Yeoh Seng Guan, on a sojourn in the Philippines, discovers that the spirit of dissent is well and truly alive among the tribal communities in the Cordillera region.
On 24 April 1980, Am Macliing Dulag, a prominent leader of the Butbut tribe, was ambushed and killed by the Philippine military. Together with other tribal leaders, he had strongly opposed the construction of the World Bank-funded Basin Hydroelectric Dam on the Chico Dam by President Ferdinand Marcos.
Instead of extinguishing the struggle, his death instead became the rallying point for those resisting the Chico Dam and other projects that threatened their ancestral domain. In 1985, because of the significant broadening of unity amongst the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera, the annual gathering commemorating Macliing Dulag’s death was renamed “Cordillera Day”. The organisation of the gathering was taken over by the newly formed Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA).
Biggest political gathering
Over the years, despite intimidation of the host communities by the powers-that-be, “Cordillera Day” has gained the reputation for being the biggest annual political gathering of indigenous peoples in the country. Together with delegations of support groups from inside and outside the Philippines, crowds of between 3,000 to 5,000 persons are commonplace.
In late April 2006, I was part of a convoy of 11 jeepneys comprising the Baguio City delegation to this year’s Cordillera Day. It took us nearly 12 hours on winding mountain roads to reach the remote village of Ag-Agama in the Kalinga province. Many others travelled much longer distances. They included sectoral (miners, farmers, transport, urban poor), civil society (human rights, women, migrant workers), medical, university and church groups from the lowland provinces of Northern and Central Luzon, and from Mindanao. We were joined by an additional 70 foreign delegates from countries such as Belgium, Canada, Germany, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.
As one could imagine, hosting such a large gathering over a few days required much logistical preparation. I was told that the local villagers together with the organisers had laboured together for over two months to lay the basic infrastructure for the event. Many of the homes of the villagers were converted into makeshift dormitories for their guests, but this was simply not enough. Like many others, I opted for setting up a tent in one of the many campsites prepared for us. Considering that the last time I had camped was during my secondary schooldays decades ago, the brief return to a rustic mode of life was personally quite memorable.
For bathing and drinking facilities, we relied on the numerous mountain streams that flowed around the village. Villagers worked in shifts around the clock in the communal kitchen to prepare food and drinks for the constant stream of visitors. Fortunately, it was not all one-way traffic as there were duty rosters set up for us to serve food while all of us cleaned our own plates and cups.
All the main events were held under large canopies built over the village basketball court. Large colourful banners bearing solidarity messages underscored the tone of the gathering. In keeping with its trademark resistive stance and in the light of the recent turn of political events in the country, this year’s theme had the following clarion calls:
Strengthen inter-tribal unity and people’s resistance against destructive mining and political repression! Oppose Charter Change and oust the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime!
Under the Ten-Point Legacy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, there has been a push for large-scale mining activity in the Cordillera and Mindanao regions. Although the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA) legislates for the requirement of the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of affected indigenous communities for any project in their ancestral domain, monitoring groups have noted the acquisition of FPIC through public relation gimmicks, deception and selective consultation by transnational mining corporations and their local counterparts.
Another focus of attention for this year’s gathering is the escalation of militarisation, political killings and other forms of human rights violations against activists and leaders of people’s movements critical of Macapagal-Arroyo’s policies. In particular, the fate of three individuals was highlighted for special mention – Romy Sanchez of Bayan Muna, Jose ‘Pepe’ Manegdeg of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, and Albert Terredano of the Abra Human Rights Advocates. Their deaths were memorialised in a moving Martyrs’ Service held on the last night of the gathering.
Macapagal-Arroyo administration found guilty
Similarly, the proposed Charter Change (Cha-cha) from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government engineered by Macapagal-Arroyo was also singled out for strong criticism. Among others, its wide-ranging recommendations are seen as essentially providing the mechanism for curtailing civil liberties, facilitating more foreign exploitation of the country’s natural resources and public utilities, and strengthening the dictatorial powers of the executive.
Discussions of these concerns and case studies of other human rights violations in the Cordillera unfolded in smaller caucuses and workshops. They were then creatively presented to the general assembly through short skits and cultural performances. Cultural workshops were also organised for those wanting to learn to play Cordillerian musical instruments like the gong (ganza) and bamboo, or the steps of various tribal dances.
On the second day of the gathering, a People’s Tribunal was conducted. Specific charges of human rights violations and anti-people policies by the present administration were cited and re-enacted through a series of skits by a number of affected local communities. At the end of the day, the panel of judges comprising tribal elders and prominent sectoral leaders passed a “guilty” verdict against the Macapagal-Arroyo administration. They called for her ouster as president of the country symbolically expressed through a spearing of her effigy.
Vibrant tribal culture
Apart from the cogent political content of the gathering, a number of things impressed me about Cordillera Day. I was struck by the vibrancy of Cordillera/Igorot tribal culture as expressed through dressing, music and dance. Aptly epitomising the cohesive glue and proud independent spirit of the various Cordilleran tribes was the frequent communal dancing that punctuated the events. Its distinctive rhythm was dictated by 18 bronze hand-held gongs sounded by members of the various tribal communities that were present.
The organisers were also adept in the use of more modern communications technology (such as video documentaries and taped songs) in updating those present of the various happenings in the Cordilleran region. But what was most refreshingly evident was the reliance on popular theatrical forms (dance, skits, and banners) in communicating vividly and poignantly the life-threatening issues affecting the livelihood and well-being of tribal communities in the Cordillera region. In more ways than one, the separation between reality and art, and between bodies and spirits was paper thin if not fictional.
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