Can the Lumad speak?

Responding to the public outrage against the Lumad killings and the growing clamor to end the militarization of their schools and communities, government spokesmen and apologists have taken to questioning the ability of the Lumad to speak.

“May concerns po ‘yung mga taong ito. Huwag naman po natin silang gamitin para sa motibo ng iba,” said Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte. “Wala po tayong problema doon sa pagdidinig kung ano ‘yung mga concerns nila pero hindi rin po natin maiaalis siguro na baka gamitin ng ibang tao,” added Valte.

In fact, this charge is nothing new. This mantra has become part of a propaganda blitz as the Manilakbayan began last October with more than 700 Lumad marching thousands of miles all the way from Mindanao to Metro Manila to bring their plight to the national capital.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Col. Benjamin Hao, for instance, recently accused an International Fact-Finding Mission in Surigao del Sur last October 26 to 30 as the handiwork of “cohorts of leftist organizations.” The army official said that leftist groups are “using” the Lumad to further an anti-government agenda when the killings, he insisted, are mere “figments of their imagination.”

What should not be lost on us here is the way cynically dismissing the Lumad as mere “victims” of manipulation is to typecast them as an uneducated folk who easily allow themselves to be used by “outsiders.” This also reeks of a “divide-and-rule” ploy that seeks to discredit sectors who express solidarity to the Lumad.

By repeating this spurious claim, we fall prey to a dominant discourse that categorizes the Lumad as an ignorant lot who are prone to being duped by external forces to take up critical positions on issues affecting their people and hence be complicit to their subjugation.

The reality on the ground, however, paints a very different picture. “Pilit na inaagaw sa amin ang aming lupang ninuno. Nais naming palayasin ang mga sundalo at buwagin ang mga grupong paramilitar,” says Bai Bibiaon Ligkaian Bigkai, the woman Datu of Talaingod, Davao del Norte.

According to the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Research (EILER), these paramilitary groups sowing terror on the Lumad protect companies like the BHP Billiton Ltd., Toronto Ventures Inc. and the Sagittarius Mines Inc. which are subsidiaries of foreign mining giants like Glencore-Xstrata.

Big companies are salivating over the Lumad’s resource-rich ancestral land. Citing data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, the EILER reports that mining operations sit on top of 311,000 hectares of land in Mindanao with $313 billion worth of minerals.

And it is precisely this reality that led the Lumad to organize their ranks and seek the help of a broad spectrum of people’s organizations, church groups, and rights advocates.

We are led to believe by army propagandists that the Lumad are “good” as long as they remain the “powerless” victims who must endure this situation passively. The instant the Lumad begin to assert themselves as political subjects organizing collectively and initiating militant struggles to defend their rights, we are conveniently told that leftist groups are “using” them.

“We get vilified, we get killed, then our just demands against the military operations within our communities and schools are trivialized, the reason behind the systematic killing and displacement reduced to an internal conflict that lays the blame on the victims,” says Michelle Campos, the daughter of murdered Manobo leader Dionel Campos.

There are Lumad who do join the NPA. But as Indian writer Arundhati Roy writes in the context of India’s own armed conflicts, “People who live in situations like this do not simply take instructions from a handful of ideologues who appear out of nowhere waving guns.”

The decision on what forms their resistance takes is arrived at by careful reflection that considers the necessities of the situation and extent of repression they face. In fact, the lumad have fought for their land long before the founding of the NPA in 1969 and even before the Philippine Republic began to exist.

Indeed, it is easier to see the Lumad killings as a matter of civilians getting caught in the crossfire of government forces and rebels but far more difficult to consider the Lumad’s long history of marginalization as well as of resistance.

For so long, the Lumad have been tourist curiosities that they are expected to avoid tarnishing the grand narrative of a country aspiring to “First World” status. We forget that these are a people who have not had access to basic social services, a people who have been neglected, discriminated, and ruthlessly dispossessed of their land in the name of profit.

It comes as no surprise then that the Lumad contingents of the Manilakbayan have joined the people’s protest against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Manila later this November.

The neoliberal economic paradigm imposed by APEC has relegated the country as a field of investment for foreign capitalists in areas like mining and as a source of cheap labor for transnationals here and abroad. This is a myopic vision of progress that has hit the Lumad hardest.

The Lumad have been rendered voiceless for the longest time. Now they have traversed the long road from the rural periphery to present narratives that those in power have vainly kept hidden from us.

Can the Lumad speak? The recently concluded Manilakbayan is the answer of the Lumad to the malicious questioning of their ability to speak. The epic march of hundreds of indigenous peoples to the capital is a testament to how those who have hitherto been in the margins of society struggle to not remain unseen by bringing their cause to the national stage.

Instead of adding to the noise that drowns the Lumad voices, it would do well for us to listen to the stories they have to share. Let us lend our solidarity to their struggles to defend their land, their lives, and their rights.


  1. We got a sobering presentation on this issue from Anakbayan Toronto this evening, and it put your recent blog writings in better perspective. In Canada we have a similar state campaign to deprive indigenous people of their voices and land rights. We’re hoping to be able to forge links between these disparate struggles. Thanks for making all of your information available in English––we have much listening to engage in.

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