“Winning back the hearts and minds of the people” has been the campaign of the Philippines government since the once described American boy, President Ramon Magssaysay regime to the present, of the labeled US puppet, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
What does this mean concretely to the small people of the Cordillera? Some more than 2,000 visitors to the Cordillera Day commemoration in Baay-Licuan in Abra had a first hand experience and, in different degrees, immediately knew the terror that came and shall come upon the peoples of Upland Abra.
From Manila and Baguio their transport vehicles were flagged down one by one by officers and men of the 41st Infantry Battalion in a make-shift checkpoint under a large Acacia tree along the highway in the town of Lagangilang. The officers were screaming-out commands and orders (and cuss) to both the civilians and at their soldiers. They demanded answers to questions like: identity, place, what will they do, what are they carrying, etc. They searched pockets, bags and vehicles without respect for rights or for law. The soldiers refused to identify themselves and some easily gave false names. They were in full gear, armed to the teeth with pistols, high-powered long arms and surveillance cameras as well.
On the other hand, organized as has experience taught them, the Cordi-day delegates had a “nego-panel” for expected confrontations like this. They respectfully asked for the officers to calm down, (which they reluctantly did) and tactfully answered the angry military officers’ queries. For our group (some 15-20 people in a jeep) we were allowed to proceed because we did not have red banners or was it the press ID? We waited for the rest of the caravan and took photographs and notes to document the experience.
As we left the checkpoint, people, especially the youth among us, were angry at the gruffness, gross manners, sloppiness and ignorance displayed by the soldiers.
In Baay-Licuan, several members of the press covering the commemoration, discovered stories of the recent military actions like bombings, gunfire, strafing and shelling of nearby sitios, arbitrary house searches and physical harassment. The press also found that the only reasons for such high-powered military display of armaments were: the presence of the Olympus Pacific Minerals mining operations; the united stand of small indigenous peoples’ communities against the large-scale mining in their forests, pasture lands, and farms; and ridiculously, the apparent absence of the New People’s Army.
Baay-Licuan was a very peaceful town, of deeply religious and hard working people. They have appealed to the owners of the company and to government agencies like the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Abra Provincial Government and to the Church that this mining project be abandoned so they may continue to live in peace.
Instead, they were told that they did not own the land, yet it is within their ancestral domain. They were told it is because of the President’s priority programs that it has to be implemented, but for whom? Are they not supposed to be the primary actors in the decision-making and main recipients of its consequences? They were told they would get better roads and would have jobs and better income. Do they not have jobs as farmers now? Without the corrupt system of government they would have better roads and higher income.
With the military actions against them and their friends, the deprivation perpetrated by the corrupt government system; and the sugarcoated poison words of government officials and warlords taunting them to give-up their farms for the instant but temporary wealth from the mines.
All these actions put together is, so far, the way the state win the hearts and minds of the people in far flung areas that do not have a decent road system, proper water and sewage systems, and without telecom signal.
Who would win the hearts and minds of a people whose history and traditions tells of a fierce value for community freedom and peace? #