Content Warning: Police and military brutality

In the early hours of December 30, 2020, Filipino police and military soldiers raided several Indigenous communities on the western island of Panay, killing nine people and arresting ten. The individuals killed and arrested in the attacks were known protestors of the military and objectors of the Jalaur River Dam Project, which will forcibly relocate thousands of Indigenous Peoples and entire communities. 

Representative Arlene Brosas, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines, remarked that this horrific event, referred to as the Tumandok massacre, was a “chilling conclusion of a year marred by bloody attacks on rights defenders and ordinary citizens amid the pandemic.” The attacks represent an escalation of violence towards land defenders and the targeting of the country’s most marginalized communities. 

Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines 

There are around 11.3 million Indigenous people and 110 unique ethno-linguistic Indigenous groups in the Republic of the Philippines. It is estimated that Indigenous people account for 11-12% of the population, but this number could be as high as 20%. The Philippines is a country made up of over 7,000 islands, so the lifestyles, livelihoods, and languages across Indigenous groups vary greatly. Groups that reside in the northern mountainous region of Luzon are known as the Igorot. In the south, members of eight Indigenous groups from the island of Mindoro are known as the Mangyan. The Tumandok People reside in Central Panay, an island southwest of Manila, the country’s capital. 

The Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines are “ranked among the poorest and most disadvantaged [in the country]” according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). They lack legal land rights and have higher rates of illiteracy, mortality, and unemployment than the rest of the population. On top of these disadvantages, they are disproportionately impacted by environmental damage caused by dams and other industrial activities across the country and have been violently targeted by government officials for defending their own territory. 

Historical Context 

The Tumandok, and other Indigenous communities across the Philippines, have had a long history of resisting dam construction projects that threatened their way of life on Panay island. In the 1970s, emphasis was placed on the country’s natural resources as “the national economy became increasingly foreign-dominated and export-oriented.” Many foreign and domestic corporations took advantage of these resources by increasing activity in export-based industries, such as logging, mining, and agriculture. As a result, the military forcibly relocated many Indigenous communities to avoid confrontation or opposition towards improper land use.

Jalaur River Dam Project 

Tumanduk Farmers in Defense for Land and Life, also known as TUMANDUK, is an organization that opposes environmentally destructive development projects. The group has strongly opposed the Jalaur River Multi-Purpose Project (JRMPP), in which the government has proposed construction of a dam across the Jalaur River to generate “hydroelectric power … and eco-tourism” revenue. TUMANDUK is concerned about the potential flooding that could occur as a result of this dam. The potential flooding would displace an estimated 17,000 residents of Indigenous communities along the river. 

The dam is also set to be built just 11 kilometers from the West Panay Fault line, which saw several destructive earthquakes in 2012 and 2013. Despite legitimate concerns regarding the safety of the project, there has been a rise in the criminalization of environmental activists who oppose it. 

Red-Tagging and the Criminalization of Indigenous Activists 

Today, the political situation under President Rodrigo Duterte has heightened the violent attacks against Indigenous groups in the Philippines. In response to resistance from organizations such as TUMANDUK, the government has resorted to criminalizing them in what is known as “Red-Tagging.” Red-Tagging is a classification given by the government to those they believe are aligned with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed division, the New People’s Army. In most cases, government officials have little evidence that individuals are actually engaged in criminal activity. 

More importantly, as Amnesty International points out, belief in communist ideology “cannot be … used as a justification to target any individual or group.” This classification has led to many arbitrary arrests of peaceful protestors, including attacks and killings. The Tumandok massacre was a devastating example of this classification, as targeted Indigenous activists were “victims of red-tagging.”

On July 3, 2020, President Duterte signed a bill entitled the “Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.” The law further expands the legal definition of terrorism and allows those who are “likely to join considered terrorist groups” to be targeted by the government. This law gives the government more power to deem peaceful protests and legitimate criticism of the government as “terrorism.” Under Duterte’s presidency, laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act have been used to violently target and silence people who speak out against government policies and environmental destruction, particularly Indigenous communities who are directly impacted by these actions. 

Public Support of Duterte and Upcoming 2022 Elections

Despite Duterte’s harsh policies and targeting of Indigenous groups, the president’s approval rates have remained relatively high in the Philippines. Nearing the end of his term and in the midst of a pandemic, Duterte received a 58% approval rating and a 55% trust rating in July according to a survey conducted by Publicus Asia. These findings are significant, as while under the constitution Duterte cannot run for a second term, he will be running for Vice President in the upcoming May 2022 elections. Some experts have proposed that Duterte’s high approval ratings are thanks to his tactics of fear-mongering as well as a divided and inadequate opposition. 

Nevertheless, a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations also found that “60% of 1,200 respondents believed his move [to run as VP] violates the intention of the constitution.” These findings show that Duterte does not have blind support from the public, but they still indicate a frightening trend towards the rise of extreme right-wing politicians around the world who build platforms based on fear and “othering” certain groups. This can be seen clearly in the criminalization of Indigenous populations in the Philippines.

More Media Attention is Needed

Despite violent attacks made by the government, organizations such as TUMANDUK continue to fight against improper land use. Many human rights groups have condemned Duterte’s government for the Tumanduk killings and called for an official investigation of the event. Nine months later and with little accountability, the issue of violence against Indigenous communities in the Philippines needs much more international attention and media exposure. 

Edited by Bethlehem Samson and Chase Kelliher

Toko Peters

Toko is from Vancouver, BC, and was born in Hamamatsu, Japan. After obtaining her B.A. in International Relations at UBC, she continued to pursue her passion and affinity for writing, politics, and world...