The world currently has its eyes on the Philippines as the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte entered a series of peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA-NDF. These talks will significantly impact Filipinos across the archipelago, particularly indigenous communities who continue to be impacted by the armed conflict.
As a summer intern at IBON International, I had the opportunity to enter the world of the Lumad, the non-muslim, “native” or “indigenous” peoples in the lands of the southern Philippines who are directly experiencing the grievous effects of a militarized state. I, along with other IBON International representatives, served as delegates in this year’s International Solidarity Mission (ISM) in Mindanao as part of the larger 2016 International Conference for Peoples’ Rights in the Philippines (ICPRP). As a Filipina American with family roots in Mindanao, attending the ISM was a personal journey into the impacts of globalization on the lives of the marginalized, exploited communities in the Global South.
Our first day was spent in Davao City at UCCP (United Church of Christ in the Philippines) – Haran, a refugee shelter serving Lumad families impacted by violence that forced them to flee their ancestral lands. We bonded with other solidarity mission groups from the United States such as Anakbayan, Gabriela, and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines who were participating in our mission to Cotabato. After feasting on our scrumptious kamayan, we listened to the stories of the Lumad living in Haran, recounting the hardships they face due to extreme militarization and the exploitation of their lands through land grabs for large-scale mining. As foreign developers continue to set their gaze on the abundant minerals and resources found in Lumad lands, resistance proves deadly for tribal community members. In order to defend their land and people, Lumad leaders continue to sacrifice themselves in the line of battle against paramilitary groups. As this bloodshed continues, military and paramilitary groups further accuse the Lumad of being communist-terrorist sympathizers due to their spirited opposition to the mining companies’ exploitation of their ancestral lands.
In 2011, former Philippine President, Benigno Aquino III, launched the counter-insurgency program, "Oplan Bayanihan," in order to suppress the expansion of the rebel group, the New People's Army (NPA). Since then, “OpBay” has deployed 60% of the Armed Forces of the Philippines' battalions, air assets and war equipment down south to Mindanao as well as fostered the growth of organized paramilitary groups such as the notorious, Magahat-Bagani, that continue to harass and attack Lumad communities.
Many of us were left in awe to learn that missions like Oplan Bayanihan continue to receive financial and political support from both the Philippine government and the United States of America. Between 2002-2013 the U.S. government provided $441 Million to the Philippine military for 'security assistance'; most of this money was allegedlyfunnelled toward improving the country's counter terrorism plans in the south.
Paramilitary and military occupation in Lumad lands has led the Lumad to pose three calls for the Philippine government:1) That the 60,000 paramilitary/military groups stationed to ‘civilize’ and exploit them be pulled out immediately, 2) That those who have killed their people and destroyed their land and homes be prosecuted, and 3) That they can reclaim agency over their ancestral mining rights and land ownership.
After demanding for their rights and calling out to the foreign delegates for international solidarity, the Lumad presented performance pieces to the audience. The children in Haran danced along to songs of peril and fear juxtaposed with songs of determination and resilience for their future. Dance serves as their outlet to cope, process, and acknowledge the difficulty of their circumstances while still preserving their indigenous pride. They hope that soon they will be able to return peacefully to their home lands.
Our Journey to Kitaotao, Bukidnon
Following our exposure to the community in Haran we spent majority of our time during the ISM living in Kitaotao, Bukidnon. Riding in a jeepney along the edges of crumbling hills and endless cornfields, we arrived at a school for Lumad children in the Barangay Sagundanon.
In Sagundanon, we learned about the amazing support and bravery of MISFI, the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation Inc. academy that provides education and development to Lumad youth such as those in Kitaotao who are seeking a brighter future. Despite constant threats and harassment, the organization continues to serve the people through advocacy, direct action, and international partnerships.
We were again introduced into the community through dance and song, continuing with the theme that Lumad children are fighting for their lives and their right to education. Subsequently, our afternoon activity was a breakout session led by tribal leaders who discussed the current crises plaguing both the youth and elders of their community.
Pastor Claro Giwilin introduced the Lumad as the new faces of climate change in the 21st century. Due to climate change, Pastor Claro noted that the Kitaotao region has been one of the most severely drought-stricken areas in Bukidnon. The area experienced the worst dry spell they could recall on record, suffering through dry,infertile land for seven (7) consecutive months during El Niño. This devastating drought brought particular concern as the Lumad farmers struggled to grow rice, a staple crop for survival.
In June 2015 with starvation and terror ringing through the area, Lumad peasants of Kitaotao mobilized and protested around the municipal hall calling on local officials to release 8 million pesos from their calamity fund in order to purchase rice. The calamity fund is a pool of money that comes from the Philippine National Government's mandate requiring that local governments must allocate 5% of their estimated revenue for disaster/emergency situations. Local officials agreed at the time to release 1,000 sacks of rice and pledged to release 2,000 additional sacks along with other agricultural supplies, but there was a clear severance in accountability and transparency. These protests led to growing tension between barangay (village) leaders and the Lumad, leading to grim repercussions for the community.
Pastor Claro opened the space for other tribal leaders as well as MISFI representatives to discuss the escalation of this conflict during the Kidapawan violence in April 2016. The protests in Kidapawan,the capital of North Cotabato, featured more drought-stricken, frustrated farmers who wanted the release of 15,000 sacks of rice that North Cotabato government officials previously promised. The Lumad who participated told us about the abuse farmers faced from Philippine National Police officers who illegally detained and brutalized them for protesting. The encroaching militarization in the area brings about future concerns regarding climate justice and human rights violations in Mindanao. As such, community and solidarity organizers have pushed for the call toward ‘Bigas, hindi Bala’or ‘Rice not Bullets.’
Their main hope now lies in the 15-Point People’s Agenda presented to the Duterte Administration calling for the withdrawal of military and paramilitary troops from ancestral lands.
Narrative from Lumad children
While situated on school grounds, I took the time to observe and interact with the children who had faced harassment and threats from paramilitary groups over the past year. I gathered the story from a young Lumad girl named Sarah Sible – afiery, passionate leader who did not stand idly by as she and her classmates were falsely accused by paramilitary troops for being part of the New People’s Army (NPA).
Sarah, along with the other Lumad children, were students at Fr. Fausto Tentorio Memorial School, a MISFI boarding school in White Culaman, Kitaotao, Bukidnon.
In August 2015, following the protests earlier that summer, a group of Philippine military men stormed into Fr. Fausto Tentorio's school and demanded an immediate closure of the campus. The military officials accused MISFI academy of being an ally to the NPA and a threat to national security.
Sarah recalled the confusion and horror when 13 leaders who founded the school were 'caught' and harassed while the students were left terrified for their lives. A few months later in October 2015, hundreds of military officials along with the Barangay captain (village leader) of the area returned to finalize the closure and force out students from their classrooms.
"My teacher said, 'hurry up and eat your lunch so you won't get hungry on the way.We were so afraid, so in fear, that one of the students almost collapsed."
As the students had guns pointed in their faces and were sobbing, Sarah said "the officials said 'you shouldn't be crying, it is so obvious that you are all children of the NPA.'" Sarah had to leave the school with any supplies she could find on her and knew she would be leaving her cousins and family behind. The students were forced to flee to Haran, the refugee shelter in Davao, where the students faced horrendous living conditions.
"The moment we came there, there was no place to sleep, so we slept in a shed. There was no CR (restroom), no water, and it was hard to even eat. There were holes in the roof, so whenever it rained we couldn't sleep, we just stayed awake until it would stop."
After this short-term suffering, Sarah, along with three of her classmates – LovelyJane, Montezza, and Diamane, filed a case against the barangay captain who cast them out of their school. The children won the case and got the barangay captain suspended, but they were still targets as members of the NPA.Leaving White Culaman, Sarah described, "I was worried that my family would also be harassed. My parents did not go with me to Haran. I haven't seen them since last June." After being stationed in Haran, the students walked for over a day to arrive at their current school that I visited in Sagundanon. The students have been in Sagundanon for over two months now, and even though this is supposed to be a 'temporary' living situation, the Lumad people are unsure when they will ever be able to return to their families and their land. With paramilitary groups surrounding the mountain, searching for more Lumad to capture and arbitrarily arrest, harass, and kill, children are left fighting for their survival.
Sarah is the youngest in her family and "misses [her] mother's warm touch before [she] sleep(s)." When asked about her living situation in Sagundanon, Sarah says it can get hard but "you have to adjust. We may have our own differences here but we have to stay together."
As a leader of the community, Sarah is consistently at the front lines of preserving her tribe's culture and hopes for the future. Her bold, rich personality makes other Lumad children drawn to and inspired by her to continue thriving. She humbly acknowledges, "I am glad to help." Sarah says, "I want to be a model. I want other Lumad children to be good and do good."
When she grows up, if possible, Sarah wants to be a singer, an actress, or a dancer – anyopportunity she could get to perform. She loves taking pictures, laughing with friends, and belting out to Celine Dion whenever she gets a chance. Always at the center of the stage, Sarah is a well-rounded, driven, young woman."I like to sing, to dance, to exercise. I want to act and if there are people who have problems, I'd like to counsel them."
Sarah is always willing to lend a helping hand to her classmates and encourages them to stay resilient even during these trying times.In regard to those of us part of the International Solidarity Mission, she was happy that we came to their school "to sympathize, to listen, to plant, and to dance with us."She is hoping "people around the world could help us. That they won't think our school is a school for rebels. I am hoping that they will help our school to be developed and not be destroyed. It is a good school, we learn a lot, but others just accuse us. We want people to stop saying these lies about us and that we will not be threatened anymore."
Sarah wants people around the world, especially the U.S. to know "that the indigenous people have culture, that we are contented people, we are happy with what we have and we also have dreams for the next generation to come." Therefore, their people should be acknowledged, defended, and protected for years to come.Her dream is to go back home to her family. She is extremely hopeful for the future and continues her fight for justice.
After our days of bonding with the children, we concluded our stay with an International Solidarity Night. We performed alongside the children, delivering poems, songs, and dances around uniting with the Lumad people. We chanted as one, ‘Long Live International Solidarity!’ and danced and played together for the rest of the night. I felt connected, loved, and empowered to begin the conversations and actions necessary to help this community.
We hosted our last late night panel with the tribal leaders, providing them with an opportunity to ask people from the U.S. questions. They demanded answers for the deindustrialization of their agriculture, the lack of national support for the Lumad, and what Americans could do to help them. We listened and answered their questions intently, wanting this to be the beginning of future dialogues around international solidarity. Although there is no silver bullet to resolving the symptoms of globalization and militarization, we believe that encouraging others worldwide to participate in solidarity missions like the ISM and to report the statements of these communities could be a significant start.
This trip taught me the power of kapwa, or the unspoken brotherhood and sisterhood of the Filipino people. The Lumad accepted us with open arms, challenging us to revisit our intentions of coming into their community. They told us that their main request for us is to keep sharing their stories with the world. They do not want to be silenced or forgotten as their people continued to die at the hands of corruption and greed.
The image of a community willing to fight and die for their culture, their land, and their people is an ember that continues to burn in my heart. I will continue to teach others about the Lumad, I will continue to teach myself about the history of my people, and I will continue to be a lifelong activist for international solidarity. #
*Kristy Drutman is a student at the University of California, Berkeley who spent a two-month internship (July-August 2016) at IBON International as a fellow of Kaya Collaborative.