We are ‘lumad,’ hear our voice

Speaking in Filipino, he declared: “I am Datu Rico Maca of Bitaogan, San Miguel, Surigao del Sur.” And in declaring himself, he claimed the space due him by lineage and by history. This act is crucial as there are groups who accuse Maca of being a “fake” datu. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples has confirmed his status, sealing his claim to the title.

“With me are the legitimate leaders of indigenous peoples (IPs) in Surigao del Sur. I’d like to introduce them to you,” Maca said. Then, addressing the other men, he added: “Please stand, fellow datus.”


About 40 datus rose all at the same time, with the confidence and pride that only those who are used to the dignity and burden of authority can project. Thus did they gather everyone’s full attention.

The occasion was the recent Senate inquiry into the lumad killings. The atmosphere was tense.


“We are one with you in demanding justice for the three murdered lumad in Lianga, Surigao del Sur,” Maca said. “But we are also hurt since there were so many others killed over the years, yet no one paid attention. If not for a non-IP who was killed, Mr. Samarca, a Senate inquiry would not have taken place. In our own community, there were three persons killed last Aug 26, but why does [the human rights group] Karapatan demand justice only for the Tabugon brothers? How about Rogel Ignacio ‘Loverboy’ Quinones? He deserves justice, too.”

Maca enumerated the names of the victims, making them alive again in the memory of those present. In his testimony, by design or by accident, he honored the dead by declaring their names.

And there were, he said, 357 lumad killed by the “NPA” (New People’s Army) over the period 1988-2008. He didn’t say it out loud, but I heard him, we all did: Where were you? Why pay attention to us only now?

The communities in question are found on the mountain ranges of Regions 11 and 13. Populated by the Manobo, Mamanwa, Matigsalog, Banwaon, Dibabawon and Umayamnon, they are situated in the provincial boundaries of Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, Bukidnon and the Davao Region. All the 33 tribes have ancestral-domain claims that sit on a rich deposit of nickel, gold and other minerals. And there lies the rub: The issue is resources, and the control of them.

The killing of Emerito Samarca, Bello Sinzo and Dionel Campos last Sept. 1 caught the attention of the public because of the brutality involved. The campaign that was launched caught fire: #stoplumadkillings. It was a plain and direct call to action. But while the campaign focused attention on the plight of the lumad, the problem is the simplicity of the narrative on which it was based: the paramilitary groups that roam and terrorize the communities connive with or are formed by the military because of suspicion that they coddle the NPA, or worse, are NPA members themselves. The story line is simply this: the military vs. the NPA. But the reality is more complex.

There are layers of interests at play in the situation. What we see is just the smoke, not the fire that creates the smoke. At the heart of the issue is the tug-of-war between the 1995 Mining Act and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (Ipra) of 1997. Mining companies have long been interested in IP territories in northeast Mindanao; the major stumbling block is the lumad’s ancestral-domain claim under the Ipra.

Let’s understand the issues, the first being the IP leadership. Before the entry of outsiders, the IP political system was clear: The datu is the political leader; the babaylan the religious leader; and the bagani the cultural defender. A ceremony is done to declare who the leaders are. But when outsiders entered the picture, the political system was compromised. In some communities, there is now a “proliferation” of datus: the datu based on lineage, the datu appointed by the NPA, another recognized by the local government, yet another recognized by the military.


Most often, this situation comes at a price, if not a quid pro quo arrangement. The datu who represents the community gets to take part in the approval process of the “free, prior and informed consent” required for mining companies to operate in IP territories. He will also represent the community in collecting its percentage share in the mining income. In a multibillion-peso industry, it’s a no-brainer why the race for the “real” datu is on.

Then there is the bagani system. The NPA formed the “Pulang Bagani,” and the “Magahat-Bagani” is, accordingly, composed of ex-NPA members. The Magahat-Bagani is the group allegedly responsible for the murder spree last Sept. 1.

This “NPA” and “ex-NPA” affiliation is also the source of the current framing of the issue as NPA vs. military, with the ex-NPA group being associated with the military. For some reason, the framers of the lumad issue regard the NPA as having only a “by the way” role; the main protagonists remain the community on one side and the Magahat-Bagani-plus-military on the other. There seems to be a clear attempt to stay clear of linking the NPA to the matter. But according to information, the group is very much a participant in the unfolding events.

An additional complication is the “uniform” used by the armed groups. The military’s presentation during the Senate inquiry included a photograph of the NPA members who purportedly attacked Magpet, Cotabato, in October 2014, all clad in military-style combat uniforms. Members of private armed groups also wear the same combat uniforms. So when witnesses describe armed men in military uniform, it becomes difficult to establish whether the armed men are indeed members of the military or other groups.

Finally, there is the fact that all these groups—NPA, ex-NPA, private armed groups, and the militia (Cafgu)—are peopled by the lumad. They are being used and abused by different interests, capitalizing on the very characteristic of the IPs that makes them susceptible to manipulation: their trusting nature. The sad reality is that the lumad are being pitted against one another. Outsiders have corrupted the lumad culture and tradition to benefit their interests.

When Maca made his impassioned plea, he communicated in a language not just of logic and reason, but a language understood by the heart:

“What we want is no military, no NGO, no Karapatan. Leave us alone to talk among ourselves. We can best address the issues by talking among ourselves rather than going to court. It is painful that there are killings without justice. Please, PNP, AFP, Gob (Surigao del Sur Gov. Johnny Pimentel), please help us. We want justice for all the victims…” He broke down in emotion before adding: “Our appeal is to dismantle the NPA in our communities… What government agency can help us?”

Jennifer Santiago Oreta, PhD, is assistant secretary at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

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TAGS: Indigenous Peoples, Lumad, lumad killings, New People’s Army, NPA
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