Save the ‘lumad’
It took US President Ronald Reagan six years to say something about the AIDS crisis that first made its appearance in America in 1981, and then rapidly developed into a national health emergency. As thousands of gay men in major cities such as San Francisco and New York succumbed to the mysterious disease, and thousands more cases of infection were reported, the Reagan administration, which drew support from the religious Right, responded with a combination of indifference and outright hostility to the idea of helping a subset of the American population that had long been despised by the “moral majority.”
The official silence at the top meant, at the very least, that there was no funding for research into the disease’s nature and origins in the critical first months and years of its spread. By the time Reagan made his first remarks about AIDS in 1987, in the twilight of his term, the stark consequences of his inaction were clear: nearly 21,000 Americans dead and over 36,000 living with the disease, which had now spread to 113 other countries. The episode is now remembered as a shameful chapter in his presidency.
AIDS in America and the plight of the lumad in Mindanao may be unrelated topics, but the silence and apathy that characterized Reagan’s response to a humanitarian crisis during his watch appear to be similar to what President Aquino is displaying in the face of the persistent oppression and injustice that the lumad are undergoing. The atrocities inflicted on the indigenous people, on top of the daily miseries they have had to endure since fleeing their communities to escape the war between government forces and rebels, include seeing their educators and leaders murdered in front of their eyes by vigilante groups said to be funded by the military, and the torching of their houses, schools and refugee centers.
Lumad groups are firm in saying it was members of the paramilitary group Alamara that set fire to an evacuation center in a church compound in Haran, Davao City, last Feb. 26. Five people, four of them children, were injured. The compound itself has been home for more than a year now to some 700 lumad displaced from their communities by heavy fighting. But even in this temporary sanctuary, they were not safe from the depredations of politicians and other groups out to exploit their circumstances for vested ends.
From accounts, the most outrageous of these machinations against the lumad has been their attempted “rescue” by North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco last year. Catamco, the chair of the House committee on indigenous peoples who had earlier called the displaced lumad “stinky” and urged them to return to their homes, barged into the compound with cops and other armed men in tow, allegedly because the evacuees inside were being held by communist rebels against their will. The appalling irony of a lawmaker tasked to speak for indigenous people’s welfare choosing to disbelieve her own constituents’ plight and spearheading instead their further oppression was compounded only by a greater sin: an icy silence emanating from Malacañang.
Catamco, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, has not been sanctioned, neither for her conduct vis-à-vis the lumad nor for her documented involvement in the pork barrel scam. The President, meanwhile, has spoken but once about the lumad problem ever since their torment came to light, and it was in the most perfunctory way: “There is no campaign to kill anybody in this country,” he said last September. “There is a campaign to go after the culprits of these crimes regardless of who they are.”
If there is, indeed, a campaign to bring to justice those who murder the lumad and burn their dwellings, then that campaign is an epic failure. Specific paramilitary group members have been tagged in the killings and other crimes committed against the lumad, but no one has been charged, let alone arrested by the military forces that reportedly arm them and abet their activities in the region in the name of counterinsurgency.
In the weeks and months that Mr. Aquino has kept silent even as the lumad cry out for help, the numbers have only mounted. As of September 2015 when he last addressed the matter, if barely, the tally was 68 victims of summary killings, 53 of them lumad. More will die if he does not put a stop to this murderous spree. As in Reagan’s case, it will be to the lasting shame of his presidency.
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