By LISA ITO*
A cultural standoff is building up in the municipality of Bugnay, Tinglayan, Kalinga as I write this: a place where the vast Chico River runs through, where the Cordillera leader Macli-ing Dulag was born and where he was assassinated by soldiers on the night of April 24, 1980. His murder, a landmark case, was a final turning point in three decades of community resistance that led to the shelving of the mega-dam project backed by the Marcos dictatorship.
A monument was built there in 2017, on property endowed by his family, to never forget the sacrifice of Dulag and other Butbut tribe leaders Pedro Dungoc Sr. and Lumbaya Gayudan: all heroes of the struggle to defend their ancestral lands against fascism and development aggression. From accounts, the work represents nearly 17 years of effort, since 2000, from their families, the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), collaborating artists, and the community.
For the past two weeks, local police pushed for the removal of this marker, claiming that it breaches the right-of-way of a national road and was installed in the heritage village of Bugnay without the approval of the National Historical Commission. News reports indicate that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) has already served the first of three demolition notices to the CPA as of this writing.
It is no secret that public murals, memorials, markers, reenactments, rituals, and monuments are sites of political power and contestation. These are often commissioned as symbols by the state or by those in power to reinforce and shape narratives of nation and heroism (which are all subject to class interests). But when built and enacted by the community and especially the oppressed, these are a means by which the people are able to articulate, reclaim, and fight back for our stories and struggles.
This is why there is clearly much more at stake in the ongoing move by the local police and DPWH to demolish the monument dedicated to the martyrs of the Anti-Chico Dam Struggle.
Downgrading and policing people’s cultural heritage
First of all, we must not allow a historic memorial, publicly inaugurated with the family’s support and community’s consent, to be downgraded as a roadblock: something getting in the right-of-way of, all things, a road widening project that may also affect nearby houses and other structures, as the CPA points out. It is deplorable that the DPWH proceeded with the demolition notice instead of prioritizing a thorough process of consultation and negotiation of alternative recourses.
Second, what right does the Kalinga Provincial Police Office have to be twisting heritage policies to demolish and desecrate a work of clear cultural and historic value?
The KPPO, for instance, alleges that the monument’s presence violates Provincial Ordinance No. 2017-003, ignoring the irony that this has declared Bugnay as a Heritage Village to honor the memory of Dulag and Dungoc. It was inaugurated following due process and consultations on the 37th anniversary of Dulag’s death and on the same year as that ordinance, indicating strongly that its proponents respect that mandate well within and even beyond the letter of the law. It is an example of how the public took initiative to enact and keep alive the memory of heroes, making concrete any means to enshrine their pride of place and heritage of struggle.
Attacking the people’s movement
Third, the local police’s attempts to justify and push through with the demolition happens in the context of intensifying political harassment by the Duterte administration against people’s organizations in the Cordillera and other regions.
The demolition threat against this three-year old work surfaces at a time of rabid red-tagging and terrorist-tagging of anyone who criticizes the government—from celebrities speaking out to progressive lawmakers who are the few remaining voices of reason and conscience in Congress—to local people’s organizations such as the CPA. Many such cases were reported by the CPA earlier this April during the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), as the annual Cordillera Day commemoration of Dulag’s death took place. There and elsewhere, this red-tagging preceded the filing of trumped-up charges against activists and killings, such as that of cultural worker Marlon Maldos in Bohol on March 17.
Erasing histories of resistance
Fourth, we must not allow historical distortion by demolition: the symbolic erasing of resistance and the people’s valiant struggle against dictatorship-backed “development”. The lands on which Bugnay stands are there today because Dulag’s generation fought for it to remain.
Elsewhere around the world today, statues and emblems glorifying colonial rule, slavery, and genocide are being dismantled or defaced in outrage against racism and neocolonialism, seen in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. Here in the Philippines, it is absurdly surreal to see how a monument to the memory of the indigenous leaders of the Cordillera people’s resistance is being targetted for removal.
Like the Bantayog ng mga Bayani memorial in Quezon City, dedicated to a wide segment of Martial Law martyrs from community leaders such as Dulag to fighters of the New People’s Army in resisting the Marcos dictatorship, or the 1933 Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan honoring revolutionary heroes of the Katipunan who fought for independence from Spanish rule, the Anti-Chico Dam Struggle monument represents a step foward in committing our histories of resistance to public memory in more permanent form. To demolish it would be a grave disrespect of cultural and social history at the very least.
Already, other transient or performative forms of memorializing people’s struggles are suppressed or erased in similar ways. One case in point is how the annual community reenactments of the 1985 Escalante massacre in Negros by Teatro Obrero, a group which produces community performances on the plight of sugar workers in a province dominated by haciendas, have stopped due to harassment by state forces. Reports by peasant organizations note that members of Teatro Obrero were arrested in the raids on Negros in November 2019.
Lastly, the monument charts a continuing history of dissent. The country is commemorating the quincentennial, or the 500th anniversary, of the country’s first contact with Spaniards. But remember that it was also among the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera and Mindanao region where we find those who fought the hardest and the longest in resisting colonial invasion, whether through direct conquest of the past or neocolonial aggression today in the guise of foreign-funded development projects such as the Chico Dam.
This is a history of struggle writ real in the present. The indigenous peoples and peasants of these regions are still fighting today for land, justice, and life. Alternative schools for the lumad youth in Mindanao are being closed, red-tagged, bombed and burned down by the military with a ferocity far worse than before. Demolishing the Cordillera monument at this juncture only stresses how the right to self-determination continues to elide us, even in our emblems.
More than a case of removing an alleged illegal structure: demolishing the monument will be an attack against the body politic itself. It is an assault against freedom of expression and a form of censorship being wielded by the state in the guise of techinicalities.
I oppose the removal of an artwork that signifies something larger than and beyond the land it stands on: the weight of history, the Cordillera people’s struggle for land and self-determination, and the people’s right to fight back.
*The author is the secretary general of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) and a faculty member of the College of Fine Arts in UP Diliman.