The news barely made a ripple, though it put a bloody end to an already devastating year: The Tumandok indigenous communities in Capiz and Iloilo suffered violent carnage in the early hours of Dec. 30, 2020, when operatives of the Philippine National Police, the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), and the 12th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA) swooped down on the remote villages of Tapaz, Capiz, and Calinog, Iloilo, and simultaneously served 28 search warrants on individuals suspected to be members of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed unit the New People’s Army (NPA).
According to the subsequent Police Regional Office-Western Visayas (PRO-6) report on the joint operation, nine individuals were shot and killed, while 17 (10 from Tapaz and seven from Calinog) were taken into custody. How the deaths happened is now the subject of wildly conflicting reports.
According to PNP narrative, the Tumandok indigenous people who died in the Capiz operation were suspected members of the NPA and were killed while resisting arrest. “Ito po ’yung sinasabi natin na na-infiltrate po kasi ng communist terrorists ang mga grupo ng mga indigenous peoples,” said PNP spokesperson Police Brig. Gen. Ildebrandi Usana. “Meron pong hindi siguro sumang-ayon doon sa mga supposed na pagse-serve ng search warrant sa kanila. As a result, meron pong encounter at meron nga pong namatay po.”
To Church and human rights groups, however, the Tumandok were not communist rebels but rather recognized community leaders in their barangays, and their deaths on Rizal Day were nothing less than a “massacre.” According to these groups, the victims belonged to the Tumandok nga Mangunguma nga Nagapangapin sa Duta kag Kabuhi (TUMANDUK), an alliance of 17 indigenous communities in Tapaz and Jamindan towns in Capiz and Calinog in Iloilo that have long campaigned against the construction of the Jalaur Dam in Panay Island, which they fear would adversely affect their ancestral lands.
They were activists, not armed combatants, the groups insist, echoing the chorus of condemnation and calls for an urgent and impartial investigation into the bloody incident that many say is just a continuation of systemic rights violations in the region and the state-sponsored quelling of dissent.
San Carlos, Negros Occidental Bishop Gerardo Alminaza denounced the killing of the nine Tumandok tribesfolk as reminiscent of the brutal slay of six and the mass arrest of 26 in the towns Guihulngan, Mabinay, and Sta. Catalina in Negros Oriental in December 2018, as well as the killing of 14 farmers in the island in March 2019.
“We recall with sadness that the ‘one-time, big-time’ Sempo (Synchronized Enhanced Management of Police Operations) under Oplan Sauron by then-PNP Provincial Regional Office-7 director Debold Sinas and PNP chief Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa led to violent killings and arrests,” Alminaza said in a statement.
The Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) in Panay and Guimaras islands likewise condemned the Capiz massacre and directly blamed Sinas and President Duterte for the carnage. “The brazen extrajudicial killings and illegal arrests of leaders of the Tumandok… is part of the nationwide implementation of PNP Chief Sinas’ version of ‘political tokhang,’ his brainchild Sempo,” PCPR said.
The spate of killings then had already led to the issuance of a Senate report in January last year calling on the PNP and the AFP to investigate its men in connection with the killings on Negros islands that happened between October 2018 and July 2019. The Senate committees on public order and dangerous drugs, and on justice and human rights had recommended that the PNP’s Internal Affairs Service “investigate complaints and gather evidence for possible filing of administrative and criminal liabilities against police personnel and units involved in Oplan Sauron who may have committed abuses or violations of laws and/or the Revised Operational Procedures.”
As there was little action taken since then, the deadly pattern of search warrants being served on state targets for the similar charges of possession of high-powered firearms, ammunition, and explosives has only apparently continued. This should behoove the Senate to summon the same sense of alarm and resolve it had shown in looking into the Negros killings in 2018-2019 to do a similar probe on the Tumandok killings. Such an investigation cannot conceivably emanate from the PNP or Malacañang; until now, not a word of concern has been heard from the administration on the latest brutality to be suffered by indigenous peoples. Unless the conflicting narratives in this case are subjected to formal public scrutiny and any violations brought to light, the grim body count, particularly among defenseless marginalized sectors, will continue to rise.