BUTUAN, Philippines — Junrey Manlicayan, a member of the Banwaon tribe, voted for President Rodrigo Duterte. He believed that Duterte, a fellow native of Mindanao island, understood the plight of indigenous communities such as his, and that he could deliver on his promise to negotiate an end to the war with communist insurgents that has dragged on for 49 years.
But after Duterte declared martial law on Mindanao last year and peace talks fell apart, Manlicayan and many other indigenous Filipinos in this region bitterly regret giving him their support in the 2016 election.
“We made a mistake, and now we’re suffering,” he said. “It’s sad to hear the propaganda that the NPA [communist rebels] are violating our rights, because in my experience most of the abuses against us have been committed by the military.” The worst recent incident, according to Manlicayan, was when soldiers invaded his village and framed a neighboring family by planting grenades in their house. The soldiers took them all away.
“It’s like the government declared war on us,” he said.
Duterte campaigned as a socialist, had a history of pragmatically dealing with the communist New People’s Army as mayor of Davao City, and had support on the left as he began his presidency two years ago.
Over the past four months, however, Duterte has taken to angrily denouncing the rebels and relying on tactics reminiscent of his deadly “war on drugs” and of the government’s battle with Islamist rebels last year in the city of Marawi. He has unleashed his security forces on the guerrillas and publicly offered cash rewards to any indigenous person who kills one.
The problem with Duterte’s new strategy, analysts say, is that there is no easy military solution to this conflict. After five decades, the NPA knows how to operate within its jungle territory. Much of the fire and brimstone coming from the presidential palace actually strikes the very poor indigenous people trapped between the government and the communists.
For years, Philippine authorities have seen a connection between indigenous identity and rebellion, and this has helped open the door to indiscriminate suspicion of anyone not actively helping the military. Last year, Duterte said 75 percent of rebel foot soldiers were “Lumad,” or Mindanao indigenous peoples. Local groups said this number was vastly overstated, but the communists themselves acknowledge that many indigenous cadres are in their ranks.
In interviews with The Washington Post in several locations on Mindanao, members of indigenous tribes, religious figures, teachers and activists working in regions affected by this conflict accused the government of numerous human rights abuses. They said the army and police harass communities near rebel territory, stop crucial deliveries of food and medicine, and work with paramilitary groups that kill civilians. Simply for acknowledging these government abuses — or for refusing to make deals with mining and logging companies operating in the area, they say — they can be publicly tagged as sympathetic to the communists and therefore put in grave danger.
“I was accused of inciting protest, just because I was visiting families displaced by a military raid, and was taken in for interrogation,” said Raymond Ambray, a Catholic priest working in an affected indigenous community.
Wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey in the heat of the night, he had traveled for several hours from his jungle encampment to meet at a coastal location he deemed safe for conversation. Just around the corner, military checkpoints stopped all passersby in front of large signs filled with photos of NPA “terrorists.”
Ambray said the problems certainly did not start with Duterte — in 2015, the administrator of a school founded by the church was murdered, alongside two indigenous people, and residents said government-backed paramilitaries killed them. But conditions have worsened since their high hopes for a peace agreement were dashed in 2017, he said.
“A priest was killed just a few months ago, in northern Luzon,” Ambray said. “I fear for my life now.”
One indigenous rights group, Kasalo, called Duterte’s cash-for-kill offer a “huge insult” to indigenous communities. Karapatan, a human rights group active in the region, says at least 126 extrajudicial killings took place alongside the counterinsurgency program by the end of 2017, and the number has continued to grow.
In early April, Duterte said he might be interested in resuming formal talks. But his daughter Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao, asked him to reconsider. She said the country should not “negotiate with terrorists but rather take a “high-intensity” approach.
Spokesmen for the Philippine armed forces canceled an interview and did not respond to written questions for comment.
Representatives of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which fields the NPA guerrillas as its armed wing, said they are open to resuming peace talks without preconditions. Otherwise, “the Duterte regime leaves the NPA with little choice but to wage nationwide armed struggle to defend the people against state terror and fascist violence,” they said in a written statement.
Interpretations vary as to why the peace talks ended. Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said Duterte began negotiations in good faith but became frustrated with ongoing rebel operations, especially during the siege of Marawi, which began in July and prompted Duterte to declare martial law on the whole island.
“His patience ran out,” Casiple said. “And since then, the military was given free rein to undertake operations.”
Bishop Modesto Villasanta, chairman of a group of schools for indigenous Mindanao people in a region affected by the conflict, offered a different theory, which is shared by human rights groups and progressive religious leaders in the area. Now that Duterte is president, he is unwilling to go through with the social and economic reforms that are necessary to moving talks forward, Villasanta said.
“Our government has its hands tied by the economic interests that control the country,” he said. “The rich benefit from current economic policies, so they make it very hard to change them.”
Villasanta has been watching the exploitation of indigenous people by big companies for decades, he said, and now the failure of the peace process and the current crackdown might just drive more local people to join the Maoist insurgency, as many did under U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“I had the opportunity to meet [Duterte] several times when he was mayor of Davao, and we were even there together when some NPA prisoners of war were released,” Villasanta said. “I always thought he was a really good person. But the man I see now as president is a far cry from that man I knew. He is going to war to avoid dealing with economic problems.”
Not everyone wants peace talks to resume. Duterte is still hugely popular on his home island, where residents often trust him to do the right thing. And some indigenous people sharply oppose the guerrillas.
“We believe the military approach is delivering results, and we don’t see any reason to stop and allow the NPA to simply try to recruit more of our people,” said Samuel Behing, a leader in the Manobo tribe. He spoke passionately, wearing a shirt adorned with the “Duterte fist,” a symbol of the president’s tough policies and his political party.
Behing admitted he is not an impartial observer. In 2009, the rebels captured and summarily executed his father. He wants the army to fight them “down to the last NPA.”
In a written statement to The Post, the CPP acknowledged that rebels mete out “capital punishment” to those they convict in their own “justice system.”
But when asked about Duterte’s statements and police activity, Behing quickly qualified his support.
“We don’t like that [Duterte] offered us money to kill. Only those trained and empowered by the state should be killing,” he said.
The Philippine National Police, he said, recently paid an unwelcome visit to his village.
“They planted guns and a bomb on some of our indigenous leaders,” then arrested them, Behing said. “Witnesses saw them do it. I’m not sure why they would have done that. Perhaps they were afraid go back home without any accomplishments.”
Erwin Mascariñas contributed to this report.