Main languages: Tagalog (national language), Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Bicolano, Waray, Pampangan, English (widely used)
Main religions: Roman Catholic (80.6 per cent), Protestant /Evangelical (9 per cent), Muslim (5.6 per cent), other including Buddhists and Animists (4 per cent) (2010 Census)
Main minority groups: Tagalog (24.4 per cent), Bisaya/Binisaya (11.4 per cent), Cebuano (9.9 per cent), Ilocano (8.8 per cent) Hiligaynon/Ilonggo (8.4 per cent), Bikol/Bicol (6.8 per cent) Waray (4 per cent), other local ethnicities (26.1 per cent) (2010 census).
The vast majority of the population of the Philippines speak one of the approximately 171 languages native to the country, most of which are part of the Malayo-Polynesian language branch of the Austronesian language family. According to the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, there are approximately 11.3 million indigenous people in the Philippines, amounting to 11- 12 per cent of the population. However, some civil society estimates suggest they may number range between 10 and 20 per cent of the population.
The indigenous peoples of the country are often broadly categorized by the geographic area from which they reside. Those from the northern mountains of Luzon (Cordillera) are collectively known as Igorot, those on the southern island of Mindanao collectively called Lumad and those in the central islands are referred to as Mangyan.
The 2010 Census estimated that approximately 5.6 percent of the population was Muslim. The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, however, estimated in 2012 the actual figure to be around 11 per cent of the population. The majority of Muslims live in the southern island of Mindanao as well as Palawan and the Sulu archipelago. Many self-identify as Bangsamoro or Moro Muslims, whose traditional territory is in Mindanao.
Updated May 2020
Since his election as President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte and his administration have overseen a dramatic deterioration in human rights in the country. Having won power on a strong anti-drug platform, he has launched a brutal assault on suspected drug use and other crimes that independent estimates suggest has so far resulted in more than 20,000 deaths, primarily of civilians, including many minors and children. The spate of extrajudicial killings by police and armed gunmen, many of whom are believed to be operating with the tacit support of authorities, has disproportionately targeted the urban poor and been accompanied by a broader assault on political opponents, civil society activists and journalists who have openly challenged the government’s violence.
This has contributed to a further deterioration of security in a country already contending with two major conflicts in the south, both of which have dragged on for decades and cost tens of thousands of lives: a separatist Muslim insurgency focused in Mindanao and a communist rebellion. These are rooted in a long history of exclusion and state injustice that has alienated large sections of the population from the central government and continues to be felt to this day. Yet Duterte’s election promises also included clear support of minority Mindanao Bangsamoro Muslims and the ongoing peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a resolution of the conflict with the communist National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), a call to implement a federal structure of government to solve calls for autonomy and self-determination among its indigenous and minority populations, and support to the recognition of some indigenous ancestral land titles. To date progress on these issues has been mixed, though peace negotiations with insurgents – in particular, with MILF – have achieved some success.
The resource-rich Mindanao province has been engulfed by conflict since the 1970s, amid religious tensions and grievances over perceived exploitation by the central government of the Muslim minority, one of the poorest and most marginalized groups in the overwhelmingly Catholic country. At the start of 2016, the finalisation of the peace agreement with MILF was at a crucial junction: the Basic Bangsamoro Law (BBL) needed to be passed before Congress was adjourned in February 2016, ahead of the elections. The BBL was the final implementing legislation, resulting from years of peace negotiations, that would create an autonomous region of Bangsamoro in Mindanao to replace the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Although the BBL failed to be passed and was a great disappointment to many, there was hope that Duterte would see the legislation finalised. In July 2016, the new government announced its approval of a comprehensive peace roadmap which specifically mandated the drafting of new legislation that could see the establishment of a federal Bangsamoro state. Following further negotiations the Bangsamoro Transition Council (BTC), a body that will be tasked with the redrafting, was expanded to 21 members: 11 from MILF and 10 from the government. Importantly, the government said it hopes the expanded BTC could make the process of drafting the implementing legislation more ‘inclusive’ by including representatives from indigenous groups and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), another armed faction. After protracted negotiations, in July 2018 Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, paving the way for a plebiscite in January 2019 on whether what is currently Mindanao would be dissolved and in its place a larger Muslim autonomous region, Bangsamoro, established in its place. It is hoped this measure will help bring an end to the longstanding conflict.
However, indigenous peoples in Mindanao, known collectively as Lumads, have expressed concerns about the future of their ancestral domains. Some fear the new legislation could aggravate land conflicts and erode the rights of indigenous peoples in the southern Philippines. There are some 100,000 Lumads in the proposed Bangsamoro region, and they consider almost 300,000 hectares of land to be their ancestral domains. Although two Lumads were included in the commission which drafted the Bangsamoro Organic Law, it is unclear how these concerns will be addressed. Other non-Muslim communities have resisted inclusion in the new Bangsamoro region, including the Christian-majority city of Zamboanga, which came under siege by armed groups in 2013.
Furthermore, a patchwork of other separatist groups, such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, have opposed the peace deal and continue to launch deadly attacks on the civilian population, targeting the region’s Christian minority in a number of towns and cities. In particular, the region must now contend with the renewed threat of ISIS-associated militant groups such as Maute and Abu Sayyaf, both of whom were involved in the bloody occupation of Marawi between May and October 2017 that saw more than 1,000 people killed and much of the city destroyed. The sudden takeover of the city by militants and protracted siege by military forces highlighted the continued obstacles to peace posed by extremist outfits operating largely outside the frame of any peace negotiations.
January 2019 saw renewed violence. There was first a gun battle between military and Maute forces, as the government attacked a training camp linked to a Maute leader. Two days later, a double bombing of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Carmel in Jolo on Sulu Island off the coast of Mindanao claimed the lives of 23 worshippers and caused injuries to 109 others. The military later said that the bomb attack had been carried out by Indonesian suicide bombers and planned by Abu Sayyaf – highlighting the increasing risk of foreign extremists being drawn to the Philippines.
The Bangsamoro plebiscite went ahead in two phases in January and February 2019. In the first phase, the results were overwhelmingly in favour of five of six southern Mindanao provinces and cities to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The results of the second phase were less clear, with barangays (administrative wards) in North Cotabato province voting in favour whilst inhabitants of six towns in Lanao del Norte province voted against joining the new region. Meanwhile, an 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) was named, with MILF appointing 41 members and the government naming 39 members. The BTA will act as an interim 3-year parliament, headed by MILF chairperson Ebrahim el Haj Murad, pending elections in BARMM. The way forward is unclear, however, as MILF has three training camps in Lanao del Norte which in principle will fall outside BARMM.
The long running conflict between the military and the New People’s Army (NPA) in the mountains of Mindanao – lasting some 50 years and with a total death toll of more than 40,000 lives since it began – has also had particularly devastating impacts on the Lumad people, a cluster of 18 indigenous communities in Mindanao. Many Lumad civilians have been caught in the conflict, subjected to militarization within their communities or targeted with extrajudicial killings and torture. Thousands have been displaced while fleeing violence by security forces. Lumad schools have continued to be targeted by armed gunmen with suspected links to security forces, driven in part by suspicions that these are being used to support the insurgency. This has resulted in indiscriminate killings and widespread displacement of indigenous communities, with Duterte publicly accusing indigenous schools of supporting the rebellion and threatening to bomb them.
A peace roadmap that was approved in 2016 included plans for negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), an umbrella group of communist organizations, representing the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the NPA, in negotiations. After over 40 rounds of talks under five different Philippine governments, the two parties met again in August 2016 in Oslo, Norway, for the first formal peace talks in five years. The 2016 formal talks in Oslo included a timeline for negotiations, initiating a ceasefire, negotiating immunity for NDFP members and an amnesty for detained political prisoners, the latter of which brought negotiations to a standstill with the previous government. The two parties agreed to an open-ended ceasefire, which managed to maintain a fragile peace throughout the year, despite not yet being able to agree to the terms of an official bilateral ceasefire agreement. The negotations subsequently collaped, with Duterte claiming in July 2017 that he planned to resume fighting against the NPA due to their failure to respect the terms of the ceasefire. While he offered to resume talks in 2018, uncertainty has persisted and a final peace agreement has yet to be put in place.
In the spirit of progress toward peace in the country, in October 2016 indigenous and Muslim minorities united in a new alliance under the auspices of the Movement of Moro and Indigenous Peoples for Self-determination, or Sandugo. The alliance was the outcome of a 3,000-person march from Mindanao to the capital of Manila, where they held Sandugo’s first assembly, saying such an alliance will enable them to more effectively face threats to their ancestral territories, including mining, oil palm plantations and ‘development aggression’. The march took to protesting outside the United States Embassy, where they were violently dispersed by police driving their vehicles into the crowd. The NDFP condemned the police actions, saying that there were elements of the police and military who were willing to sabotage the peace process. Sandugo had been protesting at the embassy to call for the shutdown of the Oplan-Bayanihan, a US-guided military counter-insurgency programme that has been blamed for indiscriminate killing of civilians.
The Philippines also remains one of the world’s deadliest places for human rights activists and indigenous community leaders. Many killings have been linked to the military or pro-government militias operating near resource development projects. The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact has described the ongoing violence against indigenous communities as a ‘systematic attack’ intended to ‘stifle their opposition and struggle to defend their ancestral lands’. According to a joint stakeholders’ report to the UN Universal Periodic Review on the Philippines in September 2016, 102 extrajudicial killings of indigenous people were committed by the previous Aquino administration. Since Duterte took power, these murders – despite making calls for an end to the killings of Lumad – have continued, with military, vigilantes and private security forces suspected of caring out the attacks. Many of the victims have been notable opponents of mining, oil palm plantations, corruption and government abuses.
In 2018, Global Witness declared the Philippines to be the most dangerous country in Asia for land and environmental defenders. It documented at least 48 activists killed in 2017; many of the victims belonged to indigenous peoples. As elsewhere, environmental activism is integral to the indigenous peoples’ rights movement. For instance, massive open-pit mining across the country in the ancestral territories of indigenous peoples, particularly in the Cordilleras, has contributed to a loss of access to clean resources.
Aside from targeted killings, indigenous and other rights activists are also vulnerable to vilification by the government. In February 2018, the highly respected UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, was included in a list of 600 names attached to a Department of Justice petition to declare the CPP and the NPA ‘terrorist organizations’, thereby implying that she herself was a ‘terrorist’. After an international outcry, Tauli-Corpuz was removed from the list by the Regional Trial Court of Manila by declaring her a non-party. While this step was welcomed by the UN, it was pointed out that many human rights defenders remained on the list.
Militarization and clan-based violence are key factors driving rural–urban indigenous migration in the southern Philippines, where the influx of displaced households has placed a heavy burden on the host communities. According to UN-Habitat, it has led to increased competition for jobs as well as shortages in housing, health and sanitation in urban areas.
Natural disasters are another major source of displacement in the typhoon-prone Philippines. Indigenous communities have been made more vulnerable due to their geographical isolation, far away from major urban centres where support services are typically located, and the limited efforts of local governments to reach them. Research suggests that the rapid rate of urbanization in the Philippines has also made poor and marginalized groups, including indigenous communities, more susceptible to natural disasters and flooding as they cannot afford to buy or rent housing in safer places.
However, indigenous customs and knowledge have also been recognized as a tool to tackle the effects of climate change in the Philippines. For example, a regional UNESCO-led project has studied indigenous cultural practices to help policy makers devise better disaster preparedness strategies in coastal areas. The study identified a number of traditions that were used to accurately predict disasters, such as typhoons or tsunamis, and later integrated with scientific approaches. The study found that indigenous communities have developed various ways to strengthen their houses and store food ahead of disasters, offering useful lessons in strengthening local resilience.
The Republic of the Philippines is an archipelago located in South-East Asia consisting of more than 7,000 islands. The country is divided into three major island groups: Luzon in the north, including the capital, Manila, the largest group; the island grouping in the middle, the Visayas, the smallest; and Mindanao, in the south. Its climate is mainly hot and humid, with tropical forests covering much of its mountainous regions.
The original inhabitants are believed to have been Negrito hunter-gatherers, followed by different waves of Malay immigrants from what are now Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
In 1521, during Magellan’s global circumnavigation, the Spaniards claimed the islands for Spain and named them Las Islas Filipinas in honour of King Philip II of Spain. The nearly three centuries of Spanish rule had two far-reaching effects: the introduction of Catholicism and a land-tenure system based on Spanish feudalism. Today, the Philippines is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the only Christian nation in South-East Asia. When the United States defeated the Spanish in Cuba in 1901, Spain ceded the Philippines. The Filipino independence movement, which had started in the mid-1800s, continued its armed struggle. The United States brutally suppressed the nationalist movement and proceeded to rule for the next 50 years. It greatly expanded education and transportation, and encouraged agricultural and commercial production. Nationalists were co-opted into the political process, which was based on US constitutional practices. The Philippines finally became independent in 1946.
During the early independence period a communist insurgency developed in Luzon. This movement, known as the Huk movement, was defeated in the 1950s with US assistance. But a second communist movement, under the leadership of the Communist Party of the Philippines established the New People’s Army and, led by Huk elements and radical students, re-emerged in the late 1960s. Simultaneously, a Muslim insurgency developed in Mindanao after decades of a growing influx of Christian Filipinos and land policies that were perceived as disadvantaging or excluding Moro Muslims. These two insurgencies, and a desire to remain in office, led President Ferdinand Marcos to declare martial law in 1972. Marcos’s authoritarian rule lasted until 1983, when opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated on his return from exile in the United States. An election held shortly afterwards saw a landslide victory for his widow, Corazon Aquino. When Marcos refused to hand over power, a popular uprising, People’s Power, forced him into exile in Hawai’i and Corazon Aquino became President.
The return of democracy led to a series of reforms strengthening human rights protection. However, corruption, the Asian economic crisis, the downfall of President Joseph Estrada and attempted coups against the current administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have nevertheless all hampered the ability of the country’s institutions – including the judicial system – from properly ensuring the implementation of the various rights enshrined in the Constitution and legislation.
Although democratic rule has been established for some years now, Filipino politics remain based on patron-client relations and dominated by a dozen powerful elite families. All the major landholding families and political figures remain mestizo (of mixed Spanish-Filipino descent). Legislation to protect indigenous land rights, such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, has been very slowly implemented, if at all. Death squads have been operating to oppose land redistribution and have threatened, beaten or killed a number of farmers and activists in recent years.
President Benigno Aquino III’s six-year term, from 2010 to 2016, while making progress in some important areas, failed to make institutional changes that would address some of the long running human rights issues in the Philippines. There is still wide immunity for abuses committed by state security forces, and a corrupt and politicized justice system. It remains an extremely dangerous country for human rights defenders, particularly indigenous leaders and journalists.
In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte elected as President of the Philippines. He was elected on a platform of eliminating criminality including drug use that had resulted in the extrajudicial killings of approximately 4,800 people by the end of 2016, by police and unidentified gunmen. Yet his election promises also included clear support of minority Mindanao Bangsamoro Muslims and the ongoing peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a resolution of conflict with the decades old communist insurgency under the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), and a call to implement a federal structure of government to solve calls for autonomy and self determination among its indigenous and minority populations.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Asian Human Rights Commission
Ateneo Human Rights Center
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan – New Patriotic Alliance
PNU Centre for Gender and Development
Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance
Institute of Human Rights
Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center-Kasama sa Kalikasan/Friends of the Earth Philippines
Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates
Philippine Human Rights Information Center
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
Asian Muslim Action Network in the Philippines (AMANPHIL)
Moro Human Rights Center
Sandugo (Movement of Moro and Indigenous Peoples for Self-Determination
Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas – Federation of Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines
Legal Assistance Center for Indigenous Filipinos
Lumad Mindanaw People Federation
Sandugo (Movement of Moro and Indigenous Peoples for Self-Determination
Tebtebba – Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education
Tunay na Alyansa ng Bayan sa Katutubo – TABAK (Alliance of Advocates for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights)
United Association of Higaonon Tribes
- Development Conflict: The Philippine Experience (2002)
- Development Conflict: The Philippine Experience (2002)
- The Chinese in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia (1972)
News and updates
- International human rights organizations condemn the recent Panay Massacre (18 January 2021)
- ‘Life at the Margins’ – new story pack on multiple forms of discrimination faced by minorities and indigenous peoples (8 March 2016)
- Struggle for control of resources in South East Asia feeds ethnic conflict, displacement and threatens livelihoods of minorities and indigenous peoples, new global report (28 June 2012)
- Development with identity (14 March 2012)
- Lumad and Bangsamoro accuse Philippines government of failing minorities (15 March 2004)
- Philippine experience exposes human cost of development conflict (13 March 2003)
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