Political violence during the election period has many, many less blatant, and extremely subtler forms. No one may be killed. People may in fact be feted with food and free rides. Seemingly harmless, even fun, these dirty tricks involve intimidation and distort the electoral process as well.
Let’s take the case of the Mangyans of Mindoro Occidental.
Unlike other indigenous groups, the Mangyans are not known for being fierce warriors. Faced with the aggression of outsiders, they flee rather than fight.
Their votes may be few. But in this game of numbers, they have not escaped the machinations of unscrupulous politicians.
In past election years, according to Fr. Philip Alcantara of the Vicariate of San Jose, Mangyans were rounded up a day or so before election, kept, and fed in holding places. There they were given “literacy classes”. In short, they were taught how to spell and write the politician’s name.
Then they were brought to their precincts where they were made to hone their writing skills.
In other instances when they were known to favor the political opponent, they were just kept busy with free movies the whole election day — and prevented from voting.
Either way, for the Vicariate of San Jose, Mindoro Occidental, the Mangyans’ innocence has been exploited, their will molested far too many times.
This year, Bishop Antonio Palang’s vicariate and Mangyan leaders of the Federation of Mangyan Tribes agreed they will put a stop to this old practice that is almost as old as the elections in Mindoro itself.
In a pastoral letter read in the local parishes on May 6, Bishop Palang decried the practice of surreptitiously detaining the Mangyans on and before election day.
Seeing the constraints faced by the disadvantaged Mangyan voters who trek long distances to get to their precincts, the Vicariate had tried to secure additional voting precincts to be located in places where Mangyans can easily congregate. But COMELEC was not able to give this to them.
Asked by the Mangyans what the church’s alternative is, the Vicariate is taking more steps — putting their resources where their mouth is, so to speak.
The diocese is buying eighty cavans of rice, several boxes of canned goods and noodles. Some of this will be “baon” – to be eaten by the Mangyans on their way back the mountain trail.
For their part, the Mangyan tribal organizations will put up makeshift kitchens near the voting centers where Mangyan voters can rest and eat, beholden to no politician, and free to exercise their right to choose.
It’s a novel initiative, and hopefully it will work.
It will also be a test of Mangyan leadership. Politicians got away with their antics in the past because other Mangyans worked for them. The tribal organizations must now show they can stop to these practices, get the full cooperation of their fellow Mangyans, and efficiently run a kitchen as well!
The past years have been a series of tests for the diocese and the Mangyans. For one, in this election, the local church’s neutrality is being damaged by the candidacy of a priest who is being backed up by a discredited politician. In fact, some believe, this is the real intent in fielding the priest, who has since been suspended by the church.
Aside from administering to spiritual needs, the vicariate has been stretched to its limits by social and economic concerns like mining and agricultural productivity. On top of this, it serves as the backbone of the citizen election monitoring machineries that have been put up, such as the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting.
In the midst of armed conflict, the vicariate and the tribal federation have also pioneered in engaging both the AFP and the New People’s Army in dialogues where they secured guarantees for the safety of the Mangyans and their hinterland communities that have intermittently served as recruitment base and battleground of the warring camps.
Diocesan priests have negotiated the release of badly treated Mangyans accused of being NPA members. Several times, they facilitated clearing the names and allowing the safe return of suspected tribesmen (among them children) to their community.
At one time, shortly after one more Globe cell site in Mindoro Occidental was destroyed, Fr. Philip debated with the former provincial NPA commander over the airwaves on the demerits of blasting cell sites. The commander wasn’t convinced. But the people listening in heard all sides and made their own informed judgment (you can listen to this broadcast at www.sulongnetwork.ph).
According to agreements forged with the local AFP and police commands, Mangyan leaders will be warned of an impending military operation so they can move their community to safety, they cannot be arbitrarily picked up for questioning, their sacred grounds will not be trampled upon during military operations, and so on.
These agreements have not been totally observed. But at least, some local AFP officers have become more conscious of their men’s actuations, handing over to the church Mangyans in their custody when demanded, and maintaining open lines to thresh out complaints.
Slowly, the Mangyans are building their collective strength founded on awareness of their rights and pride in themselves. Soon the Mangyan vote will not just be a vote for this or that politician. It will be a solid voice for the protection of their land, life, culture and right to peace.