Out of sight, out of mind – a natural conclusion that is really a general rule. There are exceptions, of course, but time itself is a kind of ripening agent that makes the saying truer by the day. Out of sight, out of mind. How many good friends have we forgotten simply because distance, silence and long years apart made us focus somewhere else, on someone else? Even family is not exempt, by the way, sad but true.
And so with the case of our indigenous peoples. We know about them from what we are taught and what the news may carry from time to time. But we have distance and non-engagement over our lifetimes that separate us not only physically but in almost every other way. We in the urban areas and in other places where there are no tribal people know they are out there but we also assume our paths would most probably never meet.
However, in those mountains and valleys in Mindanao where there are many tribes of indigenous people, they are a significant factor. They used to be already important in history and cultural studies for most students, but that was about it. What many of us never knew, or only heard about sporadically, is that tribes of indigenous peoples have been in the center of controversy. Worse, many are in the center of conflict and violence.
For many Filipinos situated in Luzon and the Visayas, Mindanao has always been like an estranged brother island. That is what conflict does. It mattered little that Mindanao is beautiful, Mindanao has awesome natural resources, because Mindanao for several decades had been a dangerous place. It remains to be so in many fundamental ways or else there would be no justification at all for the ongoing martial law over the whole island.
The historical tension between Christians and Muslims had broken out into armed conflict in several provinces in the last fifty years. From armed conflict was born what we now know as terrorism from extremists beyond the standard kidnappings in the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi region. All these killings and bombings from the ’70s have conditioned the mindset and emotions of non-Mindanaoans. There have been marked improvements in the recent decade due to peace talks and the resultant Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The presidency, too, of Rodrigo R. Duterte, has managed to make Mindanao, especially the Davao region, much more attractive and welcoming.
What has escaped national attention in the degree that it should have not is the communist insurgency in Mindanao? The bad news that was war and terrorism associated with Muslims served as a blanket of cover for another problem that apparently is serious beyond our national appreciation. We are more aware of the NPA problem in Luzon and the Visayas because it has festered around us for fifty years as well – but much closer to home. For non-Mindanaoans, the NPA problem in Mindanao has not been a top-of-mind issue.
Recent news, however, has put the situation of indigenous peoples and the NPA front and center. The government in the last year, and getting more committed, it seems, is taking on the communist insurgency in the communication arena. I have read from mostly digital media about delegations from the government communications group meeting with their European counterparts and other parties of interest. This is a new development where the Philippine government is reaching out to European countries and groups therein and explaining how the communist movement in the Philippines has sustained its armed rebellion with financial aid from Europe.
Of course, I would like to say that I was not a keen follower of government initiatives towards European nations. Like most Filipinos, I know Joma Sison has been there for the longest of time. I can assume that he has support, even from the government there. But that has been like the most I would hear except when there are ongoing peace talks. Peace talks between government and rebels, communists or Muslims secessionists, have always interested me. My wish for peace has been deep.
I wonder now that I have read about officials from social media posts of the government’s communication arm why I never heard of similar efforts in the past. If indeed, financial aid has been coming from European states, it stands to reason that our government would try to neutralize that. If it is by propaganda, then so be it. Because anyway, that is what the other side must be doing. But the government has more control of information, of data and statistics, and is armed with a natural sympathy from other governments. All governments protect and promote their national interests, and one government understands why others do so.
More recently, I pick up, again from social media postings, about lumad tribal leaders from conflict areas in Mindanao doing a road trip in the United States to relate their personal and tribal experiences. The tribal leaders were one in saying that they have been victimized by abuses from the NPAs – threatened, even killed, when they do not follow. Following means giving material support and providing recruits. I know it is one side of a conflicted situation, but it is a real, legitimate side if the tribal leaders speak their truth. Then, I read that many lumad schools are being closed by DepEd. This seems to affirm that lumad schools are making the recruitment of youth to become NPA warriors easy.
If there are other sides to the same story, it makes the whole thing even more miserable. It means that our indigenous tribes in some areas of Mindanao are caught in a crossfire of armed protagonists – the PNP and AFP versus the NPAs. Why is this happening? Why are the most peaceful people in the Philippines forced
Pray for our lumad brothers and sisters. Pray for peace.