“I have aready put my life on the line fighting for our rights. Let us return home.”
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – The cases of Amelia Pond and Dominiciano Muya, a teacher and agriculturist respectively, both from the Salugpungan schools of Davao del Norte, highlight how Lumád schools and their staff have been under attack from state security forces, from the past regime and even under President Duterte.
But it seems no one is spared, not the Lumád theselves, their communities, schools and teachers, nor the advocates. Among those who demanded freedom for Pond and Muya in a protest at the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Oct. 17 were two Lumád who have prevailed over threats and harrassment by soldiers and paramilitary groups in Talaingod, Davao del Norte: Datu Onie Bongcalas, leader of the group Salugpungan, and Ramel Miguel, teacher of the Salugpungan Ta ‘Tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center (STTICLC).
Bongcalas and Miguel, like the rest of those who joined this October’s Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya are calling on President Duterte to keep his promise to bring justice to the Lumád and Moro of Mindanao: by holding accountable those who committed crimes, and ordering the pull out of government troops in communities.
“We came to Manila to express our call to the public, that we, too, want peace; that we want justice for innocent progressive teachers who are being persecuted,” Miguel told Bulatlat.
Miguel: Teachers fight back, overcome threats
Miguel, 25, is a Tinananon-Manobo from Arakan Valley, North Cotabato, who has been a teacher at STTICLC in sitio (sub-village) Nasilaban, Palma Gil village. He teaches Math, Filipino, Social studies and Music, Arts, Physical Education and Health (Mapeh) to grades 7 to 10 classes. He is also the chairperson of the Association of Community Educators in Mindanao (ACE).
At the DOJ protest, he joined the call to free detained teachers and political prisoners, and to give justice for slain educator Emerito Samarca. But Miguel and other STTICLC teachers were themselves repeatedly tagged by soldiers as “New People’s Army (NPA) members.”
“Our curriculum is nationalist, scientific and mass-oriented…we want the students to learn, and to give back to their communities, to serve the people here in the country,” Miguel said.
The paramilitary group Alamara, headed by Alambi Salanganie, only saw red in this kind of education. The paramilitary men had repeatedly visited the school and threatened the teachers and students. “He said we are NPAs, which we countered. They said that if we don’t leave, they will kill us,” Miguel said.
Worse, soldiers of the 68th infantry battalion were reported to have told villagers to kill the teachers and burn the school, because it is “the school of the NPA.”
In 2015, various alternative schools in Mindanao suffered the worst attacks coming from soldiers and paramilitary groups backed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). On Sept. 1, Emerito Samarca, the executive director of Alternative Learning Center for Livelihood and Agricultural Development (Alcadev), was killed by Magahat-Bagani paramilitary men, along with Manobo leaders Dionel Campos and Datu Juvello Sinzo.
In November 2015, Miguel and five other teachers hastily left STTICLC in sitio Nasilaban after being warned by the community that members of Alamara were headed to the school. It was late at night, but some villagers accompanied them up to the road where they could get a ride.
Miguel recalled being frightened, specially because Alamara men killed Salugpungan council member Datu Manliro Landahay in Palma Gil just a week before.
“We feared we would go the same way as Emerito Samarca,” he said. The teachers safely made it to the SSTICLC office in Tagum City. In the next days, they filed a blotter report with the police, the village government, the Talaingod municipal government. Miguel and the other teachers went the rounds of radio stations, and spoke about the harassment and threats against the school.
Despite the risks, the teachers carried on with their tasks and continued to hold classes. Because of the public attention they stirred, the threats against teachers also subsided – until Pond was arrested this year.
“Amy became a target even as she served the indigenous peoples. Her research work helps develop the curriculum of the schools,” Miguel said.
Talaingod leader still can’t return home
Bongcalas, 54 and a Manobo chieftain, was with Pond when she was arrested in Cebu City Aug. 19, as they came out of the national assembly of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP). He and RMP nun Marisol Garduno were with Pond in a taxi when uniformed and police in plainclothes blocked their way.
Bongcalas stayed with Pond inside the taxi, while Garduno rushed back to the assembly venue to get help.
As he sat in the taxi while police harangued Pond, he recalled he felt nervous, for Pond and himself. “I thought: Naku, dadalhin na nila kami sa presuhan (Oh no, they are going to bring us to jail),” Bongcalas said.
He knew he had not done anything wrong, but Bongcalas has been branded “an NPA organizer” by the military since the early 90s. It was at that time when the Lumád communities began building up a resistance against the Alcantara and Sons (Alsons) logging company, which had destroyed hundreds of hectares of ancestral lands in Talaingod.
Bongcalas recalled how, together with his two cousins, they filed a petition against the Alsons. At that time, Bongcalas was with the Tribal Filipino Apostolate (TFA) and was active in the campaigns led by indigenous and religious groups. He could no longer recall where they filed the petition, but he said it angered then Talaingod Mayor Jose Libayao, so much that he issued a P30,000 ($600) bounty for their heads.
Bongcalas decided to leave Talaingod in 1991. He returned to Palma Gil 10 years later, and in 2003, he joined the RMP education project as a parateacher. That year, STTICLC opened.
Soon enough, the Alamara, which he said gave “intelligence” reports to the military, began making up stories about him, that he was “an NPA organizer.”
The threats against leaders and the community came to a point that the Lumád decided to evacuate. On May 14, 2015, he and hundreds of others from Talaingod arrived at the Haran Center of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) compound in Davao City.
After more than a year, Bongcalas still has not returned home with the continued threats against his life, just like the other Salugpungan leaders from the military and Alamara. He lamented that the unilateral ceasefire declared by government – parallel to that of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) – has not led to the pullout of soldiers encamped in communities, nor the dismantling of paramilitary groups, who still roam free and unaccountable for their crimes.
“We want to express our support for the peace talks, and to bring our call for justice,” Bongcalas said. He still hopes to return home, in spite of the risks. “I may get killed. But I have aready put my life on the line fighting for our rights. Let us return home.”