Lumad: Caught in the middle of a war

MANILA, Philippines – The military played before lawmakers a video showing a boy singing "Lupang Sinira" of nationalist Pol Galang, but the lyrics were changed. The altered song was made to be about a people fired up to fight an oppressive government. 

It's supposed to be the national anthem that students used to sing every morning in the now closed "NPA school" for the Lumad in Talaingod, Davao del Norte.

Lupang sinira, bayan ng magigiting
Alab ng puso, sa dibdib mo'y apoy
Sa nayon at lungsod itinatag ang makabayang pamahalaan.
May tilamsik na dugo at awit sa paglayang minamahal
Ang pula ng watawat mo'y tagumpay na nagniningning

Brigadier General Angelito De Leon, Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for operations, showed it on Tuesday, September 8, as proof that the military was right in closing the Salugpungan Tanano Igkagunon Community Learning Center (STILCC), an alternative learning center in Talaingod. It was supposedly used to recruit indigenous peoples into the communist movement.

From a high of 25,000 armed regulars in the 1980s, the military estimates NPA strength to be down to about 4,000 nationwide. Half of them are in Eastern Mindanao, one of the rebels' remaining bastions.

While many Filipinos have moved on and dismissed the revolution as dead, the insurgency continues to thrive in the so-called Timber and Mining Corridor of the Philippines. The movement easily finds allies among residents because of its battlecry to keep big business away from their ancestral domains.

In contrast, the military has been seen as the protector of mining companies that have disrupted tribal communities. It's an image that is not helped when soldiers commit crimes such as the recent case of alleged rape of a 14-year-old Manobo girl by members of the Army 68th Infantry Battalion.

Compostela Valley used to be the center of gravity for NPA operations but Typhoon Pablo in 2012 forced the Southern Mindanao Regional Party Committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to Talaingod, according De to Leon.

"We have monitored heavy presence of NPAs there," he said. Clashes, landmine incidents, and the propaganda war stepped up.

Lumad forced to take sides

Caught in the middle of the nearly 5-decade old communist insurgency are the Lumad who are sometimes, if not often, forced to take sides between government forces and the NPA. The Lumad eventually find themselves fighting each other.

"This has been going on for decades, the use of paramilitary forces by the military to fight the NPA in Lumad areas. The problem, of course, is that it's not the NPA that really suffers as they easily slip away but the tribes that remain," said Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio La Viña, a legal expert on ienvironment and indigenous peoples.

"The military and the paramilitary forces do not make any distinction and attack the leaders that remain and who are usually the educators or those leading fights involving logging or mining. This is really about those resources and the control of ancestral domain," La Viña added.

It triggers a cycle where the NPA finds fertile ground to recruit Lumad, who, according to the military, now make up the majority of NPA members in Eastern Mindanao. 

"Based on our report, 90% of guerrilla bases and NPA camps are inside a stretch of ancestral domain areas and 3 out of 4 NPAs in Eastern Mindanao are members of the IPS," De Leon said in a presentation before the House of Representatives during its budget briefing. 

"The NPAs have already established a shadow revolutionary government called Komiteng Rebolusyunaryo sa Muncipaldad or Barrio in certain areas in Eastern Mindanao," he added.

The military said the NPA also operates Bagani forces in Eastern Mindanao. There are 6 commands in Davao area alone. 

"There is a Pulang-Bugani, which is composed of the fighters of the NPA. It's a regular unit of NPAs operating in Davao area.... The commander of the Pulang Bagani command 1 was the late Parago," said Armed Forces chief General Hernando Iriberri.

Pressure for military

The military is pushing to end Asia's longest running insurgency so it can focus on territorial defense amid China's aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Army chief Lieutenant General Eduardo Año – the intelligence chief behind the arrest of CPP chief Benito Tiamzon and commander of the Davao-based 10th Infantry Division when NPA's well loved commander Leoncio Pitao or "Ka Parago" was slain – vowed to reduce the NPA down to about a thousand before he steps down in 2017. 

On the ground in Eastern Mindanao is a general equally hated by the communist movement. Eastern Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Aurelio Baladad gained notoriety for arresting the "Morong 43" – a group of people tagged by the military as NPA members but who, according to human rights groups, turned out to be health workers. The military maintains that they are communist rebels.

The past incidents show the danger of a military going back to its history of human rights violations in its determination to quash the enemy.

Warning signs

Leftist lawmakers, whose colleagues were once victims of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the military during the Arroyo years, see the warning signs. Leftist groups have been tagged by the military as front groups for the NPA.

A fuming Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares blasted the military for tagging the schoolboy in the video as an NPA just because he sang that song. Ito ang problema sa AFP natin kaya madaming namamatay. You’re intolerant of dissent. You’re committing the same mistake you did during the Martial Law. Singing a song by a nationalist singer already makes one an NPA? That's absurd," Colmenares said as he blew his top during Tuesday's budget hearing.

"Nakakapikon. Bihira lang ako magalit, Madam Chair. Ang ganiyang klase ng psychology, maraming namamatay. Baka ma-EJK si Pol Galang niyan," Colmenares added.

Iriberri argued that it was how the song was used. "It’s not about the song. It is how it is being used. It is how it is being taught and in what context it is being conveyed to the children and to the IPs," said the military chief.

The military also showed test papers supposedly brainwashing the Lumads attending the school.

True or False? "Pagdating ng Amerikano ay lalong lumakas ang pagmimina (Mining will intensify with the arrival of the Americans)." De Leon said the prescribed answer was "True."

The military said they only implemented an order from the Department of Education, which closed the school following the request of the Office of the Talaingod Municipal Tribal Council of Elders to investigate if it was teaching in compliance with government standards.

Public outcry

The recent deaths of a school head who was hogtied and stabbed and two Lumad leaders who were shot in Surigao del Sur triggered public outcry over the escalation of violence in Eastern Mindanao.

They died at the hands of members of the Magahat-Bagani Force, a paramilitary group allegedly under the control of the Army's 36th Infantry Battalion. 

Iriberri claimed the Bagani Force operates independent of the military. A tribal leader was presented during the hearing to explain that it's a tribal unit to serve as "ancestrals protector" or "cultural guard" against outsiders and unwanted influences.

But the close ties between the military and the Mahagat-Bagani Force is common knowledge in the area. Locals attest to this.

Leaving communities

The bigger problem for the military is the situation at the Haran compound in Davao City, where many Lumad from Davao del Norte and Bukidnon have relocated amid the "militarization" of their communities and the alleged forced recruitment to join the Alamara paramilitary group.

The military, citing the suicide of one of the Lumad in the facility, is saying that the Lumad were tricked to go there when they were told that they were to meet Sarangani Representative Emmanuel Pacquiao and President Benigno Aquino III. Charges of serious illegal detention have been filed against the organizers

"The NPA used the Alamara to demonize the Bagani guards of several tribes who resist the ideological and organizing works of the NPA among the IP communities," De Leon said.  

But when anti-riot cops went to the Haran House to try to bring the Lumad back to their communities, clashes ensued as the Lumad refused to return to their communities. 

North Cotabato Representative Nancy Catamco, chairman of the House committee on Indigenous Peoples who accompanied the government forces, gained notoriety after a video of a woman tribal chieftain giving her a scolding circulated online. The chieftain explained how they couldn't return to their communities because the military would accuse them of being NPA members.

United Nations rapporteur, who visited the Lumad, also reported the "anxiety" that the presence of Alamara has caused in their communities.

The military insisted that its presence in Talaingod is meant to protect the residents. 

"There is no militarization. The organizers are using the term to describe military presence in IP domain. The military enters villages due to the heavy presence of the New People’s Army in order to protect the populace," De Leon said.

These are communities otherwise ignored by the government. The NPA swoops in, the soldiers follow, and then clashes erupt as government delivers long delayed services to try to win the community back.

Catamco and the military stand by their claims that the Lumad at the Haran House are "suppressed out of fear from organizers." 

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have called for hearings to investigate the situation of the Lumad. – Rappler.com