October 23, 2005


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Christopher Batan: from a tribal warrior to ahuman rights advocate

BAGUIO CITY - It was in the early ‘80s when I first visited Lias, a barangay of Barlig. The i-Lias people are among the groups composing the Balangao tribe, the indigenous people in the municipalities of Barlig, Natonin, and Paracelis, located in the eastern part of Mountain Province.

During my early visit, elders from Aplay (from the Kankanaey areas upstream the Chico River) called biyahero (who frequently visited the area to buy antique jars and others) told me that the i-Lias sub-tribe is among the most feared tribes in the eastern part. They were brave warriors as manifested in the map where the community forms a spear-like tip that had hit the mountain on the other side. Interpreted by the men-abig (elder/s who predict future events), Lias’ physical formation manifest that they are never to be defeated in tribal war by any other tribe.

I visited Lias again in 1993, more than a decade after, to witness the burial of human rights activist and friend, Christopher Lognason Batan. In their tradition, his burial was that of a warrior’s. He was buried in a Chalipoy (cemetery) specially designated for murdered members of the tribe. He wore a wanes or g-string like any other fallen tribal warrior.

His coffin was not covered and he was buried facing east. “The sun will light his way and help his tribe members seek justice for his death,” explained his kailyan (tribe mate).

Earlier, they performed a ritual to seek justice for the killing of Chris. In the ritual, the nearest paternal relatives of Chris tried to let an egg stand without any support. If they failed, Chris’ maternal relatives would try next. If it would still be a failure, then the members of the community would attempt too. The ritual is done to determine who among the relatives or tribe mates will lead the mangayaw (revenge), explained our informant.

Normally in the case of Chris’ death, revenge would have followed immediately after the burial. Performance of the necessary rituals by the tribe would follow suit. However, his family requested that the government justice system be exhausted – if it would work.

Who is Chris?

Chris was the fourth of eight children of a farming couple from Lias. He came to the city in 1987 to study. While enrolled as a Political Science student at the Baguio Colleges Foundation (BCF), now known as University of the Cordilleras (UC), he tried to augment his allowance by selling newspapers at his newsstand at the Igorot Park. Despite that however, he was able to manage his time joining extra-curricular and political activities with his fellow youth from the Cordillera provinces.

In 1987, Chris was among the youth leaders of the Progressive Igorots for Social Action (PIGSA). That was when I met him upon my return to BCF. He was among the organization’s politically matured educators capable of discussing the issue national oppression, the particular problem of the Cordillera people as indigenous peoples.

He, too, was a ‘culturalist’. Leading the playing of the gongs with just two or three companions, his group could masterfully play the music for the eagle dance, the popular dance of the Balangao. He could dance literally like an eagle, harmonized with his sheer laughter, while he challenged his companions to do so.

He tried to take up Law at the St. Louis University (SLU), but financial problems forced him to stop.

NGO work

His commitment to social change was embedded within Chris. After graduation in 1990, he joined the Mining Communities Development Center (MCDC) servicing the communities of Itogon. He was among the community organizers who conducted education and training among the folk in these communities, anchoring on environmental rights, at a time when the open pit mining was threatening the people’s livelihood sources. He then devoted much of his time to NGO work.

Deciding to be nearer his family in Lias, which is more or less 50 kilometers away from Bontoc proper, he joined the Mountain Province unit of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) in 1992. He had been a reliable human rights worker in the area.

On February 23, 1993, he was with Mila Fanaang and Anglican Priest Eduardo Solang on the way to Betwagan, Sadanga, Mountain Province to document human rights cases committed during the Martial Law era to be included in a class suit against former President Ferdinand Marcos.

He might have been aware that his human rights advocacy would bring threats to his life, but this did not stop him. While approaching the Betwagan Village, at least five CAFGU (Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit) members fired at the group and hit Chris on the hip. Another member came nearer for another shot to ensure his death. His promising young life at 25 years, was cut short by a state-supported paramilitary group.

A murder case was filed in Bontoc against the Betwagan CAFGUs. But since the bodong (peacepact) between Betwagan and Lias was severed due to the incident, the conflict triggered the transfer of the case to Baguio City upon approval by the Supreme Court.

Years after the killing, the first to be arrested was Agustin Agpawan. The Regional Trial Court in Baguio convicted him for the murder conspiracy. Ten years after the murder, another accused Bonifacio Chumacog was arrested, and convicted on June 29, 2004. The other three CAFGU members namely Mateo Fanao, Kengeb Fayno, and Panyong Rongan are still at large. According to another CAFGU member, under the Alpha Company of the 77th IB of the Philippine Army- Bontoc, the alleged assailants remain scot-free despite the warrant issued by Baguio Regional Trial Court Branch 59.

The quest for justice for Christopher Batan’s death reflects the justice system in our country – it works in turtle pace. Twelve years since his death, his family, friends and tribe mates still demand for full justice. # Arthur L. Allad-iw for NORDIS

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