News reports on the piteous situation of the more than 1000 displaced mountain villagers who have fled their homes in the hinterlands of the municipalities of Lianga and San Agustin in Surigao del Sur and who now call the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Tandag, the provincial capital, their temporary home continues to occupy space in the print media and in many Internet news sites. The "bakwits" (a derivation of the Bisayan word bakwit which literally means to evacuate or flee), as the evacuees like to call themselves, have accused government soldiers belonging to the 58th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army of forcibly occupying their villages and harassing local residents who the military suspects are supporters of the communist New People's Army.
I have written several posts already on this subject but the situation in Tandag does provide an opportunity to focus some much needed attention on the so called local "indigenous peoples" and their bitter history of being constantly caught in the crossfire of the decades old counterinsurgency war between the Philippine government and the revolutionary left.
The term "lumad" has been used to describe the Tandag evacuees. Other news reports cite them as belonging to the Manobo tribe which is a major ethnic minority in the Caraga region and Surigao del Sur area. Lumad, of course, is a Bisayan term which means "native" or "indigenous" and, as used in the local terminology, encompasses or includes most if not all of the non-Muslim and non-Christian ethnic peoples native to Mindanao and descended from Austronesian stock. The Manobos are, therefore, lumads of the first order.
The lumads, irregardless of their classification, have become largely marginalized in the contemporary history of Mindanao as distinct ethnic populations as a result of the heavy influx of immigrants and settlers, particularly from the Visayas, (especially encouraged by the government in the early and middle parts of the last century) who, over the years, have basically driven them out of their ancestral lands and forced most of them to retreat to the mountains and forests of the island. Disorganized, voiceless and unrepresented in government, they endured decades of neglect and virtual discrimination.
The failure of the government to protect the rights and welfare of the lumads made them highly suspicious and resentful of outsiders who they often rightly suspect of being only interested in the little territory (including all the timber and mineral resources contained therein) they have managed to hang on and control. The emergence of the leftist revolutionary movement and their avowed aim to protect the lumad ancestral domains and the right of the ethnic minorities to live as their forefathers have lived could not have failed to find sympathy among the indigenous peoples.
Many lumads were, thereafter, recruited into the NPA guerrilla forces and many of their settlements became the nuclei of guerrilla fronts and rebel support bases. This is despite the glaring fact, unknown to most of them, that the record of most communist regimes all over the world with regards to their treatment of cultural minorities within their territorial boundaries has not exactly been exemplary but, more often than not, characterized by brutal repression, if not enforced assimilation into the dominant culture.
Realizing the importance of lumad allies of their own because of their intimate familiarity with the local terrain and the native populations, government military and security forces also started recruiting their own tribesmen and, by building on the myth of the so called Bagani warriors of old, began organizing them into armed paramilitary forces ostensibly to police the ancestral domains yet actually to fight NPA rebels and their supporters in the anti-insurgency war.
Thus we have the odd and also extremely tragic situation where cultural and ethnic minorities are fighting each other and tearing themselves and their glorious heritage apart for all the wrong reasons while "outsiders", once again, watch and egg them on mercilessly from the sidelines.
Lianga, as a town and community, has always paid homage to its "lumad" roots and origins. During its annual fiesta and other yearly festivals, the culture of the Manobo tribes and other minority ethnic groups as expressed in music, costume and dance have always been prominently showcased. Yet aside from the often bastardized and largely inaccurate depictions of the art of the local indigenous people, very little, save lip service, has actually been accomplished in terms of promoting the welfare and rights of the lumad population.
Thus, they remain as they have always been - isolated, abused and misused by those from outside their world with ulterior motives of their own and who, by guile and deception, have managed to gain their trust and confidence. The government which is supposedly morally bound and mandated by law to look after them, however, remains largely indifferent, even contemptuous of their very existence.
In some other locations in Mindanao, many of the indigenous peoples, by their own untiring efforts and with the help of genuine, self-help, non-governmental organizations and more enlightened local governments, have began to find their voices, speak out and assume more responsibility for charting their own destinies in the modern world. The richness of their art and culture is gradually and finally becoming known to the world.
They are, in many ways indeed, the lucky and fortunate ones.
In Lianga and the Surigao del Sur area, their brethren are not as blessed. They remain the unwilling victims of an encroaching modern world and, much worse, pawns, if not cannon fodder, in an anachronistic war of both words and bullets that should have no more reason to exist in our time yet rages on seemingly with no end or resolution in sight.