On 30 December 2020, nine Tumandok indigenous leaders were killed and 16 others arrested by the Philippine Army and National Police in a joint operation on Panay Island, located south of the Philippines. State forces allege that those killed were members of an insurgent group and that upon being served search warrants for illegal possession of firearms and explosives, they fought back. “Relatives of the victims, however, assert that those who died did not resist arrest and that the firearms and explosives found in the residences were actually planted pieces of evidence. We received reports that one of the victims was in fact gagged and shot four times, and two others were shot dead while they were sleeping,” explained Mai Taqueban, Executive Director of Legal Rights and Resources Centre – Friends of the Earth Philippines.
The Tumandok communities have been consistently opposing the construction of a dam on the Jalaur River because of the direct impacts this would have on their ancestral domains. The mega dam project is financed by the Export-Import Bank of Korea and threatens to displace up to 17,000 people. “Five Tumandok burial grounds and one sacred site would also be destroyed as a result of this colossal dam, as found by a research team from the University of the Philippines – Visayas,” reported Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific in a press release in March 2021.
“The government continues to follow a development paradigm that is primarily driven by capital and natural resource exploitation,” stressed Taqueban. The government “has in fact securitised development through the entanglement of security policies to ensure the continuation of its Build Build Build Program. In the process, those who oppose have been criminalised,” she added.
Legal Rights and Resources Centre and Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific demand an end to the practice of “red-tagging” communities who resist large-scale commercial projects. The Chief of the regional police crime laboratory in Western Visayas was forced to step down from office a day after he confirmed that seven of the nine leaders killed in the police operation had tested negative for gunpowder residue. “This gives us an idea of how the investigation is actually being conducted,” said Taqueban.
As of May 2021, nine of the arrested indigenous leaders remain in jail, while three took a plea bargain and four were released on bail. The lawyer handling the case was also attacked in March, being stabbed by masked assailants. He survived and continues to handle the case.
Legal Rights and Resources Centre is calling for the Philippine government to investigate the killings, to suspend the permits for the Jalaur mega dam project and to bring all perpetrators to justice. They are also calling for the governments of the Philippines and South Korea “to stop from engaging in bilateral agreements that perpetuate these kinds of violations”.
“Upon reflection, we can see that the tragic deaths of the Tumandok indigenous leaders have occurred within a broader pattern of criminalisation and intimidation of human rights defenders in the Philippines,” concluded Taqueban.