By DLS PINEDA
This administration has lost its capacity to surprise. One year and a half, hundreds of broken promises, and fourteen thousand drug-related deaths since Duterte took oath, the biggest surprise is that we’re no longer surprised with what’s going on. So when 10 activists are killed within Sunday and Monday, and when the President declares the CPP-NPA as terrorists on Tuesday, only a few groups sound the alarm. Among those who are killed are Lovelito Quinones, a pastor from Oriental Mindoro, Fr. Marcelito Paez, a Catholic priest from Nueva Ecija, and Datu Victor from South Cotabato.
Two weeks ago, when the President was only starting to quip about ending the peace talks with the Left, I was at an academic conference in Father Saturnino Urios University, Butuan City, where members of various groups of indigenous peoples from Caraga, Misamis, and Bukidnon were invited to talk. The mountains they are home to are only a few hours’ trek from the city and yet we hardly hear from them; the fighting between the military and the NPA, the conflict between mining companies and the Blaan, Manobo, Higaunon, Mamanwa and other Lumad groups, remain far from our realities. However, what surprised us that afternoon in that cold, well-lit and well-wired, concrete auditorium was the Lumads’ willingness to talk.
At first they addressed the crowd formally. There were twelve of them composed of datus, baes, and normal tribes’ people. They sat in a circle facing each other, while more than 200 spectators made up of academics, students, members of the clergy, government workers, and their kinfolk surrounded them. They were noticeably uneasy. They buried their hands underneath their thighs, the palms of their hands touching the plastic chairs, and passed the mic like it was a hot piece of metal. When they talked, they held on to it with only the tips of their fingers. They shared their stories in Bisaya and chose their words carefully. Members of the PNP were also present in their uniforms.
Being the third installment of the Mindanao Peace Studies Conference, the facilitator broke the ice by asking them how their respective groups each defined “peace.” The men were the first ones to answer, giving literal translations to “peace”: “kalinaw” and other terminologies closer to their language, “kalamdam” (understanding), “malinawon”, “kahanum sa banwa” (peaceful disposition), etc.
We then asked them to tell us stories of how they built peace in times of conflict and the men were still the ones who held court. They continued to spew formalities, rules, and technicalities, on intermarriages, defrayals, and territorial boundaries, which their tribal councils had, once upon a time, agreed upon; things which they knew made them different from everyone else in the room. But when we asked the women to answer the same question, the baes answered differently.
“We leave it to the datu to decide. If he gets to settle it, we don’t bring it over to the police and the barangay captain. But if his wisdom does not serve him well, that’s when we bring it to the government,” a bae said.
The facilitator asked her to elaborate, to say what was on her mind and not simply echo what she knew.
“Since times have changed—and if it were up to me—I’d leave it to the government to say when there’ll be peace,” she said. “The reason why I carry my child with me is because until now, there’s a lot of fighting where we live. There’s a big war there. Nobody can give us an answer as to when the fighting will end. I think only God can solve this.”
Another bae started to talk, “Okay… for us women… the effect of this lack of peace is… we take care of the children. We take care of the rice fields because…” here she paused for a few seconds. “Last November 5, they bombed our barrio. At night, a helicopter—two helicopters—kept flying over us. They had no lights and they bombed the edges of our barrio. Of course, for us women… and for the children… we were scared. Up to now, the barrio is not ours.” She then told the crowd of how they have since moved to the highway with their neighbors.
“They keep accusing us that our husbands are NPA. We don’t even have tools to hunt boars and they accuse us of having guns,” she said. “We would go to our barangay officials and ask them for help. But then they’d tell us they couldn’t do anything because it’s martial law.”
Another bae, during her turn to speak, said that the soldiers told them that “78% of IPs are NPA.” Where that figure came from, she had no idea.
The conversation lasted for almost three hours. At some point, the men, full-grown datus, were one by one brought to tears, one of them while screaming the words, “Respeto lang. If you [the government] can’t send our kids to school, it’s okay with us. But when priests and nuns and volunteers start helping us and start teaching our kids, don’t harass them—respeto lang! Is it so wrong to want a better future for my child?” The clergywomen and men who, one could assume, were aiding them cheered from the side of the room. At that point, the conversation was put to a halt, not because we wanted to censure the Lumad, but because there was just too many things going on.
When the program resumed and everyone’s heads cooled down, banter took a lighter form; the PNP’s representatives were no longer in the conference hall. One of the audience members asked if their cultures weren’t put in danger by social media, TV, and the changing times, and a datu recalled his child, a “millennial” by the datu’s own definition, peppering his speech with “petmalu” and “lodi.” There was a barrage of questions about migration, marrying across different indigenous groups and settlers, the IPRA law and the NCIP’s business with their lives. Asked if they could send the government a list of the things they wanted/needed, almost all of them answered the same things—things which the most humble among us, city folk, would find too humble, things which they said they had already brought to the government’s attention.
As you read this, there remains a food blockade in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, where donations for a school for the Lumad, ALCADEV, are being withheld by the military, following suspicions that the school is training rebels. ALCADEV’s land has long been eyed by a number of mining firms, big and small. So it is with Duterte’s “War on Drugs”, this crackdown operates on no clear order.