The Lumads of the Philippines: Struggling from Conflict toward Peace

By: CDR Gilbert G. "Billy" Villareal, Jr. , Philippine Navy


Lumad is a Filipino-Bisaya term meaning "native" or "indigenous," and is the self-ascription and collective identity of the non-Islamized peoples who are said to be the original habitants of the island of Mindanao.1 The term is short for Katawhang Lumad (literally, "indigenous peoples"), the autonym officially adopted on 26 June 1986 by delegates to the Lumad Mindanaw People's Federation (LMPF) founding assembly. The Lumad groups are a minority in the southern Philippines, distinct from the majority Moro Islam people of Mindanao. Not coincidentally, the places where the Lumads live are also the country's last frontier in the hunt for natural resources. Because they have so far remained protected from mining and logging, the ancestral Lumad lands are said to have the highest mining potential of all the islands and include the last remaining uncut forests on Mindanao. Of the 23 priority mining projects under a government mining revitalization program in Mindanao, most lie within the ancestral lands of the Lumads. Aside from state-run mining and logging, and despite laws like the Indigenous People's Rights Act, big plantations and big corporations still manage to encroach on this ancestral domain.

In September 2015, a tribal war erupted between the paramilitary group called Magahat-Bagani and the local Manobo tribe of the Lumads after the militia killed three tribal leaders. The Magahat-Bagani were formed as part of an anti-communist/anti-insurgency drive being carried out by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the continuation of a long struggle against insurgency beginning in the time of the anti-Japanese Hukbalahap Resistance in the occupied Philippines (1942–1954).2 In recent times, any Manobo who have complained about the behavior of the military and paramilitary troops are labeled as communist-terrorist sympathizers and targeted by these paramilitaries. There are plenty of allegations and misunderstandings from every side, including from the mining companies and local politicians. The Lumads, however, are the victims of these clashes: some 3,000 Lumads were displaced by the September 2015 incident after they fled from the Magahat-Bagan. The question is, who is to blame for the clashes: the military leadership, the communist-terrorist New People's Army (NPA), local leaders, the mining companies, or the people who reacted with force without any clear understanding of the situation? Which side should the people of the Philippines support if we are to achieve any peace for the Lumads—peace that, so far, has been elusive? And what is the best way for the military to confront such a complicated problem?

Communist Exploitation

In the Philippines, indigenous people have seen the passage of laws protecting their rights, customs, and beliefs, including the economic, political, and cultural practices handed down by their ancestors from before the colonization of the Philippines by Spain in the sixteenth century. These laws are similar to the protections the United Nations and other international bodies have granted to indigenous people throughout the world. In the Philippines, there are government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have been supporting these rights and ensuring protection for people such as the Lumads. At the same time, however, some of these organizations have been manipulating indigenous groups, exploiting their vulnerabilities, and exerting social control. One such organization is the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front, or CPP-NPA-NDF. This movement is composed of three branches: an ideological front (the CPP), an armed group (the NPA), and a legal-political wing (the NDF).3

The CPP and NDF have legal standing. Based on their ideology, practices, and political agenda, the Philippine government gave the party a seat in Congress, and their party lists for congressional seats have been accepted since the 1990s. But these three branches of the violent communist movement in the Philippines have shaped the ideas of scholars, students, poor people, and indigenous people like the Lumads. As a result, such people will often accept the communist ideology and support their tactics, and frequently will join the communists' armed struggle against government forces.

By manipulating the political weakness and political innocence of these indigenous people of Mindanao through communist propaganda and the exploitation of legitimate grievances, the insurgents have led hundreds of Lumads to their deaths in clashes with security forces. Lumad villagers also serve as crowds during local communist rallies and have become a money-making tool for the communists, who encourage international organizations and other countries to support indigenous people's rights, culture, and environmental preservation, but then uses various subterfuges to divert the donations to support its armed struggle.

Communism as an ideology is not evil. Primitive, pre-Marxist-Leninist communism was something more like communalism—a social system whose structure, membership, and objectives are based on egalitarian relations within a group, common ownership, and a common goal. Such structures still exist in some indigenous hunter-gatherer communities, and the concept was revived in the West in the early to mid-twentieth century as communes of like-minded individuals. The Philippine CPP-NPA-NDF, however, are accused by some of manipulating the beliefs and ideology of the Lumads and some members of the NGOs that are working to preserve indigenous culture and tradition. Communists are suspected of infiltrating certain NGOs to influence the organizations' work with the Lumads and make it easier to recruit indigenous supporters and incite them against the government. The insurgents exploit the Philippine government's weaknesses, such as failing to provide basic services to the people in those areas or to protect the land from illegal resource extraction by private mining and logging companies. The Lumads seem to be caught between the two opposing forces: if they cooperate with the insurgents against mining or logging operators, government forces might respond by intensifying military operations that could damage Lumad lives and homes. Those Lumads who support the government risk harassment or attack by NPA supporters, and their leaders risk assassination. In this atmosphere of fear and violence, NPA groups also extort Lumad communities and local companies, including mining, farm, and logging businesses, and even small-scale stores in rural areas, to pay a so-called revolutionary tax, which is a main source of funding for the violent communist cause.

The Government Effort

The Philippine Army has created irregular security forces among the Lumad groups to help secure the indigenous communities. These irregulars, called Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs), are usually trained and armed by the Army as an auxiliary force and paid a subsistence allowance. A regular cadre typically is assigned to each CAFGU unit. Some members of the Magahat-Bagani paramilitary groups, mentioned earlier, are also CAFGUs. This project has had both positive and negative outcomes. On the positive side, the Lumad CAFGUs were given training and arms to enable them to secure their community and their communal lands. When big companies started to invest near Lumad lands or bought out sacred grounds, the indigenous people were given jobs in mining, logging, farming, and other fields and opportunities for economic progress. Some CAFGU Lumads and army personnel stationed in the Lumad region receive a salary or "allowance" from these private and international companies to provide security (although it is unlawful for military personnel to do so). The money becomes a much-needed potential source of economic progress for some Lumads and their communities, some of which have become assimilated into this new type of partnership. Some Lumad CAFGU members have become local police and community leaders, working to secure their communities from threats and even act as judges in simple disputes. Others help the military hunt rebels.

On the negative side, although these activities have helped build mutual trust between some members of the military and some Lumad communities, this kind of selective cooperation has also created rifts between indigenous communities and groups, a problem further exacerbated by the uneven distribution of funds from the military and the private companies. These are circumstances that the communists have exploited to win local support. A Lumad community that has a good relationship with the mining companies and the government and is making some economic progress will arm itself against other Lumad communities that have been alienated by neglect and therefore support the communists' armed struggle. This becomes a cycle of violence between the security forces, the NPA, and the Lumads, which the government needs to address not only by military intervention, but through government services like education, jobs, roads, housing, and social and health services.

Local politicians and the Philippine government are known to give permits to big international and local companies that are taking the Lumads' natural resources without permission from the indigenous communities.4 This has been the case for as long as the government and the military have been involved with the Lumads. As a result, the Lumad groups' loyalties are divided between the government and the communists, and the legitimacy of the government in many indigenous areas has diminished. Some Lumad leaders have started to speak up for their communities, however, noting that historically, Lumads have been perfectly able to handle their own communities and ancestral lands according to their own culture, beliefs, and ancestral practices and laws.5

Since 2013, the military's strategy in Mindanao has been more effective in helping empower the local communities, by starting a broad, community-based peace struggle rather than simply confronting the armed component of the rebels in battle.6 This strategy involves enabling all local government agencies to provide basic services, especially to the communities of the Lumads. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints and the community divisions described here, annual aid targets have not always been met, a circumstance the communist rebels have taken advantage of with increased propaganda, recruitment, and fighting. The result has been even greater confusion among the Lumad communities.

In October 2015, Lumad leaders stood up to both the NPA and the Philippine government by making it clear that they did not want to be exploited by anybody. Lumad activists posted films on YouTube that showed how Lumad youth and the education system have been influenced by communist rebel propaganda, and how young Lumads are being influenced to participate in the communists' armed struggle. At the same time, the CPP took loyal Lumad supporters to Manila to expose extrajudicial killings and protest the military and the government's counterterrorism efforts. Such events highlight the Lumads' intention to stop both the NPA and the government from exploiting indigenous people and dragging them into conflict, and to force both sides to respect their human rights and ancestral domain. These events continued for several weeks, during which local Philippine news sources exposed the stories of the indigenous people's struggles and their manipulation by both the communists and the government. After several days of this public exposure, Dario Otaza, a Lumad official who had been fighting against communist exploitation, was assassinated by the NPA.7 The investigation is ongoing, and warrants have been issued to capture the NPA members believed to be responsible for the assassination.


The Lumads have a great number of followers, including independent organizations, scholars, religious groups, and government agencies, which respect indigenous people's rights and have shown support for the principle, "Leave them alone." Some key Lumad leaders are renewing the call to respect their rights as indigenous people of Mindanao. They describe how tired they are of conflicts in which the strategy of "divide and rule" is used against them, not only by the military and the NPA but also by miners and local politicians. These leaders say the Lumads are being treated as give-aways by these powerful forces and have always been used as propaganda for others' self-advancement.8 Although the military has played a large role in empowering the Lumads to oppose the communist rebels in recent times, the stigma of the time when both the military and government officials exploited the ancestral communities, lands, and natural resources of the Lumads still lingers. But the Lumads in Mindanao generally recognize that the Philippine military has changed to a professional institution in recent years. The government's strategy for peace and development has empowered the local people to reject the NPA insurgency and oppose its influence.

The Philippine government has the duty to uphold the rule of law equally for all citizens, especially if it hopes to have their support against the violent communist insurgency. The government's legitimacy should be reinforced in all parts of the Philippines, including within the Lumads' ancestral lands, not only by the security forces but also by all local government agencies concerned with providing government services. The Lumad communities must be empowered not only with military training and arms but also with sufficient social services, including education, jobs, roads, and basic infrastructure to support their communities and tribes. For their part, the security forces—both military and police—and local politicians must avoid the culture of bribes and personal advantages that lead to unequal treatment for the indigenous people, including the exploitation of their lands and natural resources.

This has been a long fight for the Lumads, but the fate of their long struggle for peace remains in doubt. The Philippine government, the law enforcement agencies, the military, and the local government—especially indigenous leaders—must unite in their efforts to shape and deliver peace for the Lumads. The Lumads of Mindanao are a great treasure of the Philippines and deserve every effort to preserve their culture and communities. Sometimes all of us become greedy—we forget the past and the people to whom we owe our origins. We should reflect on the words of anthropologists and environmentalists, who caution that indigenous people like the Lumads should be left untouched and unexploited by the greed of the outside world. ²

About the Author(s):

CDR Gilbert G. "Billy" Villareal, Jr., serves in the Philippine Navy.

  1. There are 18 Lumad ethnolinguistic groups: Atta, Bagobo, Banwaon, B'laan, Bukidnon, Dibabawon, Higaonon, Mamanwa, Mandaya, Manguwangan, Manobo, Mansaka, Subanon, Tagakaolo, Tasaday, Tboli, Teduray, and Ubo. See "Lumad", Intercontinental Cry, n.d: go back up
  2. "Head of Tribal School, Lumad Leader Slain by Militia in Surigao Del Sur," Inter Aksyon, 1 September 2015: go back up
  3. The CPP-NPA-NDF uprising, which the Philippine government has been fighting since 1969, is one of the longest-running communist insurgencies in the world. The organization's leaders have variously drawn their basic ideologies from Marx, Stalin, and Mao. The movement was funded and supported by China, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam during the height of communism's spread in the mid-twentieth century. go back up
  4. This information came from a Facebook post by Miyako Izabel on 1 November 2015. The author is a popular political and social blogger in the Philippines. go back up
  5. The martial law imposed by President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s was a "dark age" for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, during which they were branded as abusers and human rights violators. But the military has evolved since then to become a professional force, especially with the ratification of the 1987 Philippine constitution, which defines the Armed Forces as the protector of both the people and the state. go back up
  6. Andrew E. Lembke, Lansdale, Magsaysay, America, and the Philippines: A Case Study of Limited Intervention Counterinsugency, Art of War Papers (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, February 2012): go back up
  7. Karlos Manlupig, "NPA Admits Killing Agusan del Sur Mayor and Son," Rappler, 24 October 2015: go back up
  8. Janvic Mateo, "Lumads Demand End to Violence," Philippine Star, 26 October 2015: go back up
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