Reflecting on the Tumandok massacre of December 30 2020, I wrote elsewhere that the incident didn’t register very long in the public’s consciousness because of the fatigue from scandals and several occasions of ineptitude of the Philippine state’s pandemic response, a lockdown considered to be one of the longest and the most brutal in the world. Similarly the pandemic is as if a ghost in the award winning short film Panambi (Myra Angeline Soriaso, Jane Mariane Biyo & Katya Marie Corazon Puertoliano, 2021) which recreates the testimonies of women who witnessed the said massacre talk about their life and struggles. If they weren’t wearing face masks, you’d think the COVID-19 pandemic is non-existent. This juxtaposition, where one crisis seems to pale in comparison to another, is important to keep in mind when learning about the fraught experiences of the Tumandok people of Central Panay, it is simply another episode to the decades of their neglect and displacement. In an opinion piece written a few weeks after the incident, writer Rae Rival aptly asks, why is no anyone talking about the Tumandok massacre? Land and Life: The Tumandok People of Panay and Their Struggle, a slim book that functions as a history, testimony, and documentation all at once, responds firmly to this silence. Prepared by the Iloilo Legal Assistance Center (ILAC), with support from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the book aims to not just to prevent total erasure of the massacre from public memory, but also to assert that the need for solidarity efforts are far from gone.
Land and Life is made up of a primary essay that covers the long history of the Tumandok people, interspersed with generous amounts of photos and captions, along with two eye-witness testimonies of organizing efforts over the years. Since it is prepared by lawyers, special attention is given to the legal aspects of the Tumandok people’s experiences, but not to the point of being too technical for a lay person. In fact, the book takes tremendous effort to show a comprehensive view of a community. This includes brief discussions on language, cultural practices, artifacts, and economic livelihood. These details are integral to dispel the image of a tokenized indigenous peoples, and to show that the Tumandok have collective agency to assert their rights. They chant their epic poems and perform courtship dances, but ultimately they push back as community when control over their ancestral domain is at stake. Moreover, the narrative doesn’t begin in the massacre itself, but fifty years back. In the early 60s a military based was established in Central Panay on area covered by the Tumandok’s ancestral lands. After the land grab, they are then forced to pay tumado or rent to continue farming nearby. This begins the thorny relationship of the Tumandok and the state, especially with the military. Land and Life concisely connects various incidents of harassment, including deaths, of members of the community leading up to the unfolding of the Jalaur Dam project in the 2010s. A familiar pattern is exposed, indigenous groups’ lives, culture, and rights being treated as expendable for the state’s artificial version of development.
This history is complimented by two testimonies, twenty years apart, of participants to people’s assemblies organized by the community with help from progressive groups representing various sectors. If the attacks have been persistent over the years, so have been the solidarity efforts. Paz Garachico, writes in 1998, “It is very ironic that the government that has recognized the Tumandok as an indigenous people with unique and distinct cultural heritage is the same government that is attempting to drive them away from their ancestral domain through the intimidation of the Philippine Army. Two hundred terrified families evacuated due to military war exercises last December 1995. The same exercise wounded four Tumandok women and children when a mortar exploded. They took refuge in makeshift huts in the forest. Exposing the children and the elders to the elements and intense fear caused ailments.” Phillippe Angelo Hiñosa, meanwhile recalls his experiences immersing with the community, and highlights the dangers of the construction of the dam, “The Jalaur mega dam is endangered by an active fault nearby, landslides and a poor foundation at the construction site. A powerful earthquake could destabilize it and force it to collapse, drowning the Tumandok who live downstream. Meanwhile, those upstream could endure habitat degradation, reduced water quality, and unfavorable changes in biodiversity, which might ultimately lead to the extinction of aquatic species. Worse, it could accelerate climate change.” Hiñosa then attempts to come into terms with grief of learning that one of the community leaders he had meaningful exchanges about aggressive development in 2019 would be killed in the massacre the following year.
The book concludes detailing with the aftermath of the massacre, which I consider to be very important. Despite the gravity of the violent events, barely being one in the first place, the massacre inevitably stopped being ‘breaking news’. Pictures of the nine community leaders killed, along with those of the sixteen arrested, are shown with their names and the communities in Tapaz, Capiz where they lived. I don’t think any mainstream media outlet took this much effort to humanize the victims. The ensuing evacuation was also discussed, along with the spill over violence that occurred in early 2021 namely the murder of Julie Catamin, a community leader and key witness to the raid, and to the attack against Angelo Karlo Guillen, one of the volunteer lawyers representing the detained Tumandok. Weaponization of the law is most pronounced in these sections. For example, the investigation of the perpetrators is summarized, “The Regional Internal Affairs Service (RIAS) of the Philippine National Police conducted its own investigation on the bloody operation. In April 2021, it recommended the filing of charges for grave misconduct and grave irregularity in the performance of duty against 14 police operatives from Luzon who participated in the simultaneous raids. In June 2021, RIAS exonerated the 14 operatives who were charged because none of the families of the victims came forward to present evidence during the conduct of summary hearings.” Almost all the detainee have been release through the help of members of ILAC, however the communities still live in fear and under surveillance. Construction of the Jalaur dam is underway, and this time, the massacre is the ghost presence in the state’s press releases.
Land and Life is an excellent addition to the country’s long list of literature of solidarity. It is be best read alongside recent titles like Gantala Press’ Dawwang: Kababaihang Tagapagtanggol ng Kordilyera (2021), a comic book about Leticia Bula-at’s experiences of organizing against the Chico River Dam since the 70s, and the lessons imparted to younger generations of land defenders and allies who, just like the Tumandok, have to be vigilant even amid a global pandemic. On the other hand, Vijae Orquia Aquisola’s Awit ng Bakwit (Sentro ng Wikang Filipino-UP Diliman, 2019), uses poetry to tackle the experiences and perseverance of displaced Lumad children. This book is not merely a refusal to forget, but a challenge to carry on the fight for the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples. Land and Life, proves that we are not as far removed as we’d imagine to these stories of struggle.