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PHILIPPINES: Mindanao Tribals Caught Between Army, Insurgents

Brad Miller

DAVAO, Jan 9 2008 (IPS) - The troubles of Ata-Manobo tribal chief Camid Lapindoy mirror the struggle faced by the Lumads (indigenous people of Mindanao) as they walk a line between two opposing armed forces – while enduring poverty, corporate invasion and marginalisation.

Last April the son of the ‘datu’ (chief) was killed by communist New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas after the insurgent group claimed Lapindoy had formed a government-sponsored Lumad militia and was signing away ancestral territory to a banana plantation. Soon after, he was accused of massacring a family of four in a neighboring village, either as a land-grab or vendetta. The regional trial court in Davao issued a warrant for his arrest in November, with Lapindoy now running from both the left and the right.

In the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)’s drive to eliminate communist insurgency by 2010, as envisaged by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, indigenous people’s areas have increasingly turned into conflict zones. “The ancestral domain must belong to the indigenous people, and not to armed people bringing in foreign ideology,” says Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, AFP Chief of Staff.

The AFP sees the NPA as a force trying to supplant traditional Lumad leaders, often through liquidation. Major Medel Aguilar, Commander of the 5th Civil Relations Group, says the NPA dominates IP territory because “they can easily manipulate these people”. Large numbers of Lumads have joined NPA units, such as the insurgents’ Pulang Bagani (Red Warrior) Company.

Aguilar describes the AFP’s strategy as a classic “Hearts and Minds” campaign-military force coupled with civic action like medical clinics. In this “Peace and Development” scheme, the ancestral domain must be “cleansed” of NPA to allow business enterprises to enter and elevate the economic level of the local IP’s. But critics call this a policy of “development aggression”, used by Macapagal-Arroyo to attract foreign capital. The ancestral domains are rich in gold, copper, nickel and hardwood, and contain fertile soil to grow bananas, rubber and palm oil. To establish Davao as the “Southern Gateway” for foreign investment, the Davao Integrated Development Plan was initiated in 1994, a blueprint for the city and four surrounding provinces that stresses a “globalisation drive” that “pursues external market-driven development,” including the opening up of Lumad territory to multinational agro-forestry and mining corporations.

While energy secretary (and former defence secretary) Angelo Reyes insists multinational mining corporations will bring economic benefits to the Lumad, the Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao has documented that mining operations bring chemical pollution and a vacuum of unemployment when they are abandoned. Mines and large plantations also attract conflict when the NPA arrives to collect “revolutionary taxes,” often battling with company security.

Each indigenous community has the option to sign business deals, as is written in the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, as long as it is done with free, prior and informed consent.

According to Ubo-Manobo Datu Joel Unad, chairman of the Mindanao Indigenous Peoples’ Conference for Peace and Development (MIPCPD), the AFP has become the facilitator of these development projects in the ancestral domain. Formed in 2003, the MIPCPD’s mission is “establishing partnership with the government in the implementation of its projects” and “to open up and establish its network with those of the private sector.” The MIPCPD convened in November 2007 to reconfirm the memorandum of understanding it signed with the AFP four years earlier. Datus from 18 tribes were joined by AFP top brass and the Mindanao Business Council.

It is this partnership that has more progressive IP organisations like the Pasaka Regional Lumad Confederation accusing Unad and the MIPCPD of signing away ancestral land to Filipino and multinational corporations. Pasaka also says that the pro-government datus have formed armed vigilante groups in collusion with the military under the AFP’s Oplan Alsa Lumad (Lumad Arise) programme, with forces called Alamara and Bungkatal Liberation Front roaming the hinterlands with high-powered firearms. A chief investigator for the government’s Commission on Human Rights, Jun Cajes, thinks that the Alamara is probably a “Lost Command” – a group of Lumad initially recruited to serve as CAFGU (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit) that left the fold of the military. The AFP enlists large numbers of Lumads into the CAFGU, with Ata-Manobo datu Ruben Labawan of the Paquibato District confirming that this group now serves as their Ancestral Domain Guard. All Lumad CAFGU patrols are accompanied by a regular soldier of the AFP. In the 1970’s and 80’s, counterinsurgency efforts in Lumad territory were promoted by PANAMIN (Presidential Assistance for National Minorities), following a strategy based on the U.S. Armed Forces Montagnard program in Vietnam. Currently the government maintains the AFP at a 5 percent Lumad composition. It also employs Civilian Volunteer Organisations and Barangay Intelligence Networks to monitor the insurgency, a practice which activists say creates a fear and uncertainty that divides the communities.

In November and December 2007, the AFP conducted military operations in the province of Surigao del Sur against the NPA, with the ensuing clashes causing thousands of native Manobos to flee their ancestral domain, an area allegedly being eyed by the Philippine National Oil Corporation for coal and mineral extraction.

Lt. Gen. Cardozo Luna, leader of the Eastern Mindanao Command, states that “the evacuation was due to the NPA, not the AFP”.

“We must establish a stable environment for development,” Luna explains. “We must move in to do that. We must do our job.”

As the 2007 drew to a close, the suspension of military operations allowed the evacuees to return to their villages. Initially happy to be going home for Christmas, the indigenous organisation Kalumaran reports that upon their arrival the Manobos found their dwellings and schools ransacked, their rice, chickens and pigs gone. “It is always force to force,” says the CHR’s regional director Alberto Sipaco of the Lumads’ predicament. “They find no solace.”

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