Nine Tumandok Indigenous people were killed and 10 others were arrested in police operations on Panay Island on December 31 in what rights groups labeled a “massacre.”
The killings came a week after an off-duty police officer was charged with murder after being caught on video killing a mother and son during an argument.
Philippine police said the Indigenous leaders had fought back after being served search warrants, although the human rights group Panay Alliance Karapatan denied this allegation.
The Tumandok leaders had campaigned against the construction of the nearby Jalaur Dam, which would impact the community’s ancestral lands.
“Those killed were recognized Indigenous community leaders in their respective [communities]. They were civilians and not armed combatants,” Karapatan said.
“They have consistently opposed militarization and human rights violations in their communities as they upheld their rights as Indigenous people.”
The Indigenous leaders had previously been “red-tagged,” or labeled as communists without evidence, by the Philippine military. The military often brands dissenters as members of the communist New People’s Army, a charge it equates to terrorism and which can amount to a death sentence.
Philippine police said it had responded to information from local civilians about people with high-powered firearms. Authorities often falsely charge dissenters with possession of firearms and have repeatedly been accused of planting firearms at crime scenes.
The killings will draw more attention to the abysmal human rights record of the Philippine military and police, who have killed suspected drug personalities and dissenting activists alike with impunity – and with the blessing of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Earlier in December, footage shared on social media showed a plainclothes police officer killing a mother and son at close range following an argument with the two. The officer, Jonel Nuezca, has been charged with two counts of murder.
The son, 25-year-old Frank Gregario, had reportedly been using a firecracker popular during Christmas celebrations before Nuezca attempted to arrest him. After Frank’s mother, Sonya, pulled her son to keep Nuezca from detaining him, the officer shot them both twice.
Duterte, who has pledged to protect police and military officers from prosecution, said the shootings were “too brutal” and promised the officer would be prosecuted.
The Philippine president was criticized for calling Nuezca a “lunatic” and accusing him of having a “mental disorder” – seen as a deflection from what Vice President Leni Robredo, a political opponent of Duterte, called “a larger architecture of impunity” in the Philippines.
Robredo noted the officer had been charged with homicide in 2019 and had shown a larger “pattern of brutality,” but was allowed to remain in service.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, aptly summing up the Duterte administration’s perspective on the incident, described the killings as “unfortunate but isolated.”
However, it’s far from the first incident of police brutality under Duterte. Police killings in the country tend to evoke cruel recollections of earlier incidents.
Carlos Zarate, a House representative for the progressive Bayan Muna party-list, noted the December 31 killings of Tumandok Indigenous people fell under the “same modus operandi” as police raids on December 27, 2018, in which six farmers in nearby Negros Oriental were killed by police. Months later, a similar police operation killed 14 more farmers.