Indigenous people in Philippines's north 'ready to fight'

The remote island of Itbayat is in the eye of any conflict with China and its residents are preparing themselves.

A view of the port in Itbayat. There are jagged cliffs and rocks. A small boat is tied to the shore with ropes, People are waiting to board. The sea looks choppy. The island spreads out behind.
Itbayat’s port is too small for boats to dock for long and rough waves make loading and unloading difficult [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]
Itbayat’s port is too small for boats to dock for long and rough waves make loading and unloading difficult [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

This is the second of two reports from the Philippines's northernmost province of Batanes. You can read the first – from Mavulis Island – here.

Itbayat, Philippines Eleuterio Malupa still remembers December 7, 1941.

On the same day as the Japanese military attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, it launched coordinated attacks across the Philippines, then a colony of the United States.

On Itbayat, the tiny island of 3,100 that Malupa calls home, the Japanese military destroyed the only telecom radio. The next day, he saw two bombs drop near the municipal hall.

“My uncle said, 'Don’t go near the window. They might shoot you',” Malupa, who is now in his 90s, recalled.

The bombs missed their target but they signalled the start of a four-year period of occupation by a Japanese company that dug a network of mountain tunnels to hide troops and store supplies.

Many fled in fear.

“They did not want to stay in town because of the Japanese,” Malupa said.

Cyrus Malupa (left) with his parents, Corazon and Eleuterio Malupa. They are sitting inside their home in Itbayat.
Cyrus Malupa (left) with his parents, Corazon and Eleuterio, at home in Itbayat [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Now, the northernmost inhabited island in the Philippines is facing a new threat as it finds itself directly in the eye of any potential conflict between China and Taiwan, the island democracy Beijing claims as its own.

Itbayat also sits right next to China’s nine-dash line, which Beijing uses to justify its claim to almost the entire South China Sea. The China Coast Guard has aggressively strengthened its posture in the disputed sea; on March 23, the Philippines accused China of attacking its boat with a water cannon.

Amid the rising tensions, the Philippine military is bolstering its defence of Batanes, the northern island province that includes Itbayat. It has also called on Ivatans, the Indigenous people of Itbayat, to join the country’s reserve forces.

“We are ready to fight,” said Cyrus Malupa, Eleuterio’s son. “We can help our community and our country. That is our main objective.”

In March, 119 Batanes residents joined the Navy reserve forces. About two-thirds are from Itbayat. Cyrus, 60, is the oldest.

“I worried I couldn’t make it through training,” he said, laughing. “But there were still some younger than me, slower than me.”

A view of the site for a new naval outlook station in Itbayat. I is on a hill. There is lots of greenery around.
The site of a new naval outlook station to be constructed on the island’s north, facing Taiwan [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]
The site of a new naval outlook station to be constructed on the island’s north, facing Taiwan [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

With the new additions, there are about 400 reserves in the province and the number is growing. The Philippine Air Force is now recruiting its own batch of reservists and many Itbayat residents are considering joining.

In April, the US and Philippines will conduct joint military exercises on Itbayat for the first time. The US is also helping to construct a new warehouse and the Philippine Navy has plans to build a small naval outlook station on the island’s north, facing Taiwan.

The new developments have angered China. In February, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, warned the Philippines to “tread carefully and don’t play with fire” when boosting its military presence in Batanes.

“China is bullying us too much,” Cyrus Malupa said. “But we’re not so worried because the Americans are helping us.”

Legacy of trust

Itbayat’s people are from the Ivatan ethnic group, the Austronesian Indigenous community of Batanes, although people on the island have their own unique dialect. Just about everyone makes a living on farms or at sea.

Their sense of identity has been forged over centuries as the largely isolated island kept its distance from colonial powers.

When Spanish missionaries arrived in Itbayat in the 1700s, some Ivatans resisted Catholicism and the Spanish language by fleeing to what is now Taiwan’s Orchid Island, just 142km (88 miles) away.

Itbayat became part of the newly minted province of Batanes in 1909, shortly after the Philippines became a US colony.

Eleuterio Malupa showing a sheath of tree bark. He is sitting in his home, The tree bark is pale coloured and has been folded.
Eleuterio Malupa holds some tree bark. When he was a child during the Japanese occupation, they would make clothes with it [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

During the Japanese occupation, Ivatans ate root crops and used tree bark to make clothes. Schools were closed, so Eleuterio Malupa helped gather crops and firewood. He learned from his grandmother to spin cotton but there was not enough. “All of us had just enough for short pants,” he said.

Ivatans were forced to bow to Japanese sentries as they passed and punished if they did not. One day, the Japanese arrested Malupa’s cousin and two other young men for joining a resistance force. One escaped but his cousin and the other man were executed.

In 1945, a US plane dropped leaflets over Itbayat, announcing the end of the war. The next year, when the Philippines was granted its independence, Malupa and his wife, Corazon, remember how the island erupted in celebration.

“People were shouting, ‘Independence!’” said the 85-year-old Corazon.

Such memories have been passed down through generations and helped to build trust in the US. Many Ivatans believe Washington will respect not only their autonomy but also the status quo in the South China Sea where China has made expansive claims that were rejected in a 2016 court ruling, after a case brought by Manila.

“China has no respect,” said Sabas de Sagoy, Itbayat’s first-term mayor and a lifelong resident. “But we know the Seventh Fleet [of the US Navy] is patrolling.”

US Army engineers recently approached de Sagoy to discuss the island’s needs. He requested upgrades to the seaport, which is built into a jagged cliff and cannot accommodate large vessels, and the airport where only small eight-seat planes can land.

People in Itbayat's small airport discussing the call out for reservists. Some are standing. Some are seated on plastic chairs. There is a woman at a desk with lots of papers on it.
Passengers in Itbayat’s small airport discussed plans by the Air Force to recruit islanders as reservists [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]
Passengers in Itbayat’s small airport discussed plans by the Air Force to recruit islanders as reservists [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

But the growing presence of the US military has brought concerns over how it would enmesh with the province’s unique culture, which the people of Itbayat have worked to protect.

Outsiders are not allowed to buy land, which in Itbayat is titled entirely to its Indigenous population.

Victor Gonzales, Itbayat’s representative to the national Indigenous council, said he worries the military could quickly increase its presence without going through the proper processes.

“We are worried about these military activities,” Gonzales said. “People don’t know what [will happen.] They add to the fear that is already there.”

Gonzales knows Itbayat will need help to defend itself in any conflict, so he has sought a middle ground whenever possible. Itbayat officials requested that the Balikatan exercises, scheduled to start on April 22, contain no live fire drills, so as not to alarm residents.

“As much as we want to protect our culture, we also want to be helped by [the] outside,” he said.

Victor Gonzales, Itbayat’s representative to the government’s Indigenous commission. He is wearing a jacket and baseball cap and is standing on a balcony.
Victor Gonzales, Itbayat’s representative to the government’s Indigenous commission, worries that a troop buildup could disrupt the island’s culture [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

The island realised its vulnerability after an earthquake struck in 2019, killing nine people and destroying many traditional stone houses. But it also brought improvements, like a new hospital, which will be crucial in any conflict.

“It was a blessing in disguise that we had that incident,” said Emma de Sagon, a nurse at the hospital. “We were being neglected.”

The hospital would potentially help wounded troops and assist Filipinos fleeing Taiwan. But the infirmary has only 15 beds and its staff have not received specific training for war. “We would need more medicine, more supplies,” said Cecilia Antas, an administrative officer at the hospital. “We are on the front lines.”

'Not gentlemanly'

People in Itbayat are proud of their tradition of sharing what they have, frequently giving strangers satchels of yellow turmeric rice wrapped in banana leaves. Many did not hesitate to join the reserve forces.

“I wanted to prove to myself I could do it,” said Sheila Manzano, a nurse practitioner and naval reservist who said her 13-year-old daughter encouraged her to join.

The latest group of reservists began training in December by waking up at 4am every Saturday and Sunday to go jogging and do callisthenics. They attended an in-person course on how to use weapons and received online training in fire safety and first aid.

“I’m ready, just in case,” said Kimberly Dumaliang, the area coordinator of the local Department of Social Welfare and Development and a newly graduated Navy reservist.

Sheila Manzano, a nurse practitioner. She is wearing her uniform with a red jacket. She is seated inside.
Sheila Manzano, a nurse practitioner, said her 13-year-old daughter encouraged her to join the Navy reserves [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Dumaliang grew up in Isabela Province and was posted to Itbayat one year ago. The island is a sweeping plateau resting on steep cliffs, which have historically made it hard for invaders to reach it by sea. From above, however, there is nowhere to hide.

“It’s like a mushroom,” the 29-year-old said. “One missile will blow it away.”

When a friend mentioned the Navy was recruiting reservists, Dumaliang took the opportunity. “It’s for the good of the nation,” she said.

”We’re hoping, we’re praying we do not end up going to war,” she said. “But we’re ready for whatever happens.”

The US and Philippines, during their upcoming joint military exercises, will probably practise taking back Itbayat from a foreign occupier, a military source said.

For Eleuterio Malupa, who lived through the Japanese occupation, the threat of China seizing the strategic island – or disrupting life there during a conflict in Taiwan – is real.

“The Chinese are not gentlemanly in their treatment of other people,” he said. “We are sure that somebody will have to help us.”

Malupa is proud that his son decided to join the reserves. As he ponders the prospect of war, he allows himself to laugh. “If worst comes to worst,” he said, “I think I can still handle a gun.”

Source: Al Jazeera