The Unseen, Unheard and Forgotten: The Biliran Manobos in the May 2010 Elections
By Nadja Castillo
It took us an almost two-hour habal-habal ride from Biliran Islands’ capital of Naval to the community of a small indigenous group nestled at the foot of the Tres Marias Mountain. It was a spur-of-the-moment side trip during my investigative research on the allegations of electoral fraud in the islands and was a much-needed break from a four-day interview marathon with government officials, local candidates and poll watchers. But more importantly, the trip also provided me insights about the experience of one of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized sectors, the indigenous peoples, with the first ever automated elections in the Philippines.
Called Ita - a misnomer - by the lowlanders, the Manobos are settlers of Sitio Palayan, Brgy. Caucab in Almeria town, one of the sites of Biliran’s rice terraces built by the Bisayas that are reminiscent of the famed Ifugao rice terraces. The Manobos call this their home since fleeing war-torn Mindanao some 20 years back. Many of their relatives have also migrated to other parts of the country. There are 12 families in this Manobo community. Theirs is a subsistence economy reliant on agriculture and hunting. They maintain a patch of communal vegetable farm which is a one-hour uphill trek from their cluster of houses. They also plant hemp or abaca for commercial farming. They hand-braid the hemp into ropes which are sold at a low price in Almeria or Naval. To augment their cash income, they work as agricultural workers in the six-hectare rice terraces of the Bisaya. Here they weed the fields, thresh the grains, and pound the rice, in exchange for which they get one cavan of rice for every ten produced in the terraces.
Although the Manobos continue to practice some aspects of their culture, such as their language and religious rites, they have adapted some Bisaya practices. For example they have converted as Born Again Christians and learned the local dialect, Cebuano. They also vote during national and local elections. However, there is the parallel practice of indigenous governance where community decisions are made through consensus building. Many of these decisions involve the sustainable management of natural resources.
The new system of voting in the May 10, 2010 elections was something the Manobos encountered without much help at all. The automated election system proved to be complex for many non-indigenous Filipinos, but it was much more so for the Manobos. Most of them are unschooled and very few have rarely, if at all, used a computer.
According to them, early on they already recognized their need for a comprehensive voters’ education which they voiced to the barangay captain. The barangay captain told them that somebody will visit their community to teach them how to vote using the PCOS machines. But by the eve of the elections, the person who was supposed to teach them still hadn’t showed up. It was then that their Manobo leaders took the initiative and asked the barangay captain and a councillor to teach them the basics of voting, the do’s and don’ts upon reaching the precinct.
Because they have limited access to mass media, it was important that they also be informed about the candidates through other ways. But only one local candidate sent his supporters to their community to campaign. No one among the national candidates cared to reach them. This, in a way, limited their capability to make an informed choice on Election Day.
Nonetheless, according to one Manobo leader, voting in the automated system is easier compared to voting in the manual system, but this is only true for those who can read and write. The unschooled still had to be helped out by literate Manobo voters handpicked by the tribe to serve as assistors. However, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of the essence of suffrage, they believe that their right to suffrage is not fully exercised as long as they always have to depend on literate Manobo tribe mates to assist them in filling out their ballots.
Aside from this difficulty that may be unique to the Manobos, they also suffered similar experiences as many other Filipinos: disenfranchisement, harassment and intimidation. Before the day of the elections, they were offered money by a candidate in exchange for not voting. On the day of the elections itself, one of the candidate’s men intimidated them by signalling that he has a gun hidden inside his pockets. Scared, some of them did not go to vote. The politician’s goons knew that the area was the bailiwick of the rival candidate.
These experiences made it difficult for many to exercise their right to vote, which became evident in the low turnout. There are around 100 registered Manobo voters in the community, but only about 28, in their own estimate, were able to cast their votes last May 10, 2010.
Indigenous groups like the Manobos are the most marginalized, impoverished and politically voiceless peoples in the country. Dislocated from their original residence, the Manobos have to deal with various kinds of abuse, from middlemen, landowners and local politicians. Their vulnerability is intensified because they are outsiders and Manobos.
The formal state system represented by the May elections does not provide positive lessons in democracy for these people whose indigenous philosophy and practice of governance seem more truly democratic than the election-based system of the state. Theoretically, the elections is one way for the Manobos to hold negligent and corrupt politicians accountable by not voting for them and to choose the candidates that they know will promote their interests. This is so if they are able to make informed choices, to vote for their chosen candidates free from fear and coercion, and for their votes to be counted accurately. And it is more so if the election will enable them to have a genuine democratic representation in government from among their sector, making their direct participation in governance possible.
However, with the experience of the Manobos of Biliran, many of these conditions were not met. For example, the automated election system (AES), according to Republic Act 9369 or the Automated Election Law, should be, among its minimum system capabilities, accessible to the unschooled and disabled voters. But it is clear that this was not so. Relying on assistors (even though these are from among their own) does not protect the voters’ right to the secrecy of his/her vote, which are among the requirements in the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the bidding for the automated system for the May 10, 2010 elections. The AES is therefore not compliant with RA 9369 and TOR.
Beyond problems resulting from the inadequacies of the automated system are fundamental systemic problems that have long been plaguing Philippine elections, victimizing both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Vote buying, harassment, intimidation, and lack of proper voters’ education are chronic problems that put into question the credibility of Philippine elections. But because of the degree of their vulnerability, there are problems that are specific only to indigenous peoples like the Manobo, some of which I have cited earlier.
There is a need for a deeper and more comprehensive study on indigenous peoples’ experiences in the automated elections. Was there full participation of indigenous peoples in the last elections? How does the indigenous self-governance structure work alongside different so-called democratic practices such as elections and vice versa? Should the manner of election be different for indigenous peoples, that which respects their own philosophy of governance? How can elections be a tool for these peoples to protect their right to their ancestral lands and to self-determination that are enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which the Philippines is a signatory? These and other questions should be addressed by government and civil society for justice for all, including the indigenous peoples, to be a reality in this country. EU-CenPEG Project 3030