien world where primitive but highly evolved inhabitants defend their habitat, moved audiences across the globe, including the Filipino urbanite audience.
We were enthralled by the lush and luminescent world of beings who end up waging a kind of asymmetrical warfare against ruthless interlopers out to plunder rare and costly minerals from their planet. We cheered on these beings’ defense of their territory, and more importantly, of the life force that appears to be the embodiment of “Mother Nature”, as the triumph of good versus evil, of Nature over corporate greed, and of a united people over high-tech weaponry.
It is said that the film is a thinly-veiled tribute by the film maker to indigenous peoples of the Amazon who are resisting inroads by multinational corporations (MNCs) into their lands to exploit natural resources at the expense of the environment, the habitat of endangered flora and fauna, and the homes of vanishing native tribes.
Here in the Philippines, there are several Lumad groups of Mindanao locked in similar life-and-death struggle against huge corporate mining interests (and other MNCs bringing in so-called “development” programs to the Lumad’s ancestral lands).
The military and police in the name of counterinsurgency dubbed Oplan Bayanihan under the Benigno S. C. Aquino III regime, provide armed security for these invading MNCs. Paramilitary groups are under the control of the military act as “force multipliers”, or cheap, local reinforcements for the counterinsurgency campaigns.
In practice, these paramilitary groups are utilized for “dirty war” tactics such as extrajudicial killings and even massacres that the government can wash its hands off while it coddles the perpetrators.
The history of this struggle is soaked in blood yet is repeatedly whitewashed by government propaganda (most assiduously generated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and parroted automatically by Malacañang); ignored if not one-sidedly reported on by dominant mass media that relies heavily on government press releases; and blithely disregarded by the general public.
The most recent atrocity took place last Sept. 1. Emerito Samarca, executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Development, Inc. (ALCADEV) was killed by the military and government-backed indigenous paramilitary forces. His body was found lying in a pool of blood, with stab wounds on his neck, and his throat slit. Dionel Campos, chairperson of MAPASU (Persevering Struggle for Future Manobo Generations), and his cousin Aurelio “Bello” Sinzo were killed before the terrified community of Han-ayan, in Lianga town, Surigao del Sur.
According to the human rights group, Karapatan, facts and circumstances, so far, gathered point to elements of the 36th Infantry Battalion; elements of the 75th Infantry Battalion and Special Forces of the Philippine Army; and elements of the paramilitary Magahat/Bagani Forces/Marcos Bocales Group as the perpetrators.
Two days before the grisly murders, Magahat members were reported by witnesses to have burned down the school cooperative building. They also threatened to massacre the entire community if they would not leave the area. Military and paramilitary forces occupied the school and adjoining areas of the community.
The killings of Campos and Sinzo were carried out in broad daylight. ALCADEV’s executive director Samarca was found dead after being taken into custody by military and paramilitary men. More than 300 families or 2000 individuals coming from the municipalities of San Miguel and Lianga have evacuated to Tandag City while scores more have sought sanctuary elsewhere.
Karapatan points out, “Since 2005, members of Mapasu and ALCADEV, who are active in the defense of Lumad ancestral lands against incursion by big business, have been victims of red tagging, trumped-up criminal charges, illegal arrests and detention, torture, and forced evacuation. ALCADEV was established in July 19, 2004 as an alternative learning system especially designed to provide secondary education to indigent indigenous youth — the Manobo, Higaonon, Banwaon, Talaandig and Mamanwa — who live in the mountains of Surigao del Norte and Sur, Agusan del Norte and Sur. ALCADEV is born out of the joint effort of indigenous people’s organizations in the CARAGA region. MAPASU is a regional organization of indigenous peoples in Caraga and is well known for its strong stance against intrusion of mining companies into their communities.”
The recent killings are not isolated incidents.
Heightened attacks on Lumad communities especially Lumad schools have been noted since last year. The government has caused the disruption and even total closure of these schools by the military’s encampment on school grounds; orders from the Education Department for the schools to cease operation due to various pretexts; threats to and actual bodily harm inflicted on school officials, teachers, leaders of Lumad organizations as well as members of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines who provide invaluable support to the schools.
One must ask why the concentrated attack on Lumad schools and communities? The military is forthright. They suspect these Lumad communities to be “infested” by the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA) and the Lumad schools to be nothing but NPA “indoctrination” camps.
In truth, these Lumad communities have demonstrated their determination and capacity to fight for their ancestral domain and their distinctive way of life in defiance of government-backed corporations trying to grab their lands, plunder their resources, and exploit their people then leave them worse off than before. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the Lumad communities concerned are sympathetic to the NPA who abound in the mountainous terrain that is their home and who may have taught them how to stand up for their rights, does this make them open season for human rights violations perpetrated with impunity? Does this justify brazen acts of state terrorism by the Aquino regime to what amounts in practice as state-sponsored ethnic cleansing of these Lumad communities?
According to Anakbayan-USA, “The spate of… human rights violations, military operations on communities, and killings of community leaders are products of Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan, wherein the Philippine military is serving as an ‘investment defense force’, or as a private military for large corporations.”
The group also pointed out the role of the US government in aggravating the human rights situation in the Philippines. “Oplan Bayanihan is patterned directly from the U.S. Counterinsurgency Guide released in 2009. The US has been complicit and has continued to condone these atrocities through its $50 million annual military aid to the Philippine military.”
The blood of these martyrs of the Lumad people’s struggle for self-determination cries out for justice. Those of us who could sympathize with the heroic but fictitious alien defenders of “Mother Nature” and their sacred territory in the film “Avatar” need to open our eyes to the reality in our midst. Then let us ask ourselves, “Whose side are we on this time?”
Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.
Published in Business World
September 6, 2015