Philippine authorities shot and killed nine indigenous Tumandok leaders on the island of Panay who were flagged as communist insurgents after they allegedly resisted arrest. But indigenous rights advocates say the victims were targeted for their resistance to militarization and damaging government-backed infrastructure projects.
Nine local indigenous leaders were killed and 17 others were arrested by Philippine authorities on December 30 on the island of Panay as police and army officers served warrants in the villages of Tapaz, Capiz province, and Calinog, Iloilo province. The operation has now displaced around 500 people from their homes, according to local media.
A police representative said the warrants targeted “high-value personalities” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) over alleged possession of firearms and explosives, according to advocacy organization Panay Alliance Karapatan.
The suspects in Tapiz allegedly resisted arrest before police shot them. “The nine died when they fired at positions of law enforcement officers,” said Lieutenant Colonel Gervacio Balmaceda, a Western Visayas region police chief.
Those killed were leaders of their Tumandok indigenous communities and included Roy Giganto, Reynaldo Katipunan, Barangay Lahug, Galson Catamin, Eliseo Gayas Jr., Maurito Diaz, Artilito Katipunan, Mario Aguirre, Jomar Vidal and Rolando Dia.
Jobelyn Giganto, chief of Lahug village, refuted the police account and said that her brother-in-law Roy Giganto did not fight back.
“We are not armed—and how can they say he fought back when all of us were asleep when they came,” she told the Inquirer.
Advocates say the victims were targeted for working to oppose militarization in their communities as well as the construction of the Jalaur Mega Dam project on Panay’s Jalaur river.
“These killings and arrests are meant to instill fear upon indigenous communities in order to silence their opposition to so-called development projects that encroach upon their ancestral domains and right to self-determination,” said Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay.
According to Sandugo, a movement of Moro and indigenous peoples, and media outlet Panay Today, around 500 people from the raided villages have now left their homes due to the violence.
Shootings show authorities target leaders for speaking up
Philippine authorities have often been criticized for labeling those who oppose government initiatives as communists and for reportedly planting firearms at crime scenes.
In June 2020, the UN Human Rights Office issued a report which found that “Human rights advocacy [in the Philippines] is routinely equated with insurgency and the focus diverted to discrediting the messengers rather than examining the substance of the message,” the report said. “This has muddied the space for debate, disagreement and for challenging State institutions and policies.”
Philippine House representative Carlos Isagani Zarate, from the Bayan Muna party-list, said the December 30 killings and arrests reflect a problematic pattern in the government’s anti-communist strategy, including its reliance on alleged former NPA member Jeffery Celiz.
“Due to their strong resistance against destructive projects and their continuous fight for [indigenous people’s] rights, they have been red-tagged by security forces and Jeffrey Celiz as a front organization of the CPP-NPA,” Zarate stated.
“Those killed were recognized indigenous community leaders in their respective barangays. They were civilians and not armed combatants,” wrote Panay Alliance Karapatan. “They have consistently opposed militarization and human rights violations in their communities as they upheld their rights as indigenous people.”
Tumandok communities have long called for the repeal of a 1962 presidential proclamation that annexed over 33,000 hectares of their land and turned it into a military reservation.
The Jalaur Mega Dam has been in the pre-planning stages for decades and would support irrigation for agriculture, more than doubling the rice production of Iloilo province, according to proponents. The dam is backed by South Korea’s state-run Export-Import Bank; it would reportedly be 109 meters tall and involve an 80-kilometer canal.
Jobelyn Giganto told the Inquirer that some in the community are opposed to the Jalaur Mega Dam but no one was fighting the government. “We support projects that are good for our community like building of roads, electric and water systems and on farming,” she said.
Police violence in the Philippines continues through the pandemic
The December 30 killings and arrests are the latest in a string of abuses by Philippine police, including the April killing of former soldier Winston Ragos after he broke quarantine in Quezon City.
On December 20, Police Senior Master Sergeant Jonel Nuezca shot and killed Sonya Gregorio, a resident of Tarlac province near Manila, as well as her son, Frank Gregorio. The confrontation was caught on video which was then shared widely on social media, prompting a public outcry.
The killing prompted Vice President Leni Robredo to point to “a larger architecture of impunity” in the country as a driver of this type of violence. Robredo, a member of the Liberal Party, the primary opposition party in the Philippines, said that responsibility for these killings should not fall only “on the person who pulled the trigger” but also on the “bigger structure” that allows them to continue.
In December, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found that Philippine authorities have likely committed crimes against humanity as part of its infamous drug war. The ICC said the Philippine National Police and others, including “unidentified assailants”, “carried out thousands of unlawful killings.” The court said that at least 5,300 people have been killed in connection with Duterte’s war on drugs.
Though there appears to be little basis for the allegation of ties between the Panay indigenous leaders and the CPP-NPA, the communist party has opposed some of the same potentially destructive mega development projects as indigenous groups. In October, the CPP called for its armed wing to attack Chinese companies operating in the Philippines, including those building large infrastructure projects such as dams and roads. The CPP cited these large projects’ displacement of indigenous and rural communities as well as the impacts on the environment.