Hidden conflicts, silenced voices

Delays cost lives. But how do you weigh the lives lost to violence versus those lost to a virus? People say the pandemic has caused massive delays but it does not discriminate.

In the Bangsamoro, Philippines, it does. It’s been used to explain why indigenous peoples’ rights and their ancestral land claims have been delayed. It’s been used to impede normalisation and transitional justice. Yet indigenous community leaders are being killed, injured, and displaced with no delay.

Land conflict in Muslim Mindanao is often driven by skewed, unclear, and overlapping claims of land ownership. This is a perennial problem in the region. However, there are new triggers to land conflict during a transition. New power blocs are wont to flex their muscles and impose their interests.

There was a rush to secure formal land titles after the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) in the second quarter of 2019. Maguindanao families allied with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were emboldened to assert their land claims, a situation that is bound to intensify when previous MILF camps are ring-fenced and heedlessly transferred despite the presence of competing claims. These moves have exposed the political economy agendas of former rebel combatants, plus the extremist BIFF, who have recently figured in violent flashpoints.

Ground zero in the longstanding land conflict are the villages of Kuya, Pandan, and Itaw in South Upi. The occupants of these areas are members of the Teduray, Lambangian, and Gindulungan Manobo ethnic groups—previous enemies of Maguindanao claimants in previous land disputes. The absence of a land law has left a vacuum now being filled by bold, entitled, and revengeful armed groups operating in these villages and other villages in Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Lanao del Sur.

IP leaders insist that these deadly land disputes could have been prevented if the creation of an IP and land code had been prioritised — a promise made by BARMM chief minister and concurrent BTA head Ebrahim Murad, before the BOL was ratified.

But time flies fast and promises tend to be broken. Indeed, “leaving no one behind” seems an appropriate theme for this year’s celebration of the International Day for Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9. It reminds people of how IPs have been left behind.

The “call for a new contract” leaves a bitter taste in the mouth among the Teduray. Timuay Labi (head) Alim Bandara relates how their filing of a certificate of ancestral domain title (CADT) continues to be mired in bureaucratic delays and inaction. The Yakan of Basilan are similarly placed; their CADT application remains pending, too. They and the other indigenous communities are the real “minorities within the minority.” People who were needed to ratify the BOL now feel nullified by the BARMM.

Indigenous peoples from various parts of the Bangsamoro are demanding that the regional government prioritize the passage of the IP Code, and have called on Congress to conduct inquiries on the killings of indigenous peoples in central Maguindanao.

The Bangsamoro Transition Authority can take proactive steps to collaborate with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to process the CADT claims of various IP groups pending since 2005. Representatives in the House and the Senate have also demanded a review of the implementation of the BOL on indigenous peoples and a much wider investigation of human rights violations committed against IPs.

Alongside the search for peace in indigenous communities, there is a similar and growing need to focus on the oppression and displacement of Muslim communities in the provinces adjoining the Bangsamoro region. Lest we forget, struggles for land do not discriminate. Violent flashpoints linked to land are erupting south of Maguindanao in Polomolok, General Santos, and Kidapawan. In these places, Muslim groups are the targets of death and displacement.

These steps underscore the importance of resource conflicts related to land as struggles that can unite rather than divide the Bangsamoro. The Islamized and non-Islamized tribes in these different areas in Maguindanao share the same struggle over vital resources such as land. But the resource that has bitterly divided peoples throughout history can also unite them, and pave the way for a shared solution to the pervasive problem of land.

This op-ed was originally published on the Philippine Daily Inquirer.