The Mount Data Sipat, will the dream ever be realized?
By Joel B. Belinan
On September 13, 2021 (Monday), the Mount Data Sipat or Peace Accord will mark the 35th year since its signing. The Peace accord ended the hostilities between the government forces and the then newly separated armed group from the New People’s Army (NPA), the Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA), and its political wing the Cordillera Bodong Administration (CBA) led by the late rebel priest, Fr. Conrado Balweg. The Sipat is a native term for Peace Agreement and the ceremony was done through an exchange of Peace Tokens called Allasiw, from the government side and that of the CBA/CPLA side. As a show of their sincerity for peace, the CBA/CPLA gave the government, led by then Pres. Corazon Aquino, a Kalasag (Shield) and Gayang or Pika (spear). On the government side, President Aquino personally handed over a Bible and a rosary to the CBA/CPLA, while then Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fidel Ramos together with then Secretary of National Defense Juan Ponce Enrile gave an M-16 Armalite rifle to the group.
To date, these peace tokens from the government are still being safely kept by their custodians in the CBA/CPLA hoping that someday, the very dream of a lasting peace, specifically the attainment of a Cordillera Autonomy, will be realized. Unfortunately, two of those custodians, Ama Mariano Agosto of Sabnangan, Abra who represented the Maeng Tribe and the keeper of the Rosary, Ina Lourdes Limmayog, the matriarch of the Limmayog family in Sadanga, Mtn. Province already left this world. Only Ka Philip Sagmayao of Buscalan (part of Butbut) in Tinglayan, Kalinga who is the keeper of the M-16 Armalite rifle is still alive.
It should also be worth remembering that the Mt. Data Sipat did not happen just out of the blue. Many people contributed to make it happen and the most notable were our veteran Cordillera journalists, the late Pepot Ilagan and Baboo Mondonedo including Sir Art Tibaldo who is now with the Department of Trade and Industry. These media people were the go-between in the back-channel negotiations that led to the Balweg group’s accepting the invitation by the government for a peace dialogue. Accordingly, when Pres. Cory Aquino ascended the presidency during the EDSA revolution that saw Pres. Marcos and his family fleeing the country, Fr. Balweg and his CPLA were observing the developments in the center of power in Manila and waiting what would be the attitude of the new government towards them. Balweg at that time had just consolidated his forces after his split from the NPA in 1985. With an initial 265 elite Cordilleran rebel fighters from the famed Lumbaya Company, the CPLA in less than a year grew to become a potent force with thousands more red fighters joining them.
In one of the conversations I had with Fr. Balweg in the late ‘90s, he said that they were ready to make their presence felt in all the big centers of the Cordillera with Baguio as their first target. “Naka deploy kamin iti tattao mi ditoy Baguio idi madama ti riribok idiay EDSA.” (We already deployed our people in Baguio while things were happening in EDSA). Things turned for the best when immediately after EDSA, Pres. Cory immediately called for reconciliation with all the political and armed groups in the country. The President’s Brother-in-law (who later became senator) was the very first government emissary to come to the Cordillera and met with Balweg’s group and this was made possible through the guidance and intercession of the media people I mentioned above. It was continued later by Ambassador Emmanuel Pelaez until back-channel talks culminated in the Mt. Data Sipat.
The significance of the agreement was the government acceded to the following major policies in the region: the scrapping of the mega projects in the region particularly the Chico River Dam Projects and the Cellophil logging concession, and the establishment of an autonomous regional government in the Cordillera. Of course, there were several other demands, 21 items from the CBA/CPLA side, but these two were the most important. Just after the signing, Pres. Cory then brought the Peace Accord and brandished it before the United Nations General Assembly when she addressed that body upon invitation. In short, the Mt. Data Peace Accord became a sort of “flavor” of the newly installed Cory government to the world.
After 35 years since the signing, the possibility of an Autonomous Region remains an elusive dream. We had failed in two plebiscites (1990 and 1998) and a bill is currently still pending in both houses of Congress which would be the Third Organic Act for the establishment of a Cordillera Autonomous Region. With the world situation, with the pandemic still wreaking havoc, to me the chance of such a bill being passed during this administration is very low. This is coupled with the fact that while it is true that there have been some pronouncements during the start of the Duterte government in 2016 of the president’s support for our cause, it appears that the same is just a lip service from a politician.
The question in the very title of this column is very big. Most of the main actors that led to the agreement already left this world. Balweg was assassinated on December 31, 1999; his wife Corazon who herself was a lady fighter also died in 2013; Ina Limmayog, the keeper of the Bible; Ama Mariano Agosto, the keeper of the Rosary; and the other signatories as peace gurantors– Ama Peter Galinggan and Ama Mario Yag-ao, had all departed from this world. And even the second generation CPLA leader, Edwin Muyao, who have been the group’s longtime political officer died last year.
Ernesto Garado who was the father of the Lumbaya Ccompany, AKA Ka Sungar, (now in his 70s) who later became a deputy of Balweg has always been saying whenever we met that he was hoping that the dream of a Cordillera Autonomy would be realized before closing his eyes to this world.**