Fighting over Bibyaon’s remains and legacy

Mar. 04, 2024
Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay. ( file photo)

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Even after her death, discussions about Talaingod chieftain Bai Bibyaon Ligkayan Bigkay raise the issue of ancestral rights and red tagging that continue to hound and divide her tribe.

The latest involves her relatives disputing over media on who has the right over her remains.

Last February 23, Bibyaon’s nephew Benito Bigkay and grand-niece Rurelyn Bay-ao Mandacawan, a former Lumad school student and advocate, appeared in a press conference of the government Philippine Information Agency (PIA) claiming that the chieftain should be exhumed from her buried place in Manila for a proper burial in Talaingod.

The relatives also claimed that they were denied communication to Bigkay for years, and are in disbelief that she passed away in Manila on November 20.

Bai Bibyaon was believed to be over 90 years old on her death due to age and poor health. She had been a staunch advocate against military attacks on the Lumad schools and their ancestral domain, the vast Pantaron Range.

But for Benito, he wanted to see proof that his aunt has passed away. “We would believe she has died if they bring her body back here,” he said in his native Manobo during the press conference and was translated by Rurelyn.

Bibyaon has not returned to Talaingod for over a decade after she, other Salugpongan leaders, and teachers were harassed by soldiers and paramilitary forces that forced them to evacuate.

Rurelyn, who accompanied Bibyaon in their campaigns in Manila as an interpreter around 2014, said she last talked with her grand-aunt in 2021 and claimed that she cried and wanted to return home.

The group Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Council of Elders (MIPCEL) backed the relative’s call, saying that indigenous peoples who are not buried in their ancestral land would not have peace in their spirit.

MIPCEL executive director Jake Lanes said they will facilitate the relatives’ request through the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the Commission on Human Rights to exhume the remains of Bibyaon.

“Used for fundraising”

Another issue raised by Rurelyn is her claim that groups such as Save Our Schools Network and Sabokahan IP Women who supported Bibyaon and the Lumad schools “earned money” by exploiting the chieftain.

Gigamit si Bibyaon para sa fund raising sa laing nasud padung dire, pero ang mga payrente, pagumangkon, ig-agaw wala gyud katilaw sa income. Naa gani syay nadawat nga awards, iyang nadawat nga kwarta dili deretso sa atoa. (Bibyaon was used to raise funds from other countries, but her relatives, nieces, nephews, and cousins never had received any of this income),” she claimed.

She went further and red-tagged the Lumad schools that she once attended, adding that Bai was used by the New People’s Army for their advocacy.

Ang Lumad school nagpatakbo, nagplano ani mga “kauban” (The Lumad schools, this was ran and planned by ‘comrades’),” she claimed.

Si Bai ginagamit siya para dili ipakita ang tinuod nga kahimtang sa komunidad, ginadaot namo ang gobyerno, partikular ang mga sundalo. Gina-ila lang namo nga gobyerno mga NPA, (New People’s Army) po, (Bai was used to spread lies about our community, discrediting the government, especially the soldiers. We were made to recognize the NPA as the government)” Rurelyn added.

Rurelyn’s present statement is a turnaround from her previous stand as a spokesperson for the Sabokayan Youth Group which advocated for the Lumad’s right to education and ancestral land. (watch: and

After she returned to Talaingod in 2021, Rurelyn appeared in videos of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and echoed the group’s accusation that the Lumad schools are established by rebels.

Bibyaon’s last request

But Bibyaon’s niece, Bai Lita Ambuat, who has been the late chieftain’s companion and confidant for over 20 years, admonished Rurelyn and Benito’s claims.

In a video statement posted by Save Our Schools Southern Mindanao on March 3, Ambuat reminded her grand-niece that Bibyaon chose to stay in Manila even as the rest of the tribe decided to leave Manila and UCCP Haran and returned to Talaingod.

“Think about this Lang-Lang (Rurelyn), when they wanted to get Ino (Bibyaon) in Manila, she refused to go back to the mountains because she is standing up for all of you, Lang-Lang,” Ambuat said in a translated video.

“Leave Sabokahan and those who helped out of this. For Ino and me, it is our right to stay in Manila, to stand up for your younger generation, to stand up for our ancestral land,” she added. 

Ambuat also revealed that it was Bibyaon’s request that she be buried right away wherever she died.

“I fulfilled what she requested long before. She said, bury me right away, don’t allow my grandchildren or my nieces and nephews to take advantage of me. Surely the soldiers will exploit this and make money out of my death,” Ambuat said.

She added that exhuming the remains is a grave offense for the Manobo. “It is a grave offense to our rights as Manobo, to exhume what has been buried. That is prohibited.”

She had these words to Benito, “Let’s respect each other, respect our traditions, let the dead remain buried.”

“Don’t think of making money out of this. It is not in our culture to be manipulated! We don’t allow to be used for money,” Ambuat added.

The Save Our Schools Southern Mindanao has also released a statement in response to Rurelyn and Benito’s claims.

“By arrogating the authority to speak for her and make decisions on her behalf, they have stripped away her agency as an empowered female warrior and tribal leader. They have belittled Bai Bibyaon’s passing by reducing it to baseless accusations, red-tagging, and even unwarranted demands for financial gain and royalties” their statement said.

Lumad groups also slammed MIPCEL in the past for accusing without proof that the Lumad schools of having no school permits or consent from the IP leaders to be established. (

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