Datu Benito Bay-ao was one of the Lumad leaders who were taken into custody after that disgraceful raid at the Bakwit School in Cebu City. Just six years ago, Dats Bens (as we call him) spoke with pride and optimism in this documentary about their Lumad school in their village of Dulyan, and across the other upland villages in the Pantaron under the Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanugon organization. Schooling in the cities made them ashamed of, and forget about, being a Lumad, he said. But with their schools built right in their domain, young Lumad could learn while keeping their tradition alive.

I first met Dats Bens a few years before, during those (now that I look back in hindsight) heady and hopeful days when the schools that they had established had just gathered the right amount of momentum, moving-up ceremonies were already being regularly conducted, and plans to expand were in the offing. The future of their children seemed to stretch out before them. It wasn’t all roses, certainly. There were already incidents of military harassment. And their communities were deprived compared to urban areas. One of my early memories of Dats Bens was his complaining that his reading glasses had gotten broken again—they were the cheap plastic ones you can buy from Mercury Drug, but even that was such a luxury.

Dats Bens knows how to read and write because he had spent his childhood in Bukidnon, along the Salug River, where he had a bit of access to public schooling. As a young man he married a woman living on the Talaingod side of the Pantaron, and following the Manobo custom of the groom transferring to their bride’s residence, he moved to Dulyan. The family Dats Bens married into was that of Datu Doloman Dawsay, a revered leader and elder, Datu Guibang Apoga’s peer, and a veteran of various struggles against extractive companies in Talaingod. He and his brothers (who had also married into Dulyan) understood and espoused what their elders fought for. By the time they began to fulfill leadership roles in Dulyan, their communities had shifted from the extra-institutional tactics of pangayaw, to exploring how building their own institutions could benefit them, hence the decision to build schools.

Unlike Dats Bens, who always seemed to me as being more formal and a straight arrow, Datu Segundo Melong was a joker, always with a witty remark delivered in fluent and unaccented Bisaya that was the result of living in Bisaya-speaking areas (including Davao City) for several years in his youth. Dats Segundo is a self-described laagan, a young man with wanderlust, who took his enjoyment of travel one step further by going outside his Pantaron comfort zone. He would, with a twinkle in his eye, recall how even non-Manobo women he met used to fall for him. With his confident swagger and lean good looks, I’d believe him.

He would proudly recount how his experiences put him in high regard with his fellow Manobo when he, like Dats Bens, began to actively participate in the sphere of political leadership. Now that he was a grandfather, and in response to the intensifying attacks, Dats Segundo sought sanctuary with his family in Haran. I don’t think he has completely outgrown his itchy feet though. I would think that, though done under dire circumstances, Dats Segundo would have welcomed the chance to go with the Bakwit School, and to see the children in his charge feel the same excitement he felt when going to new places and meeting new people. Dats Segundo knew better than others the value of going forth into a brave new world.

It was soul-crushing for me to see these two proud, exemplary gentlemen—my friends and teachers—shocked, distressed, and led away in handcuffs. In the video of the raid I saw Dats Segundo seated and stunned. Dats Bens, the consummate mass leader, pleaded their case to the media who were present. With extraordinary courage, even in dismay, Dats Bens incisively explained why they were in Cebu: the covid pandemic, the militarization they experienced, the murder of his nephew Obillo Bay-ao. Up until the last Dats Bens was fighting his fight the best way he knew how: with words, with information and through persuasion, peaceable but passionate. One would need to be wearing the thickest of blindfolds of biased callousness not to see his authenticity at that moment.

Most of the victims of the raid at the Cebu Bakwit School were young students, but it leaves not just one but two generations of progressive Lumad crippled. Dats Bens and Dats Segundo, along with Datu Gombil Mansimuy-at and Datu Kaylo Bontulan, grew under the guidance of elder datu like Datu Doloman and Datu Guibang. They all vowed to bring their elders’ dreams into this new century, but they are being taken from us through the most unjust means before they could do so. My only consolation is that Dats Bens and Dats Segundo are only arrested, and that the support for them and the other Cebu bakwit has been overwhelming. They were severely bent; I pray they are not be broken. Not yet, not today. (davaotoday.com)

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