Indigenous Human Rights Activists Face Targeting, Death in the Philippines
Now they’re asking the New Zealand government for help.
All images: Tess McClure
For the last two years, the Philippine President’s bloody ‘war on drugs’ and its astonishing death toll have been in global headlines. But less well known is the toll against indigenous and human rights activists; who say they are becoming the next targets in the Duterte administration’s ever-evolving ‘war’.
With more than 20,000 alleged drug-users dead, the front line has shifted to take on human rights workers and other groups who are critical of government policy. Estimates vary, but since Duterte’s regime began, over 100 human right workers and activists have been murdered. Simultaneously, the President’s rhetoric against human rights workers and critics has hardened. Following one of the country’s single bloodiest nights of the year, he extended his declaration of war to include activists and human rights activists: “If they are obstructing justice, you shoot them,” he said. “So they can really see the kind of human rights.”
He followed up this year, telling a UN human rights expert to “go to hell.” When the government was criticised for its treatment of indigenous communities, he responded by placing the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on the nation’s official terrorist list. "I don't care about human rights, believe me," he said in official transcripts released by the presidential palace.
Among those facing the threat of increasing violence are the indigenous Lumad populations of Mindanao, who have for decades campaigned against land confiscation, logging, and mining of indigenous ancestral lands. This year, a small group of indigenous school-teachers from Mindanao have approached New Zealand with a plea for intervention from the New Zealand government. They're asking that New Zealand join 40 other UN nations in condemning extra-judicial killings in the Philippines.
I first met members of the Manobo tribe around two years ago, in an evacuation camp in Davao City, in the south of the Philippines. The tribe had come down from their ancestral lands in the mountains following the killing of teachers and a school student—Alibando Tingkas—by paramilitary groups. They were staying in a camp in the grounds of local church.
Lina*, a Lumad woman who witnessed one of the killings, said this through a translator: “I really cried some tears, because I saw how Alibando died. He was coming home, he had just bought a chicken, he was carrying it here, like this. He was shot and all of his fingers except one was cut off. It went in his heart, and out his spine.”
A Lumad datu, or community leader, went on, “The government accuses us of being NPA [terrorists]. But the leaders were killed because they do not want to give up the land for mining purposes.”
While they had come to the city seeking safety, the camp had become a target too. A week before I visited, arsonists had entered the camp and set alight tents where families slept, and a dormitory where 20 school students slept. The dorm had been mostly incinerated, leaving piles of ash from burned belongings, pages of books for study, a few preserved photos and partly-destroyed books.
The fires were contained—but not before five people sleeping below, including a 2-year old, suffered second degree burns from the burning plastic. The skin on his arms had bubbled and blistered. For those who came to the city seeking sanctuary, the fire was a rude reminder that the violence they fled in the mountains had followed them down to town.
Over a year on from that time, Pele,* a school-teacher and advocate from Mindanao, says the situation has grown much worse. He visited New Zealand along with a group of indigenous teachers to ask the New Zealand government for support, and a stronger stance on the Philippine killings.
VICE: Can you tell me what the current situation is in the Philippines?
Pele: Currently in Mindanao, so the Philippines, the home of the Lumad, the 18 indigenous tribes, we’re facing intense militarisation and displacement, and environmental plunder. That’s through the ancestral domains of our Lumad communities and also our community-based schools. At the same time there’s been great resistance to this militarisation through the continuing education of our schools, through the defence of ancestral domains by our people.
Since Duterte has been president, there have been 127 extrajudicial killings of activists. Many people may know about the “war on the drugs” and the alleged 20,000 extrajudicial killings of the last years, but might not know about the activists being killed. In the Philippines, 39 indigenous activists have been extrajudicially killed under Duterte—37 of them were based in Mindanao.
Who are the people who are dying? Are these people you know?
So just three days ago, there was another one. These are community elders and leaders, parents, teachers and also two students who were killed for defending their land, environment, protecting the right to self-determination against the military in the extractive industries.
In 2015 at one of our sister-schools in Surigo del Sur, in the North-Eastern region of Davao, two community leaders and the director of the school were summary executed in front of the entire community by paramilitary state-backed forces. Those three extrajudicial killings were the most popular, in the media, that gained attention. Ironically, Duterte wasn’t president yet, and he denounced the the paramilitary and they needed to be disbanded. But since Duterte has become president, he’s been doing the same thing. Now 39 indigenous people, activists have been killed.
So things have got worse, post-Duterte?
So this is the ongoing continuation, basically, the culture of impunity from previous regimes. And Duterte was our hope, a lot of people had hope in him. I voted for Duterte, my family voted for Duterte. Before, when he was mayor, he had positives but also had some negatives. But now, he’s just doing the same thing.
When he became President, there was also hope he would put in progressives into a lot of his positions. One of them was Gina Lopez, in the department of Natural Resources. Her first agenda was to shut down 23 large scale mining corporations that breached their contract. Which was unprecedented in Philippine history. Everyone was rejoicing—but not too long after she was booted out the government. When that happened we started to see the shift.
On the ground, in the these communities he once protected, now there’s militarisation, killing of our leaders, students. He recently had a meeting in Davao City saying that the Lumad have done nothing with their ancestral domain and he will choose [mining and palm oil] investors for them. Now what we’re seeing is the mining, logging and the extractive industries are trying to come in and the military and the paramilitary are the first wave to displace the people so that they can get the land. That is the main reason why we feel that these killings are happening.
When you say “increased militarisation,” what do you mean? What does that look like on the ground?
What it means, is 75 percent of the Philippine armed forces are now stationed in Mindanao. What that looks like is there are checkpoints, food blockades going in and out of the community. Teachers are being barred from going to the community. If they bring rice they're saying “Oh this rice is not for you, it’s for rebels, it’s for terrorists, are you a terrorist?”. So people and the students are going hungry. That is one aspect. People are being harassed by the military, going house to house taking pictures, saying that “if you go to this school you're a rebel”. These are the real situations that are happening. People getting killed, tortured, kidnapped, disappeared, so that’s reality.
If you’re in rural areas, you’re seeing the reality of this. There taking people by the rounds and saying “These are rebels, these are rebels” taking their picture, saying they’re political prisoners. This is widespread. The [government-released list of] 600 terrorists includes prominent environmental rights activists and indigenous rights activists and the United Nations special repertoire of indigenous people is on that list. Media outlets are being shut.
And why are you in New Zealand—what are you asking the government here?
We meet with the Minister of Foreign affairs, we wrote to them about the human rights situation and wanted to talk to them about what’s happening in the indigenous communities. They wrote a positive response that they've been monitoring and they’re trying to encourage the Philippine government to try and uphold the United Nations’ and the humanitarian laws. So we went there to meet with Winston Peters, unfortunately he was not available to meet. So we went to the South East Asia desk, the Philippine desk and the United Nations human rights desk. They were receptive, we shared with them what we shared with you and they said that they support—but they didn’t take a hard stance and we were really urging them to stand on the right side of justice. Over 20,000 people have been killed now. So all that diplomacy—we were telling them that Iceland and 40 other countries have taken a formal stance [at the United Nations demanding Duterte end the killings of human rights defenders and citizens].
We told them that they need to take a stance too, that many Kiwis and Māori we shared the story with feel the same way. We just put it on their lap and it's up to them. But it's really up the grass roots and also the networks to put pressure on your government to make a move.
Your focus is on preserving your indigenous schools. Tell me about why.
The schools and education are vital because it's a basic right for all people. For generations, decades, until this day, the majority of indigenous people in Mindanao don’t have access to these. They were illiterate and taken advantage of and exploited. So the purpose of the schools is to uphold the right to self-determination through education, protection of their ancestral domain and also to uphold their indigenous culture and traditions, that’s the key.
We also came here to share and connect and exchange with Māori schools and communities—and one thing that we learned is that the Māori struggle for their indigenous education has been a long struggle here. There are also differences. Where we’re at right now is where they were at during the lands wars, but it's the same thing. So seeing where they’re at now in their practise and they’re also seeing where we’re at, exchanging these lessons has been really valuable for us. This is just the start point of this sharing and this communion from Māori to the Lumad tribes. Also learning about their struggle to protect their ancestral domains under these different conditions we also learned a lot from them and shared our struggle.
The biggest thing is we share the same view: that land is life, and that it’s about the ancestral land, is about the iwi and also those who are not part of iwi who have come - learning how to manaakitanga.
*Names have been abbreviated or changed due to concerns for the safety of interviewees.