By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – Supporters of woman Lumad leader Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay came to her defense after Save Our Schools (SOS) Network received reports that her relatives in Talaingod, Davao del Norte were being coerced by the military to sign papers supposedly demanding her “rescue.”
In a press conference on Monday, Sept. 27, Bibyaon stressed that she was not kidnapped or being held against her will here in the capital. Bibyaon is staying at the Lumad Bakwit school at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.
“I am okay here. I am just fighting for what is right and to defend Pantaron,” said Bibyaon in their local dialect. She said the military should be pulled out from their community so that their youth can continue learning through the Lumad schools.
She also demanded to let her relatives go back to their communities so they can continue to till their land.
According to SOS Network Spokesperson Rius Valle, the communities in Talaingod are highly militarized. He said the soldiers have been harassing not only the relatives of Bibyaon but also the parents of Lumad students – those who went home as well as those who are still in the Bakwit School in UP Diliman. He said they were being forced to file charges against different organizations who have been supporting the Lumad schools.
Bibyaon is a renowned and only woman chieftain who has received several recognition for leading the Manobo tribe in the struggle to defend the Pantaron Mountain Range, one of the country’s last remaining intact rainforest, and watershed to major rivers in Mindanao including Pulangi, Agusan and Davao Rivers.
‘Well taken care of’
UP Diliman Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Loujaye Sonido also belied rumors that Bibyaon is being taken against her will.
She pointed out that Bibyaon and other Lumad from Mindanao first held Manilakbayan in 2015 due to the militarization of their communities.
“I don’t think 6 years is too long for us to forget that they travel all the way here in the capital. They were not forced to come here. They are here of their own fuel. None of them were stolen from their homelands or need to be rescued, least of all Bai,” Sonido said.
“We in UP hold Bai and all Lumad leaders in very high esteem – for her incredible strength and leadership, for standing for her advocacy and for defending her tribe. She’s very strong and vocal. There is no way we could silence Bai,” she added.
She said that from the term of former Chancellor Michael Tan to current Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo, UP has done everything in its power to care for the Lumad.
Sonido said that during the pandemic, the Lumad were also taken care of by UP Diliman. Testing, medication, isolation have been provided by UP when needed.
“If they would say that Bai is not being allowed to go out, that is because we are all under quarantine. That is not because she is kept here against her will but for safety reasons because we want to protect them,” she said.
Lawyer and indigenous people’s rights advocate Antonio La Viña, meanwhile, called on the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to respect the advocacy of Bibyaon.
He said that there is no legal basis for the NCIP or even her relatives to get her as she is of sound mind and can make decisions on her own.
“You should know your law, NCIP. Free and prior consent is not even applicable here. It’s applicable to natural resources or to projects. But even that, let’s be very clear that Bai is here in Bakwit School with her free prior and very informed consent,” said La Viña.
Indigenous people’s groups and advocates are denouncing the NCIP for “conniving with investors to evict them from their ancestral lands.” The NCIP is also among the government agencies that implement the counterinsurgency program of the government.
La Viña said that Bibyaon will surely go back to her communities but on her own terms.
He said they will work with lawyers in Mindanao to see how the relatives of Bibyaon can be represented. “The reality is that they are in the mountains and they have no protection,” he said.
Valle, on the other hand, deplored the relentless effort of the government to “malign and discredit the struggle of the Lumad for their right to self-determination and to defend their ancestral land from imperialist plunder.” (RVO)