Where the court is seldom needed

If it rarely happens that a Lumad from Barangay Rogongon in Iligan City lands in jail, it does not mean that it has always been peaceful in this predominantly Higaonon village.

Datu Sumilao Leonardo Bonto explained that conflicts no longer reach the authorities in the city because these are being resolved by the tribal leaders. He said the practice of resolving conflicts, including rido or vendetta killings between clans, through the indigenous justice system dates back to the time when there was no formal government yet.

“We could not see Lumads in jail because we follow our culture in settling conflicts,” he beamed, his hand making gestures as he spoke.

“Even killing or murder, a heinous crime under the legal system, can be resolved through traditional means,” Datu Paulino Licuanan joined in.

Licuanan said that in a murder case the tribal leaders would ask the killer to explain why he committed the crime. At the same time, the other tribal leaders would ask the family of the victim if they will agree to resolve it through customary means. Afterwards the leaders who approached the two parties will consult each other as to what happened during the negotiations, and find ways toward a settlement lest the problem worsens or spreads.

The datus will require an exchange of items with symbolic meanings that oblige both parties to give the conflict a closure. In a murder case for instance, aside from blood money, carabaos and four sacks of rice, the killer gives agaw sa balaw to the aggrieved party, acceptance of which signifies that the latter is willing to reconcile. Agaw sa balaw means a thing that takes away a person’s courage and thirst for vengeance.

When money was not yet in use the Lumads used land and antiques as payment. At present, murder would mean paying 30,000-50,000 pesos.

Sumilao said that during the settlement process the parties declare in front of a gantangan (measuring box) to honor the agreement. “The vow is sacred that those who don’t abide by it will die after a few days,” he explained, adding the mouth of the gantangan represents dinilusan or Hell that holds a curse for those who break such vow. The datus will then cut a rattan, put off a candle and break an egg, acts that symbolize the fragility of life.

Datu Adag Macauyag, a Higaonon who has embraced Islam, pointed out that part of the settlement process is tracing the genealogies of both parties. If they happen to come from the same roots, resolving the conflict would be easier.

Gimaides Ann Cadotdot, director of Pailig Development Foundation Inc. which is implementing socioeconomic and peace building projects in Rogongon and neighboring barangays, said that if the parties have blood relations the penalty can be lowered.

She shared Sumilao’s observation that if a conflict involves Lumad and Moro residents the parties normally use traditional means to resolve it. She said Pailig has encouraged the strengthening of the traditional justice system by training local negotiators and mediators who will help the tribal leaders.

“But many dumagat (settlers) are not receptive to traditional means.”

Macauyag saids they will not oppose if Christians would prefer legal venues like the barangay justice system and the court.

But for the late Antonio Liao, board member of Pailig, said in an interview a few months before his death that the customary way of settling conflicts is a better option in a place like Rogongon where having arms is a status symbol and commands respect. “In a legal case, there’s a loser. But in traditional conflict resolution the purpose is reconciliation especially since they (Lumads) are mostly related by blood. It’s a healing process.”

Mr. Liao said the spate of killings during a rido stems mainly from a sense of pride or honor among the protagonists. A person feels a sense of inadequacy if he could not get back at those who have done him or his family wrong. “Once a killing takes place the reason is immaterial for the victim’s kin…Worse, an armed group might try to exploit the situation if a conflict is not resolved.”

He cited a case of rido in Barangay Kalilangan, Iligan City where a child lost his father while he was still in his mother’s womb. The child only knew who the killer was when he was old enough to carry a gun. The conflict was eventually resolved, but not before the son obtained vengeance for the death of a father that he never saw.

Not all killings, however, result in a vicious cycle of reprisal. Datu Romapanot Estemmer Soong recalled a case that occurred on 27 December 2011, when Teofilo Oging of Claveria, Misamis Oriental allegedly killed a resident of Rogongon. He can never forget the incident because the victim was his 22-year old son, Glen.

Authorities in Iligan wanted to really arrest and prosecute Oging, who fled to his hometown. The datus though – including the victim’s father – had agreed not to pursue a case in court and opt instead to settle it through traditional means.

Glen’s father set his eyes on the table before him as he let Sumilao narrate the tragedy, his face showing sadness but without a hint of hatred for Oging.

Bonto attributed the reconciliatory nature of the traditional justice system to batasan ha dangged. Called bungkatol ha bulawan daw nangkatasa ha lana in other Higaonon territories, batasan ha dangged is a sacred code of conduct that ensures peace, sharing and harmony in the community.

“Not following it will lead to conflicts,” Bonto warned.

If a man covets his neighbor’s wife

Soong clarified that not all rido involves killing. “Sometimes the cause is man-woman relations. If I’m married and I commit adultery, a different way is used to resolve it, although the datus as mediators are also needed. If a datu commits this sin, he could not be allowed to arbitrate it.”

Considered a big sin and cause of bad luck, committing adultery in olden times would mean death for the offender. He would be killed without letting his blood flow by hitting him in the nape with a wood called manubilan.

With the passing of time the sanctions have become less severe. At present, the adulterer would be asked to explain why he did it. He should also offer different cloths and a chick which is made to bleed to prevent the death of a child, Soong continued.

Datu Baligtawan Salusay explained further what happens whenever the datus settle an adultery case: “The man who covets another man’s wife will be subjected to sala (determination of guilt) before the datus hand down judgment. They will ask the aggrieved party about his opinion, and he will likely say he likes to kill another man.”

“But the datus would insist on settlement. He (aggrieved party) will be asked how much he spent for his wedding and the amount is doubled. If the adulterer could not pay, the datus will ask the aggrieved party if there is another woman he wishes to marry (in case there is no chance for the couple to be reunited). The adulterer and the datus will then go to the woman to help arrange the marriage.

“The two parties to the case then face the datus and the gantangan, complete with a candle, egg and rattan, and witnessed by Magbabaya (Supreme Being), ancestors and tagulambong (guiding spirit) sa gantangan. The ritual now makes them more than brothers whom the datus have united.

“If the aggrieved man would still harbor vindictiveness in his heart and the datus come to know about it, he will be arrested by the datus and his body chopped into pieces because he has violated the settlement they have forged. That’s why datus are sacred.”

Conflict over resources

The late Mr. Liao noted that land is the main cause of conflict in Rogongon and its environs, followed by rivalry over a woman and cattle rustling. Logging and mining have also caused conflicts, he added, citing the case of a miner who was found dead after searching for gold in a land claimed by another individual.

“If the conflict is resource-based, offer an alternative. There are vast lands, so develop agriculture,” he suggested, citing Pailig’s socioeconomic program in Barangay Lanipao, one of their partner communities in Iligan’s upland areas.

He said the result of their program in Lanipao seems to have inspired neighboring villages. “Progress is not really that fast, but the effects on people can be seen. We believe that while we may not be able to eliminate rido completely we can minimize its occurrence.”

He called the practice of sending a “peacekeeping force” to suppress a rido a temporary measure. “The people themselves should work out a solution otherwise the killings won’t end.” (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)