Indigenous leaders killed in Philippines ‘branded’ over opposition to dam

  • The murder of nine indigenous leaders by police during an operation in the central Philippines on December 30, 2020 drew broad condemnation from environmental and human rights groups, politicians, lawyers and civilians. Catholic bishops.
  • Police allege that those killed and 16 others arrested were supporters of the NPA, the armed wing of the banned Communist Party.
  • But supporters of the indigenous Tumandok community on Panay Island say they have been targeted for their opposition to two dam projects in their ancestral domain.
  • One of the projects, on the Jalaur River, is largely funded by a $ 208 million loan from the South Korean government.

AKLAN, Philippines – At dawn on December 30, 2020, police raided indigenous villages at a reserve military camp in the central Philippines looking for suspected members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist party banned.

During the raid, authorities killed nine leaders and arrested 16 members of the Tumandok ethnic group. The Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), which carried out the synchronized raids on Panay Island, said the members were rebel sympathizers.

Human and environmental rights groups linked the raids to two large dam projects in the region: one on the Jalaur River and the other on the Panay River.

Lawmakers and local groups say the raid targets, especially those killed, opposed the ongoing construction of the controversial Jalaur Dam in the nearby municipality of Calinog. Indigenous groups have long complained that the project destroys their ancestral domain.

An illustration of the JRMP II High Dam. Image courtesy of the National Irrigation Administration JRMP Project Stage II Facebook page.

Contradictory stories

The PNP’s home affairs division has opened an investigation into the raids, but insists those killed and arrested were NPA supporters. Roger James Brillantes, a police colonel who heads the Western Visayas region’s home affairs office, told a press conference that the operation was part of a government campaign against the rebels.

“The PNP carried out the raid because it was armed with an arrest warrant,” he said. “An investigation is underway if the agents have committed deficiencies in its operation. “

Police allege that some of the indigenous leaders fired at officers during the raids, prompting a response in which the indigenous men were killed. Police reportedly seized firearms during the operation.

But those arrested deny any resistance on their part, saying police raided their homes around 4 a.m. while they were sleeping. Indigenous groups say the guns and explosives the government says it seized have been placed.

The Jalaur project is the first large-scale dam to be constructed in the central and southern regions of the Visayas and Mindanao in the Philippines. Eighty percent of the project cost, nearly $ 208 million, comes from a loan from South Korea’s Economic Development Cooperation Fund (KEDF), issued through the Export Bank- imported from Korea in 2012. In 2018, the National Irrigation Administration of the Philippines signed an 11.2 billion pesos ($ 224 million) contract with the South Korean company Daewoo Engineering and Construction for the second stage of the Jalaur project.

The project is expected to provide year-round irrigation, bulk water supply, hydroelectric power and ecotourism opportunities for communities on Panay Island.

The red marks are the location of the barangays or indigenous villages that were included in the police raid on December 30, 2020. The nine indigenous leaders killed were from these regions. The yellow marks are the proposed sites for the Panay High Dam, which is part of the Panay River Basin Development Project; and the city of Agcalaga, where South Korea’s Daewoo Engineering and Construction held a groundbreaking ceremony for the second phase of the Jalaur River Multipurpose Project. The location map was produced via Google Earth

The fact that those most opposed to the project were killed in an alleged operation against Communist sympathizers is no coincidence, according to groups. On December 11, the nine indigenous leaders killed were part of a Human Rights Day rally, during which they protested against the dam plans. They were accused of being rebels on the same day – a practice known as “red marking” which is often used to justify further crackdown by the police or the military.

“Their strong resistance against development projects has made its members the subject of red markings by the National Working Group to End Local Communist Armed Conflicts (NTF-ELCAC) and harassment through ‘an intensified military presence in their communities,’ the Panay chapter of Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI), a network of NGOs and advocacy groups, said in a statement.

An “excuse” to kill

The deadly raid of December 30 also triggered political fallout. On January 4, members of Congress tabled a joint statement calling for a further investigation into the incident.

“These massacres and arrests of indigenous peoples in Panay, in the midst of a pandemic no less, are highly condemnable and have no place in society,” six representatives from four parties wrote in their statement. “The brazen slaughter of poor and marginalized indigenous peoples is an indicator of the state of human rights in the country as well as the raging impunity that seems to reign in our land.

The Panay branch of the National Lawyers Union of the Philippines (NULP) also condemned the killings, calling them “identical to the killings of farmers in Negros Oriental on March 30, 2019.” In this incident, 14 people were killed during synchronized police raids in three municipalities in the province of Negros Oriental. Police also accused those killed of being armed NPA sympathizers and of shooting at officers.

“It seems that the meaning of these warrants was nothing more than an excuse to conduct an operation to kill and arrest the local leaders of the Tomanduk communities who have actively defended the rights and interests of farmers and indigenous peoples. NUPL-Panay said in a statement.

Images of indigenous members of the Tumanduk community who were arrested during the December 30, 2020 security raid on Panay Island, Philippines. Photo courtesy of the Western Visayas Regional Police Office

The clergy in this staunchly Catholic country have also voiced concerns about the killings. In a joint statement, eight bishops representing dioceses in the Western Visayas region called on the government to fully investigate the raid. They also called on the government to listen to the “legitimate cries of the Tumandoks on the issue of the Jalaur mega dam”; end the militarization of indigenous communities in the region; oblige the PNP and the military to follow ethical standards in the rules of engagement; and require police to use body cameras to protect parties from false accusations.

The government, through its Western Visayas Regional Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (RTF-ELCAC), responded by calling on uninformed bishops on the matter. Flosemer Chris Gonzales, an attorney for the task force, said clergy may have been deceived by the NPA’s propaganda.

“We warn the bishops not to draw hasty, false and presumptuous conclusions,” he said. “We would like to think that you have all been misinformed. As Catholics, we adhere to the teachings of the Church, but that also does not mean that our bishops are not subject to errors of judgment. Those arrested were subject to legitimately issued search warrants. You cannot conclude that atrocities have been committed. It is simply irresponsible. “

Related stories:

Banner image of a visual illustration of the Jalaur River Multipurpose Project, Phase II, which secured funding through a loan from South Korea’s Economic Development Cooperation Fund (KEDF), issued through the Export-Import Bank of Korea in 2012. Image courtesy of the JRMP II Facebook page.

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