IN THE Philippines we welcome the “ber” months (September to December) as a protracted holiday season of cheer and festivities, to the point where we probably have the world’s longest Christmas celebration. My interpretation of this “ber” phenomenon is that it’s part of our coping mechanism amid the harsh realities of life in the Philippines. What happens is that we draw solace from the anticipation of yearend bonuses and gifts and parties and, in many offices, a long Christmas break.
I worry, though, that the holiday cheer desensitizes us and numbs us to the need—sorry for this pun—to remem-ber that this last trimester of the year is not always a time for celebration. Of the Philippines’ 20 worst typhoons listed in Typhoon2000.com, 18 occurred during the “ber” months: from “Uring” at the top of the list, which raged on Nov. 2-7, 1991, through “Rosing,” “Nitang,” “Reming” and many others. “Ondoy,” which hit us on Sept. 24-27, 2009, comes in only as the 15th worst typhoon (it’s actually classified as a tropical storm), but is etched in our public memory because it so adversely affected Metro Manila.
Destructive “ber” typhoons have also caused some of the most horrendous disasters in maritime history. The Doña Marilyn sank off Maripipi island on Oct. 24, 1988, during Typhoon “Unsang,” killing 254. The MV Cassandra sank in the Bohol Sea on a stormy night, Nov. 21, 1983, killing more than 200 including a large group of Catholic Church social action workers. Typhoon “Vicky” brought down the Princess of the Orient off Fortune Island, Batangas, on Sept. 18, 1998, with some 150 deaths.
More than the wind and rain of typhoons, these maritime disasters often involved corruption, with ship owners violating maritime safety regulations and the authorities turning a blind eye. Go through the Internet’s listings of the world’s worst maritime disasters and you will not find an entry for the MV Cassandra because there was no official passenger manifest, and therefore no official death toll.
I worry, too, that years hence, no one will remember still another group of “disasters” in the “ber” months, in the form of cases of killings that may remain unresolved and be forgotten like the victims of the maritime accidents buried at sea.
Nov. 15 marked the second death anniversary of botanist Leonardo Co and two companions, Sofronio Cortez and Julius Borromeo, supposedly killed in a crossfire between government troops and the New People’s Army in Kananga, Leyte. Independent inquiries showed there was no encounter, no crossfire. Leonard and his companions were probably victims of trigger-happy soldiers of the 19th Infantry Battalion, which is notorious for human rights abuses in the region.
Nov. 23 was the third anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre, with 58 killed including 32 journalists, making it the world’s most heinous act of impunity directed at media workers. The trial has moved slowly, even as witnesses for the prosecution are being rubbed out, executed.
November reminds us that Mindanao is rapidly becoming a land of blighted promises. While there is much hope, and anxiety, around the framework agreement for a Bangsamoro in Mindanao, we seem to be creating conditions for more pocket rebellions, this time by the lumad or indigenous peoples (IPs). In a letter published yesterday by the Inquirer, Tabak (Tunay na Alyansa ng Bayan Alay sa Katutubo) describes what it calls a terror blitz against the lumad. It’s worth repeating some of the accounts, together with added information.
Tabak says there have been 30 victims of extrajudicial killings (salvaging) in the IP communities during the Aquino presidency. The killings have taken place in areas with large mining operations, with resistance coming from IPs who see mining activities as an encroachment on their ancestral lands. At stake are some of Southeast Asia’s largest reserves of gold, copper and other minerals.
Last Sept. 4, 12-year-old Jordan Manda was killed in an ambush in Bayog, Zamboanga del Norte. Jordan was with his father, Subanen leader Timuay Lucenio Manda, a vocal opponent of mining. On Sept. 13, Genesis Ambason, a member of the Banwaon tribe, was ambushed and killed in San Luis, Agusan del Sur, his corpse found near a military detachment with signs of torture. He was secretary general of Tagdumahan, a community organization active in antimining campaigns. Last Sept. 29, a 16-year-old Teruray, Roland Malley, was killed in Columbio, Sultan Kudarat, during a raid by the 27th Infantry Battalion.
The worst incident in recent months occurred last Oct. 18, when Juvy Capion, two months pregnant, was killed with two of her children, 13-year-old Pop and 8-year-old Janjan, with the 27th Infantry Battalion claiming that the Capions were caught in the crossfire between the military and Juvy’s husband, Daguil (sometimes spelled Daguel), who had joined the NPA.
Just last June a friend of mine visited me at UP to explore how we could help various lumad communities with livelihood projects and cultural heritage preservation. Last week she came visiting again and said we would have to postpone activities, given the tense situation in the IP communities. She told me it’s now women who are the frontline defenders of the villages because so many of the men have gone to the hills to join the rebels.
Juvy Capion’s husband was an example. He started out as an employee of Sagittarius Mining, even becoming a community relations officer, but who became increasingly frustrated with Sagittarius’ lack of concern for the communities’ rights. Finally he joined the NPA and was in fact away from his home village because his presence would endanger his family. That did not deter the military from attacking his family and killing his wife and two children.
There’s a photograph in the asiancorrespondent.com website that really hit me hard. It showed 4-year-old Becky, one of the Capions’ surviving children, being carried by her grandmother. There’s a crude bandage on the back of her head, over a wound from a bullet that grazed her ear. The article explains that Becky, her grandmother and two aunts were “hijacked” as they tried to get to the residence of Bishop Gutierrez, were diverted by a Sagittarius-sponsored Tribal Foundation worker who brought them instead to a government social welfare office that could not attend to them.
These incidents have received little media attention, yet they will have long-term and serious implications for Mindanao and the Philippines. The problems we saw with generations of marginalized Moros are going to happen again with the IPs, the resentment and anger growing with time as the children grow up amid injustice and impunity.
The difference is that the discontent and ferment will grow much faster now because the IPs have seen what happened when other IP communities lost their ancestral lands and their heritage. In larger cities nationwide during these “ber” months, we see what that displacement has produced: bands of Badjao, Cordillera peoples and various Negrito groups (in Davao, for example, the Matigsalug Manobo), coming to the cities to beg. These were once proud and self-sufficient peoples, now reduced to mendicants. The lumad are not about to allow history to repeat itself.