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_Davao City, Philippines November 27, 2005 | VOL. 1 ISSUE NO. 3
Letters to the Editor
Bulletin Board
Siyuan and the Struggles of Her Tribe

Siyuan Tundag, an Ata-Manobo, has seen the worst as her people struggled to keep capitalist intruders out of their ancestral land. But she remains a steadfast Lumad and a voice of her tribe’s tribulations.

TALAINGOD, the Philippines --- Treks along the crevices of mountains are very much part of the Ata-Manobo family’s way of life. The journey by foot is either long or short, depending on the purpose. These journeys are either in search of new lands to open and till, to build a temporary shelter on, or to hunt for food somewhere where the river or the wilds are nearer.

In these treks, it is the women of this indigenous tribe in Southern Mindanao who bear the heavy load on their backs, be it a sack of rice or a pack of food, firewood or belongings, aside from the child.

Siyuan Tundag, who must be in her late 50s now (she does not really know how old she is since the Ata-Manobos measure age by how many harvest one has lived through), explained that this is so because the men would have to scour the territory and defend the journeying family from possible attackers, which could either be wild animals or a band of mangangayao, or those out to launch a pangayao or tribal war of vendetta.

But Siyuan has not been to such journeys for a long time now. Not since the four deaths that struck her family. Many years ago, Siyuan lost all of her two daughters to measles and one of her three sons to the brutality of the military.

Siyuan said these were deaths most painful. Every mother, she said, knows this because it is a practice in their tribe for women to give birth all by themselves. “I embraced myself in a corner, lain on one side, and began to labor until the baby came out” was how Siyuan described how the women give birth in their village.

After her husband died, Siyuan has kept an abode that is quite permanent and very much unlike the rest in the still nomadic community. She has not remarried; it’s not because a widow commands a higher dowry but because she said nobody could replace her husband.

While two of her sons – those left of her five children -- are the ones who go hunting, Siyuan and the wives of her sons perform the tasks of keeping the house and providing food for the family.

They raise hogs and chicken and tend their farm planted to camote (sweet potato) and rice. For the Lumads, it is also the responsibility of the women to cultivate the land. The men’s role is to open up new clearings for planting space.

Siyuan recalled with deep longing her son Sangkuyog. Many years ago, Sangkuyog went to a nearby sitio to buy her ailing wife new “ompak” and “patadyong,” which are traditional garb for women. But Sangkuyog never returned. He was killed by the military.

Siyuan tried to lead herself to believe that Sangkuyog’s death had some purpose. When the military came to their area escorted by politicians to settle the case with them through cash indemnification, Siyuan recalled how she and her husband, along with village leaders, stood up to them and told them to go home with their money. “We told them we do not need any of their money. All we want is freedom in our own land,” Siyuan recalled.

Sometime in 1994, Siyuan’s community was one among the many that formed part of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon (Unity in Defense of Ancestral Land), a unity borne out of the need to fight the encroachment of the logging concession of C. Alcantara and Sons (Alsons) in their tanu, their land.

Vowing to fight for their land at whatever cost, seven tribal chieftains from 43 communities launched a pangayao (tribal war of vendetta) against Alsons, which was bent on including the 29,000 hectares of ancestral lands in Talaingod in its forest-tree plantation.

Siyuan and her tribespeople swore that Sangkuyog’s body would serve as a warning to the military and any capitalist not to go beyond the spot where he was felled. This was the sense of purpose that Siyuan tried to console herself with concerning her son’s death.

More than a pact, more than an organization, more than a tribe, and even more than a nation of their own, these fighting Ata-Manobos in Talaingod have time and again forged this unity through the many years of battles they have waged against their conquerors.

From the time they launched their pangayao against Alson’s logging concession in 1994, and throughout the many pangayaos they had had against capitalist intruders, the member communities of Salugpungan have defended their territory well.

What Siyuan hoped – that Sangkuyog’s death be the last of the pains they would have to endure -- remains a wish, however.

Up to this time, Siyuan’s community, and the rest of the communities who launched pangayao against Alson’s in 1994, have been continually hounded by threats of attacks.

When pangayao used to be a war that one village could launch against another -- wars that were prompted by either personal conflict or conflicts arising from the most complicated of cases (such as causing dishonor to another, or failing to pay debts to another) – it has acquired a new sense of meaning for the members of Salugpungan, mainly to thwart the conquest of landgrabbers.

Pangayaos for the Salugpungan are no longer tribal wars that divide themselves. Rather, these are wars launched against a common aggressor. These pangayaos became wars against the intrusion of capitalists and their armed employs, often members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines or their paramilitary units.

Such is the life that Siyuan and all the women in her tribe have lived.

In their village, while the woman can choose to fight alongside the baganis, or the village warriors, during a pangayao, the women also make sure food is available to sustain the village through war. No community ever launches a pangayao without starting with massive planting of crops. This is the important role women play in the pangayao.

The women also help prepare the traps called batik or suyak, which is made of sharpened bamboos planted around the boundaries of the village, including rivers, to block the enemy.

Lately, the coming of the multi-million hydropower plant proposed by the Hydro Energy Corporation within 73 hectares of land presently occupied by indigenous communities forced the Salugpungan to launch a pangayao again. Part of the project’s blueprint was to divert the Lumads’ rivers to meet the required river runoff to generate power.

The Salugpungan has remained firm in its stand to oppose any move that would allow the entry of the company.

Following this declaration, military elements coming from the 73rd Infantry Battalion Reengineered Special Operations Team (RSOT) came to Nasilaban, a village at the foot of Salugpungan lands, and made the village their base.

In the first few weeks of their stay in the area last September, the military were said to have used the puroks (small waiting sheds set in the middle of the village where community gatherings are usually held) and houses of the Ata-Manobos in Nasilaban as their camps and quarters. The military men even deposited cannons and ammunitions in the houses. Movement of the villagers were also put under close surveillance by the military.

Still, the Salugpungan maintained its uncompromising stand against the hydroelectric project, even warning that any use of military strength to push through with project will force them to fight with their lives, just as they did when Alson’s guards forced their way into their areas.

This vehement opposition of the Salugpungan prompted the proponents of the project to call it off. But despite this, troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines who conducted military operations in Nasilaban have remained in the place.

Worst, on October 4, soldiers made Nasilaban a launching pad for bombings directed at the mountains where they suspected the members of the Salugpungan were hiding, according to residents and the human-rights group Karapatan.

This prompted evacuation among the Lumads. Some went into hiding in their farms, in the forest, some went to their relatives in other villages, while some managed to sneak into Davao City, to seek help from the human-rights group Karapatan and Pasaka, a confederation of Lumad organizations in the region.

Siyuan was one of the refuguees. She was among those delegated by the datus to speak on their behalf about the grievances of the tribe.

Siyuan courageously recounted to Karapatan and Pasaka what happened. As residents saw soldiers unleashing artillery frime from Nasilaban, many scampered for safey, especially the women, who fled along with their children. Many were killed, some of them children.

A sick four-month-old baby died in the course of the evacuation. The mother had failed to land properly on the ground when she hurriedly jumped off one of the slopes in a mad dash from the village. A five-year-old girl also fell off the cliff.

Through famines, epidemics and tribal wars, Siyuan looked back on her life filled with hope and courage. “They can kill us but not our principles. We must be ready to fight for our land at all times,” she said.

Siyuan has become a fortress of her own, someone to whom fellow Lumads run for succor. She is not only being sought out for emergencies in the village, for either help for the sick or aid in an accident, for advice, and for food. In the most difficult of times in the village, Siyuan is also the voice of her tribe’s tribulations. (Cheryll D. Fiel/


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