By: Criselda Yabes

Marginalized indigenous tribes on Mindanao Island, collectively called the lumad, are finding themselves in the thick of an armed battleground in their own ancestral lands, pushed to the fringes of the country. After a recent spate of killings that broke through into public notice, their plight has exposed the Philippine complexities of heritage, natural resources, exploitation and internal wars.

The communist New People’s Army (NPA), which had been written off as a dwindling threat in the past three decades of free-wheeling democracy, has resuscitated the hinterlands of northeastern Mindanao into a comeback and their fighting base. There they believe they can revive mass support from among the impoverished tribes that anthropologists call the invisible Filipinos.

More than half of the country’s 110 ethnic tribes, at latest count, or “Indigenous People” as they are known legally,  are found in Mindanao, which is in itself a keg of violence spawned from the Muslim rebellions since the 1970s. The lumad, a native term distinct to the various non-Muslim tribes of Mindanao, occupy the remote forests in the Christian majority provinces of Davao, Agusan, Bukidnon and Surigao.

Until the news went viral giving symbol to their name, they were a group of people who wore their costumes in public cultural shows and had strange supernatural beliefs in the eyes of most Filipinos, who are more than 80 percent Catholic. 

In late October, a mayor from the fierce Manobo tribe and a former communist rebel himself was killed along with his son in the little-known town of Agusan del Sur. The NPA claimed responsibility, saying he had sided with the enemy, meaning the military, after the mayor had posted Facebook pictures of himself in the jovial company of army officers.

Previous to that, in September, a teacher in a lumad school was brutally killed, allegedly by paramilitary forces. He was found hogtied in his classroom with his throat slit. The school was said to have been teaching children the basics of communist indoctrination and how to use rifles. These incidents and a series of evacuations in other tribal communities since the middle of the year have been triggered by clashes and violence from all sides – Communist rebels, soldiers and private armies.

The Commission on Human Rights said all sides are to be blamed. During a recent weeklong cultural foray held for the lumad at the state university in the capital Manila, many saw the signs of the left using the issue for political purposes. The revival of long lost patrimony may have caught the imagination of the millennials, but their social media hash tags didn’t quite inspire the radical activism that is now considered passé. 

The genesis of the issue lies in the land: the grounds on which the lumad have stuck to their origins were not only fertile, they hold a wealth of gold, nickel, copper, and timber for which mining and logging companies have put their interests at stake. The communist rebels have thus learned to extort “revolutionary taxes” from the companies, mostly foreign-owned, to fuel their war against the government, supposedly in the name of social justice.

The presence of the companies has created fissures among the lumad communities, which were vulnerable to begin with, pushed and pulled between promises of jobs and schools and the tradition of keeping their natural resources untouched. Under threat from the rebels, these companies hire their own militia forces from the lumad themselves and sometimes aided by the military already spread out in other flashpoints of Mindanao.