On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 2nd, Timuay Lencio Arig, a 56-year-old Teduray chieftain, was walking from his farm in Barangay Romongaub, South Upi, Maguindanao to the highway. Earlier in the day, he had attended a relative’s wedding. “He was very happy because all of us were there. It was like a reunion and he was clearly pleased that all of his six children were there,” his daughter-in-law would later tell the press. But that afternoon, as he walked with his wife and daughter, masked men who had lain in ambush in a rubber plantation emptied an M16 clip into him. He was “riddled with bullets” from his neck to his knees.
It is likely that no one will ever stand trial for Lencio Arig’s murder. The police found no evidence at the scene save empty shell casings. “Who could have been threatened by a peaceful man? Who could have … wanted him dead?” wondered Arig’s fellow Teduray leader Timuay Alim Bandara. Other tribal representatives recalled Arig’s friendly disposition and his skill as a negotiator. He “always went out of his way to avoid conflict,” according to Timuay Labi Sammie Bello. Arig’s colleagues in the Timuay Justice and Governance, the indigenous governing body of the Teduray and Lambangian tribes, believe his murder is the direct result of his outspoken advocacy for official recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ ancestral domain claims. They called it “not an ordinary crime but an attempt to silence tribal leaders who persevere in standing for their rights.” According to Interaksyon.com, the TJG also pointed out that Arig was “one of the most outspoken tribal leaders against mining exploration within the Teduray’s ancestral claims.”
How could a respected tribal leader’s peaceful community organizing and his advocacy for the rights of his constituents occasion a brutal assassination in broad daylight and in the presence of his family? As a newcomer to Mindanao, I could not begin to fathom the context and background of this slaying. I turned to Mindanao State University professor Sharon Bulaclac, who is becoming my go-to interview for insight into Mindanaoan culture, history, and politics.
I enquired the motive behind the many, many assassinations of indigenous activists and leaders in the last few years, of which Arig’s murder is only the most recent. Prof. Bulaclac told me that many of the ancestral domains which tribal leaders are seeking to claim under IPRA have rich mineral deposits. Framing her comments conservatively, she suggested that some of the killings might have had something to do with the mining companies that wish to exploit these resources. Like Arig, many tribal leaders oppose environmentally destructive mineral exploration. Perhaps, she suggested, the international companies themselves do not order the killings; perhaps their local partners hire the assassins. Or maybe the local politicians whom the companies use to penetrate the area are the ones who decide that a tribal leader must be permanently silenced. The bottom line is that, in campaigning to keep their territories free from ecological degradation, tribal organizers occupy a very dangerous position: they stand between a lot of powerful people and a lot of money.
Prof. Bulaclac’s friend Rhea V. Silvosa of the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute told me that this sort of danger is not peculiar to indigenous campaigners; activists and organizers in many sectors of Philippine society face the prospect of assassination. “If you are really sticking up … that’s what usually happens,” she said. Many journalists have been eliminated. According to Silvosa, the Philippine judicial system works very slowly, and it does not hand down many convictions. “Justice delayed; justice denied,” Prof. Bulaclac put in. People who do not have much money may find their cases relegated to the bottom of the pile. “Bribery is very prevalent,” Silvosa said.
In light of the danger of violent death for those civil campaigners whom powerful people perceive as obstructions, it is doubly urgent that the tribal rights and privileges enacted 17 years ago under IPRA finally be granted to the Philippines’ Indigenous Peoples and honored by local and national officials. When IPRA is neither honored nor implemented, and when tribal leaders, without government support or encouragement, are forced to use all of their influence and energy striving to keep corporate interests out of their tribal territories, those leaders become targets for powerful and greedy people who know that they can commit murder with impunity.