“We are a peace-loving people. We don’t like violence. We don’t want the violent culture of the New People’s Army rebels, that is why we shoo them away from our peaceful communities. We hope and pray that they will respect us, they will respect our peace-loving culture. We count on the government to help us, and protect us from the attacks of the NPA. We are always caught in the crossfire. Our communities are not and should not be the battlegrounds of government and rebel forces,” says an elderly tribal leader of the Mandaya indigenous people in Davao Oriental who, among with his fellow tribal chieftains, have gathered in the municipality of Caraga, to condemn the brutal killing of an anti-Communist tribal leader Copertino Banugan, his brother and nephew on December 30, 2016.
“We know the rebels are out to grab our ancestral domains. We will die for it no matter what. United, we will be able to repulse them from our tribal communities,” says the teary-eyed Kristine Banugan, the young daughter of the slain anti-NPA tribal leader, Copertino Banugan, during her father’s burial at their rainforest sub-village of Sangab in the town of Caraga.
“While we are a peace-loving people, we don’t allow the ruthless rebels to kill our people one by one. This is about our existence. This is about our life. We will fight for it,” says a young man of the tribe, who brandished a home-made bladed weapon, among the many home-made weapons produced by the tribesmen.
During a “special meeting” of the officers and members of the Provincial Tribal Council of the Mandaya Tribe of Davao Oriental held in the town of Caraga, they passed a resolution urging the national government to look at their plight.
“The brutal killing of Tribal Chieftain Copertino Banugan is a clear incursion to the rights of the indigenous peoples to self-governance and self-determination. The Provincial Tribal Council of the Province of Davao Oriental strongly demand that the protection of the rights of the indigenous peoples be given preferential attention during the panel discussions in the ongoing peace process between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front,” says a Resolution being signed by all tribal chieftains of the province.
“The Mandaya People of the Province of Davao Oriental earnestly requests Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, Secretary Jess Dureza and the GRP Chief Negotiator, Secretary Silvestre Bello III, to seriously tackle the issues about the rights of the indigenous peoples to govern over their ancestral domains, free from interference of the Communist New People’s Army,” the resolution adds.
Copy of the resolution was furnished the Office of the President Rodrigo Duterte, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez; Senate President Aquilino Pimentel; Rep. Nancy Catamco, chair of the House Committee on the Indigenous Peoples; and Leonor Oralde-Quintayo, chair of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
Residents of the sleepy town of Caraga says the rebels had “militarized” their town proper when they stormed on the residence of the slain tribal leader Copertino Banugan. “Everyone was excited to greet the New Year. We were in the thick of preparation for the New Year’s Eve celebration when the rebels attacked our town. Electricity was cut off, and spikes were strewn all over the streets, and we saw many heavily armed men on the road. A volley of heavy gunshot fires horrified us no end,” says one resident of Caraga town. The town’s police chief, Senior Inspector Al Anthony Gumban, says they thought the rebels were targeting their police station. “So, we fortified first the police station because we really thought we were target of the NPA attack before we responded to a distress call by a daughter of the slain tribal leader” who happens to be a member of the town’s municipal council.
“Bullets do not distinguish what is on their path – homes, schools, churches, animals, men, women, and children. Nothing is spared when armed conflict ravages the communities,” says an elderly woman of the tribe, lecturing the young members of the tribe. She cited many war-torn villages before “where young children suffer many forms of trauma. Some lose parents or family members. Others lose their chance to go to school. And there are those who are recruited to join the rebels. Short of losing their own lives, children often lose a lot more. They lose their future.” She adds: “We should never forget that our children are our future. When we put them on harm’s way, we are risking our very own future.” Another elderly male tribal leader has called on both the government and the rebel forces “to help us to make space for men, women and children to live their lives in peace, in abundance, in faith.”
“Regarded for his strong rule over the areas covered by the certificate of ancestral domain title (CADT-01) and in insisting that his people carry with them the culture and ways of the Mandaya, Banugan personifies the characters of a datu as they were before. To the NPA, he was the enemy, the land grabber, and the dictator. To his people, he was the one who pushed them to celebrate their being Mandaya, putting up the annual festival in sitio Sangab and the cultural village there, successfully bringing back what was almost forgotten 18 years ago. He also made sure that the ancestral domain is not sold to anyone and remains a communal property of the tribe, with recognition of who among the tribesfolk have rightful occupancy of a plot. He set up the tribe’s cultural village where they still weave and make their attires and cloths and their baylans are sought out to bless whatever endeavor the community starts on,” says an editorial of the Davao City-based newspaper Sunstar Davao.
“His death, along with his brother Ramon and nephew Benny, outside his house in Caraga Poblacion was an overkill. Not only peppered with bullets from high-powered firearms, an M203 grenade was said to have been exploded at the three as well. The brutality of the death illustrates the long-held anger the NPA has had on Banugan, the very foundation by which his people of the Mandaya tribe respect him. Banugan’s fate underscores what the indigenous peoples have long been trying to explain to those who are trying to talk peace with the communist rebels and the Moro rebels. The fact that the IPs are held hostage by these forces, and yet, are not given a voice and a say. Especially with regards communist rebels, which put up bases in IP areas, the IPs cannot even raise their voices against them since the rebels are armed, they are not. When they seek government help for protection, they are called spies and are killed, just like Banugan and many before him. When they arm themselves, they are called warlords and are killed, just like Banugan and many before him. When they align with the rebels, then the government forces kill them. Banugan’s death should be the last straw. The government by this time, should understand that the IPs are not just observers, but are the one who suffer the brunt of the conflict. They are forever hostaged by the conflicts and their development is stunted forever. Why is that? Whenever they find partners to help them develop, their partners are harassed and their leaders are killed. When they develop themselves, they are subject to militarization from both sides. Here’s to hoping that Peace Process Secretary Jesus G. Dureza, who has been going around consulting with IPs, fully comprehend what is happening and once and for all declare all IP communities as zones of peace where they are allowed to rule their people based on their own culture and norms, without the interference and constant agitation by the communist and the militarization of the government,” reads the editorial of Sunstar Davao.
The Internal Peace and Security Plan or Bayanihan program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was piloted in Davao Oriental to great success, with government and the military cooperating in bringing development projects to far-flung areas especially those called GIDAs or Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas which are far from vital government and private resources. The government has defined GIDAs as communities with a marginalized population and physically and socio-economically separated from the mainstream society. They are physically isolated due to distance, adverse weather conditions, lack of transportation (island, upland, lowland, landlocked, hard to reach and unserved or underserved communities), with high poverty incidence, presence of vulnerable sectors, and a community in or recovering from situations of crisis or armed conflict. These inaccessible areas became perfect refuge for rebel groups operating in the province as they felt safe in these areas that eventually became their nerve centers from which all revolutionary movements in the region are directed.
In some villages, the Mandaya natives of Davao Oriental did welcome the rebels as they were also fighting the government for their ancestral domain. However, the precarious situation took a turn for the worse when the military declared war against the rebels and put the Mandaya natives in the middle of the crossfire. These areas symbolized neglect, neglect that the government has been guilty of, according to a local government official here, “and we have to admit this (neglect) in order to correct that.” The provincial government of Davao Oriental and the military strongly agreed on one thing – that the most pressing concern before them was the immediate provision of basic services to conflict areas in the province to address the decades-old problem of insurgency. The provincial government and the military have come up with a more comprehensive program for pursuing peace. It is being done by fostering community dialogues, introducing community-owned projects, and creating communities of peace. They are pursuing a principled partnerships with people’s organizations, non-government organizations, churches from different religions, tribal leaders, local government units, government agencies and many other sectors who know how to reach out to the constituents and win their cooperation and trust. The program aims to promote and preserve a peaceful and livable Davao Oriental where people enjoy basic services and are actively involved in planning development and exercising governance. It initiates responsive interventions to address the lingering problem of insurgency and even the people’s feeling of apathy towards government capacity to provide safety and security to its constituents.
Davao Oriental Governor Nelson Dayanghirang believes that a genuine people’s participation is crucial in institutionalizing peace and development efforts. He makes sure that all projects and activities are packaged and implemented with the participation of and input from the community members. Thus, skills in managing peace-building initiatives are imparted at the grassroots level. The peace program in the villages aims to empower members of the community by transforming them to become peace advocates. They regularly conduct peace forum and dialogue in the barangay and municipal levels, peace consultations with key leaders including barangay officials and influential community leaders, and trainings on the culture of peace in schools and communities.
Governor Dayanghirang believes that when people’s basic needs are met, there will be no reason for the people to join rebel groups and rise against the government. Among the first items on his long priority list is to improve the road network to connect conflict areas with the rest of the community. Without access, other basic services will not reach the Mandaya natives who are among the poorest in the province. To provide the much-needed roads, the provincial government acquired its own materials and equipment for road building. Eventually new roads will be carved out, though still rocky and not concreted. Even then, the people are happy because it will significantly shorten travel time from their remote villages to the commercial centers where they market their agricultural produce.
With food and income security and the requisite social services, plus a strong political will and commitment, the governor vows to “continue to sow the seeds of peace.” By Ferdinand Zuasola, Photo by Eden Jhan Licayan