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Hundreds of indigenous people marched in the streets of Manila on Monday, demanding respect for their basic human rights. They called for the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to drop trumped-up charges brought by the previous administration against 200 tribal minority rights advocates and urged that state-security forces stop committing abuses against tribal minorities, particularly on the southern island of Mindanao.

Children at a sports center in Tandag City, Philippines on September 13, 2015. Many tribal people sought refuge at the sports center after the paramilitary group Magahat attacked their villages and schools on September 1. © 2015 Carlos Conde/Human Rights Watch

Monday’s protest is the latest attempt by indigenous groups to seek justice and accountability for abuses against them. Indigenous groups often bear the brunt of human rights violations by state security forces in the Philippines, especially in areas with mining and plantation interests. One egregious attack documented by Human Rights Watch occurred in September 2015 in the province of Surigao del Sur in Mindanao, when members of a military-backed paramilitary group killed the school administrator and two tribal leaders in Lianga town, while hundreds of terrified students and residents looked on.

Survivors of an August 2015 attack on Pangantucan town, Bukidnon province, that left five Manobo tribal members dead implicated the military in those deaths. Since early this year, hundreds of tribal minorities have sought refuge in a religious compound in Davao City after fleeing their communities in Davao del Norte province because of abuses by military and paramilitary personnel. Tribal minority rights activists are particularly vulnerable. Victims of alleged paramilitary violence include tribal leader and environmentalist Jimmy Liguyon in Bukidnon province, killed in 2012, and Jimmy Saypan, secretary general of the Compostela Farmers Association, killed last week by unidentified gunmen in Compostela Vallet province.

President Duterte has spoken out in defense of the rights of tribal minorities. In May 2015, while mayor of Davao City, Duterte called for an end to the killings of lumad tribal minorities. Since becoming president on June 30, 2016, Duterte has urged the return of indigenous peoples displaced in the September 2015 Surigao del Sur attack and welcomed tribal leaders to the presidential palace. 

Duterte has an opportunity deliver on his promises to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. But that will require him to take measures that he has scorned during his ongoing abusive “war on drugs”: enforcing rule of law, curbing security force abuses, and defending constitutional rights and freedoms. Until Duterte drops his hostility to those concepts, the suffering of the country’s tribal minorities is unlikely to end anytime soon.

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