Indigenous people seek peace after attacks

First published on Al Jazeera

Davao Del Norte, Philippines – Up on the verdant mountains of Talaingod, a young pig squeals as four men grab its legs and a freshly sharpened bolo readies to slash its throat.

Dahosay Ansam-on, 77, utters a prayer to the Magbabaya, or the “supreme being” in Ata Manobo language. As they return to their homes, the villagers hope to live in peace.

It’s been a month since Ansam-on was reunited with villagers who fled when armed men threatened to set a school on fire in retaliation for the death of a relative killed by communist rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA).

Vivien Pepito, one of the school’s teachers, could not forget her ordeal on the night of July 6, when those men knocked violently at the door of a staff house where she and her family lives.

“They wanted to get in,” she told Al Jazeera. “I cried for help so the villagers could come to our rescue.”

The lush mountains of Talaingod on the southern island of Mindanao [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Communist threat

Bringing spears and arrows, villagers drove away the men. Locals call them Alamara, a paramilitary group with alleged ties to the Philippine military blamed for attacking tribal communities in Talaingod and other towns in the province of Davao del Norte in the southern Philippines, according to Human Rights Watch.

The next morning, villagers said the men also wanted to kill Pepito and her husband, Jessie, who teaches at the same school. Over the next few days, the community, many of them parents of Pepito’s pupils, guarded the teachers and the school. Eventually, many decided to flee the village.

The Alamara men accuse Pepito and other teachers of being members of the NPA, alleging the school also promotes the group’s communist ideology to pupils.

In the same month, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte made a formidable threat: that he would bomb community schools that sympathised with communist fighters. He alleged these schools operate without government permits.

Soon after, the Philippine military accused Pepito’s school, Salugpongan, of serving as a front for the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the NPA, local media reported.

Months later in September, one of the school’s pupils, Obillo Bay-ao, was shot allegedly by the same men who harassed Pepito and the other teachers.

As tensions rose, villagers fled and sought shelter in Davao City, where a Protestant church assists indigenous peoples caught in fighting between government troops and leftist fighters.

An estimated 3,000 indigenous people fled starting in 2014 because of attacks by militiamen.

Located in Sitio Dulyan in the town of Talaingod, Salugpongan is more than 100km away from Davao City. Villagers take a 30-minute kidney-jarring trip on an off-road motorbike from the mountains down to the plains before embarking on another trip to Tagum City in Davao del Norte, eventually leading them to Davao City.

The bike trip alone costs about $10, an amount that could go a long way if spent on food, said Pepito who has been teaching Ata Manobo children for three years now.

Pepito and her husband went to the same university where they first met. After a series of assignments as students in the community, the couple decided to volunteer as teachers here as soon as they finished their education.

“I grew up having biases against minorities. When I met these people, things changed,” said Jessie.

A child sleeps in a makeshift hammock outside the school [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Pushed to the margins

Salugpongan – or the Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center – was established in 2003. It was created to empower the Ata Manobo people who are no strangers to turmoil.

In the early 1990s, their leaders initiated a tribal war against a logging company that wanted to enter Talaingod.

In response to rising calls the protect the minority, former President Fidel V Ramos signed into law the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, which led to the creation of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, an organisation often criticised for failing to serve the people it was mandated to look after.

Mindanao was annexed into the Philippines through the 1898 Treaty of Paris even though the American colonial government, and the Spaniards, never conquered the island.

Since then, waves of migrations from the northern Philippines have pushed indigenous tribes to settle into the hinterlands as the newcomers found homes on the plains.

Which is why the Ata Manobo people, like other minorities in the Philippines, often take it on themselves when it comes to matters concerning their ancestral land. Unfortunately, when they stage protests demanding the government to protect their rights, the military calls these efforts communist “propaganda”.

Vivien Pepito, one of the school’s teachers, cannot forget her ordeal [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Maria Victoria Maglana, a development worker and human rights advocate, debunks this idea.

“The view that the Talaingod Manobos are being used is premised on the ultimately derogatory mindset that the Lumads (indigenous people) do not know what they are doing and that they are ignorant and gullible,” Maglana wrote in a newspaper column.

On that Sunday morning, children and their parents dashed towards the man with the pig’s blood. They dipped their fingers into a basin and hurriedly drew red crosses on their foreheads. They say the blood will protect the villagers from the Alamara and the military, and that they will no longer come back.

“When they’re here our lives are only put into trouble,” Pepito says.

Hours later, back in the lush mountains of Talaingod, the sacrifice is turned into a feast. People plucked banana leaves and took turns in shoving food onto their makeshift plates.

For now, says Pepito, as long as the troops and Alamara militiamen are far from the school, the villagers can live in peace.

Indonesians recognised after decades in the Philippines

First published on Al Jazeera

Davao Occidental, Philippines – On the screen flashed Indonesia’s world-renowned destinations. They were told if they could name one, a cash prize awaits. But many were clueless about what they were seeing, or worse, what the man – who introduced himself as their country’s representative – was talking about.

“Who among you here can speak Indonesian?” Berlian Napitulu, Indonesian Consul General to the Philippines, asked the crowd of some 60 people.

There were 16 hands raised in the air. The rest spoke nothing but local languages on the Philippine island of Balut. Some, including Pidinsia Barahama Pareda, could only speak Sangirese, the language of her people, the Sangirs.

Pareda could not recall how old she is. What she knows, however, is that she was born in 1960, a year written on her birth certificate, a document she received on November 16 along with more than 100 other Sangir people – or what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calls “people of Indonesian descent (PID)”.

Back in the day, local officials said Indonesians like her could not apply for a birth certificate as they were not Filipinos.

“We were told that a baptismal certificate was enough,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview.

But over the years, she said, local officials eventually began asking them to register. So in 2005, when one of the village leaders offered to “arrange” their birth certificates for $3.90 each, she gave him money. But since then there was never news about the document, while the rest of her neighbours have long gotten theirs.

“It was already paid in full,” she said in Sangirese.

On the day she finally received her birth certificate, she had to be accompanied by her son-in-law, Walter Manabung, 39. Pareda barely spoke Cebuano nor Filipino, two languages in the Philippines, despite having been living on Balut all her life. Both her parents, too, have settled here long before she was born. Their main livelihood is harvesting coconuts for copra and fishing – just like many other Indonesian Sangirs living on the island.

Pidinsia Barahama Pareda waits for the release of her birth certificate on the Philippine island of Balut [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

Balut, including Sarangani, are two major islands that comprise the Sarangani municipality in the province of Davao Occidental. A huge concentration of the total 8,745 recorded people of Indonesian descent come from these islands, according to UNHCR research from 2016.

They are third generation Indonesians whose ancestors, according to historical accounts, come from the neighbouring Sangihe Islands in North Sulawesi. One common story of their migration to the Philippines was that when their fishermen forefathers saw these islands, they went back from Sangihe – this time taking their families with them.

This occurred long before the Philippines and Indonesia began establishing boundaries between them. Thus, those crisscrossing the waters of Sulawesi and the Philippines were eventually subject to border rules imposed by the two countries.

In the case of the Indonesians in the Philippines, they were to secure an Alien Certificate of Registration (ACR) that gives them the right to stay. Payment for this document is done annually, but families have to travel from their villages to General Santos City on mainland Mindanao, which spirals up the costs they have to pay.

“And they can’t afford to pay for it because they don’t have proper income. And why don’t they have proper income? Because they don’t have a proper job,” said Napitulu.

According to the Indonesian official, the shortage of employment all boils down to the lack of proper documents. “Indeed. It’s complicated. And this is a lengthy process to finally solve their problems.”

Efforts to save these people from the risk of statelessness was strengthened in 2006 when the Republic of Indonesia reformed its citizenship law, so those who lost their nationality could reacquire it.

“We will give them a certificate of citizenship based on what their certificates tell. Now if it shows that they’re Indonesians, we will move on to the next part of the process which is to give them a passport,” he continued.

Since last year, more than 3,000 people of Indonesian descent in the Philippines have been confirmed of their nationality.

In 2011, the Philippines’ Justice Department issued a draft circular proposing how to determine a stateless person. It also sought assistance from the UNHCR in making the draft compliant with the 1954 Convention.

Since last year, more than 3,000 people of Indonesian descent in the Philippines have been confirmed of their nationality [Mick Basa/Al Jazeera]

A year later, the country came out with its own statelessness determination procedure. What’s more, former justice minister and now detained Senator Leila De Lima said they cannot be deported.

The country’s leniency towards undocumented aliens stretches back to the 1930s. At the time, Manila welcomed refugees from Germany who were escaping the Holocaust. It also opened its doors to Vietnamese refugees who were sailing to Palawan in the ’90s. While it has welcomed refugees, the Philippines was also hoping they would eventually return home.

In the case of these Indonesians, their government, through the Consulate General, has offered free sea transportation for those who decide to take a one-way ticket home.

“By all means, please. But don’t tell us that we were the ones who encouraged you to do so,” Napitulu warned.

Interestingly, that morning when he addressed Indonesians – many of whom could not understand what he was talking about – he mentioned the achievements of the administration of President Joko Widodo.

Widodo has made 47 major achievements, among those are massive infrastructure projects, he said. Some 7,000km of the road has been completed in his term with 3,800km in Papua. There are many jobs because of the nation’s aggressive public spending, Napitulu added.

“Indonesia is a changed country now,” he said, as if signaling it was the right time to go home.

‘Mengecilkan’ Cinta: Puisi “Bonsai” oleh Edith Tiempo

Terkadang, bila kita memikirkan tentang cinta, kita menganggapnya seperti pohon: sebuah konsep raksasa yang sulit dipahami manusia. Tetapi, bagaimana jika kita mengecilkan ukuranya seperti membuat bonsai? Apakah cinta menjadi kurang bermakna?

Dalam puisi “Bonsai“, cinta dianggap sebagai hal yang dapat ditemukan bahkan dalam hal-hal terkecil. Bahwa cinta dapat dipegang oleh tangan. Bahwa itu bisa terjadi di hari-hari biasa.

Puisi ini awalnya ditulis oleh Edith Tiempo (1919-2011) dalam Bahasa Inggris. Tiempo adalah seorang penyair, penulis fiksi, guru, dan seorang kritikus sastra dari Filipina.

Dalam tulisan ini, saya menerjemahkan karya beliau ke Bahasa Indonesia karena saya merasa tak seorang penulis pun pernah menggunakan bonsai sebagai metafora untuk cinta.

Berikut adalah versi asli puisi tersebut, diikuti dengan versi Indonesianya. Karena saya percaya bahwa versi yang saya tulis masih bisa disempurnakan, mohon memberikan komentar dibawah post ini.

By Edith Tiempo

All that I love

I fold over once

And once again

And keep in a box

Or a slit in a hollow post

Or in my shoe.

All that I love?

Why, yes, but for the moment-

And for all time, both.

Something that folds and keeps easy,

Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,

A roto picture of a queen,

A blue Indian shawl, even

A money bill.

It’s utter sublimation,

A feat, this heart’s control

Moment to moment

To scale all love down

To a cupped hand’s size

Till seashells are broken pieces

From God’s own bright teeth,

And life and love are real

Things you can run and

Breathless hand over

To the merest child.


Oleh Edith Tiempo

Semua yang ku cintai

Aku melipatnya dua kali

Dan sekali lagi

Untuk disimpan dalam sebuah kardus

Atau menyelipkan dalam sebuah kotak pos yang hampa

Atau dalam sepatu ku.

Semua yang ku cintai?

Mengapa, iya, namun untuk sementara-

Dan untuk semua waktu, dua-duanya,

Sesuatu yang dapat dilipat dan mudah disimpan:

Catatan anak atau dasi seorang ayah,

Sebuah gambar seorang ratu,

Sepotong selendang India berwarna biru,

Bahkan selembar uang kertas

Ini adalah sebuah sublimasi

Suatu prestasi: kemampuan hati, bahwa

Saat demi saat, sanggup

Menyingkat semua kasih sayang

Sampai ukuran nya dapat digenggam

Dengan tangan.

Sampai kerang-kerang itu

Menjadi pecahan kecil

Dari gigi cerah Tuhan sendiri

Dan hidup dan cinta adalah

Hal-hal nyata yang dapat

Kau serahkan kepada

Anak semata wayang.

What makes one Indonesian?

Why Indonesia? That’s a question thrown at me over and over again ever since I moved to this country.

In most instances, I say the easiest answer so people would let me off the hook: Because it’s a wonderful country. Because your people are warm. Your culture is far better than what we have back home.

These are sweet answers that I know most of you would like to hear from someone who comes from a country that’s not far different from yours. We, too, have millions of people living under the poverty line. Corrupt politicians. Ridiculous infrastructure. Dismal quality of public education. Whenever I’m asked to show pictures of my country, I often get reactions like, oh, Indonesia is a lot better. I would then acquiesce.

You see, I don’t have much time to pull a debate over these matters. I also do not want to dedicate huge portions of my life hurting my friends’ national pride. Once, a friend asked how much is a Philippine peso when converted to the Indonesian rupiah. Today a peso hovers around 300 IDRs. He swiftly said, well, then, our money’s worth is bigger than yours. I simply smiled. Of course, it’s the other way around.

One of the main reasons I seal my lips whenever I’m cornered to answer questions like this is that I fear I’d end up earning more enemies than friends by blurting out my thoughts aloud.

Also, the question would reveal how personal my migration to Indonesia is.

It starts, after all, with a personal story three years ago on the southern part of the Philippines, near the maritime border that both our countries share.

Meet the Sangirs

The story is about your people who migrated to the Philippines in the 1950s. They call themselves the Sangir people, the tribe from small groups of islands on North Sulawesi.

There are thousands of them living on the islands of Balut and Sarangani. Sometimes, they call themselves Indonesians. At other times, they consider themselves Filipinos, especially the new generation of Sangirs who have never seen Indonesia.

SAFETY FIRST? These passengers slept on the deck of the ship traversing the Sarangani Straight. Photo by Mick Basa

Just a few days before Christmas in 2012, I sailed into Mabias, the port of Sarangani province in the Philippines to which both islands politically belong.

The trip takes 8 hours from General Santos City on board a medium-sized ferry that carries sacks of rice, chickens, fighting cocks, goats, crates of bottled soda, and people coming home from the main island of Mindanao in southern Philippines.

Just before we were about to board the ship, we were told that it’s no longer accepting passengers. It’s reached its maximum passenger capacity, so the next trip would carry passengers in January the following year. I bargained if it would be possible to board as I was rushing to gather facts of a story that’s due very soon. Finally, after speaking to one of the coast guards, we were able to hop in.


On Pakiluaso, a small coastline village of around 30 families on Balut Island, I met Nerlyn Sasamu Dagcutan. A dark-skinned and big-boned woman, Dagcutan is a pamong, an Indonesian term for guardian. As a guardian, her main task is to train the young Sangirs to speak Bahasa Indonesia, your country’s national language.

Unlike in many public universities where lecturers get to present their materials using multimedia projectors, Dagcutan is left with nothing but a piece of chalk and a dusty blackboard inside a 20-square-metre concrete school that they “borrow” on Saturdays. The school happens to be owned by the Philippine government, where on weekdays students there get a piece of education, the Filipino way.

Dagcutan has another noble duty on Saturdays. Apart from teaching Bahasa Indonesia, she teaches the kids to sing songs like “Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke.”

In English, as you know, the song goes: “from Sabang to Merauke, islands pile up, they are connected, to become Indonesia.”

The kids memorize the song by heart, without any idea where these islands are, or a sense of what the song truly means. Yet for Dagcutan, she says it is important that the children learn about their homeland.

I tell you their story because many of you who are in no doubt citizens and residents of your country sometimes get into trivial fights.

In April, one of the world’s respected artists, Anggun Cipta Sasmi, and one of your country’s pride, wrote an open letter to President Jokowi, pleading him to grant clemency to those set for execution that month.

But reading the online comments, I saw that some of you told her she had no business meddling in Indonesia’s problems. By moving to France, you said, she’s lost her moral ascendancy to bring the issue into light. She is no longer an Indonesian, you said.

These views bring me back to people like Dagcutan and the over 6,000 people of Indonesian descent who are living in Mindanao.

If this happened to the famous Anggun, I fear your people in the Philippines could suffer the same fate. What if they start asking Jokowi to look into their plight as de facto stateless people, would you also question their identity, too, since they no longer live in Indonesia?

It is not far-fetched to imagine that these people have long been wanting to tell Indonesia’s central government about their plight.

Things like this happen in my country, too.

Veronica Pedrosa, an international journalist whose parents were forced to live in exile in London during the regime of the late dictator and former president Ferdinand Marcos, once confessed how her nationality would be questioned “when I speak in the Philippines.”

Today, as your country marks its 70th independence from The Netherlands, I ask: What makes one Indonesian?

Is being a KTP holder and being a natural-born citizen who is able to speak the national language enough to make one pass as an Indonesian?

Globalization has made walls crash, with new identities forming and some fading. People cross borders in search of a better life.

As it happens, the new generation hopes it could ride the wave by embracing English as medium of instruction in schools. Yet some things are quite sensitive at this point. Language, I was told by some of my lecturers, is one of the pillars of national identity. Others would even say that embracing English tarnishes one’s Indonesian identity.

Common destiny and future

A scholar of modern-day Indonesia, Benedict Anderson would agree that part of the nationalism project is a shared language. But he also did say that “nationalism arises when, in a certain physical territory, the inhabitants begin to feel that they share a common destiny, a common future.”

What common future could be shared if Indonesia’s growing economy only brings good news for the middle and upper classes, and not for the 40% of the population’s poor who live below $2 per day.

What common future could be shared if the rule of law is out of sight?

Shouldn’t nationalism be more than just the language we speak?

It is interesting to explore Dagcutan’s national identity: apart from being a penghubung, she is also a village leader at Pakiluaso. Philippine laws ideally don’t permit aliens to run for public office. Like Indonesia, implementing laws in the Philippines is another story, and that somehow works to Dagcutan’s advantage.

In fact, Indonesian ballots reach as far as their island; and their votes are counted for every legislative and presidential elections. Though at times, things like this only add to their identity crisis: Are we Indonesians or Filipinos?

As Indonesians, they make it a point to visit their homeland once a month, another Indonesian residing on Balut island, Alfrede Lahabir, once told me three years ago.

A fisherman, Lahabir does that to meet relatives on special occasions. I remember that once, he invited me to come with him to Matutuang, part of the Sangihe group of islands. By boat, he told me that we could reach the area from Balut between 3 and 6 hours.

The Indonesian identity question is something I would rather leave for you to answer. Ultimately as a journalist, I throw the questions, not the other way around.

The Sangirs’ stories have in a way shaped my life as a “legal” holder of Philippine citizenship. Many of us do not see this as an issue. We do not go to bed having to think about who we really are. My birth certificate and passport tell me I’m Filipino. You’re Indonesian because your KTP says so.

But for people like Dagcutan and Lahabir, they are considered aliens in the land where they live. As non-Filipino citizens, they often find themselves in trouble with land ownership, and access to state-sponsored insurance. Again, these are problems we don’t have to go through, because our government recognizes us as their citizens

I came to Indonesia to hopefully bring their questions here.

On the day that I was preparing to leave Balut island three years ago, one of Lahabir’s kids asked me, “When are you coming back?”

“I do not know, po (Sangirese for adik),” I replied. I simply do not know.

I sat in front of the boat so they could not catch me shed tears that were swallowed by the sea.

Two years later, I joined Rappler as a business reporter.

But the Sangirs’ stories are so complex that often in my sleep, their voices continued to haunt me. When are you coming back? You must tell more of our stories.

Today I am here in the country they imagine as their home. – First published on

From love motels to Christian hotels

MANILA, Philippines – In Manila, there lived a “king” who ran motels notorious for hosting two-timers who played with fire or couples who met for short trysts, especially during the love month of February.

The managers even urged hookers in bars to bring their patrons to their motels, so every night was profitable like no other.

But 7 years ago, Wyden King yielded to what he called a “conviction,” or “being awakened from a state of sin,” and as a result, sought repentance. It was a long time to fully obey God, as he became a born again Christian way back in 1992.

King is the son of Angelo King, the Filipino-Chinese, self-made businessman and philanthropist, who made a fortune from the popular Anito Motels.

“I had a conviction to go to the north to close the business,” King told Rappler in an interview.

From Anito to a ‘Christian’ hotel chain

The conviction led to the closure of the highly profitable Anito chain of motels, which were named after the collective Filipino pre-Hispanic belief on spirits.

King now identifies himself as a Christian who runs a business guided by Christian principles.

King leads Armadillo Holdings Incorporated (AHI), the parent company of Legend Hotels Corporation (LHIC), which in turn, operates Kabayan Hotel, a no-frills hotel catering to overseas Filipino workers returning to the Philippines, looking for an affordable overnight stay in the capital.

“It’s not fancy wancy but a nice place to stay if you just want a place to rest your head and have decent meals,” said one guest in his review of King’s hotel in 2014.

Apart from Kabayan Hotel, LHIC operates The Legend Villas in Mandaluyong, The Legend Palawan, The Mabuhay Manor, PinoyPamilya, and MyPlace.

The hotels show that King’s transformation was for real.

At each of the hotel’s lobby stands a wooden drop box, where guests could convey their prayer requests.

Prayers, too, play a role in the business. Every morning, the workers gather to pray together. It goes on for the whole week, “for them to experience God,” said King.

The story about the transformation of the former Anito Motel operator has become so popular, it has preceded King’s name.

“When people ask me where I work, I would tell them, I work for that company run by a man who used to own motels which he closed because he was born again,” said Jay Jaraplasan, the hotel’s business development officer.

The hotels no longer serve a niche market, and moved on to cater to a wider one.

“We’re not targeting couples. We work on families and corporate bodies,” said Abigail Apura, the hotel’s marketing officer.

In a way, the hotels’ shift from a “love hotel” image made sense.

Amor Maclang, an expert on brand architecture as well as crisis management for over 14 years, shared the perils of branding products for only a single occasion.

Love hotels, for instance, see a spike on sales on Valentine’s Day, but what about on other days?

“You need to extend the lifetime of a product so it’s not only tied to one day,” Maclang said.

Less profits

But for King, the re-branding was not a contrived one, but rather a statement on how serious he was about his spiritual transformation.

“We’re not so aware of the image. It’s just that, I had a conviction to the Lord to close down the business,” King said.

While marketing the hotels with this dramatic, turnaround story sparked some interest, it also brought with it accompanying challenges.

5 years ago, LHIC lost P37.91 million ($858,080.57) in net income, from earnings of P8.58 million ($194,205.52) in 2009.

They recovered in 2012 with P9.96 million ($225,441.38) in income, and in 2013 at P10.85 million ($245,586.24).

Competition from other hotel companies is part of the reason. King said he was “betrayed” by partners from Anito days who formed their own chain of love hotels.

Also contributing to his leaner profit was his fulfillment of tax obligations. They also regularly gave tithes to the church.

“There’s a moral standard we abide by. Furthermore, we join our Christian beliefs in the way we do our business,” he said.

What made sense, too, was when AHI diversified its assets to stay profitable. Under the parent company are firms engaged in garments and laundry, leasing, and real estate.

AHI owns the Titanium Corporation, Ithiel Corporation, Kalinisan Laundry Group, Clean Living Incorporated, St Raphael Development Corporation, and Kings Development Corporation. Combined, they employ more than 2,000 workers.

God’s plan

King takes the back seat in running the business now, as he’s focused on running Nameless Faceless Selfless, another AHI subsidiary which provides spiritual services chiefly for the workers.

Making a profit is no longer his preoccupation, he said. “What’s important with God is character, and not wealth.”

King foresees that his businesses will grow at a very slow rate.

When he lost the last Anito Motels chain in 2008, it meant sacrificing a cash cow that earned for him almost P2 million ($45,269.35) every day.

“What is important with God is we become in His image and likeness, because that’s God’s plan,” the transformed King said. – First published on