Surigao del Sur priest: “Only the military would do this … blame AFP for my death”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 12 May) – A Catholic priest  in Lingig, Surigao del Sur who has been accused on social media as a “paring hatid ay kasamaan” (harbinger of evil) for allegedly being an ally of a Lumad group accused by the military of protecting the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) and for allegedly using the word of God to manipulate and destroy the lives of the Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) said the military is to blame if he is killed.

“Only the military would do this .. blame AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines)  for my death,” Fr. Raymond Montero Ambray, the parochial Vicar of the Holy Child Parish in Lingig, Surigao del Sur, said Sunday night of the social media graphic with text written in Filipino. The post, which had NPA guerrillas on the background in sepia, and Ambray’s black and white photo laid out against a red circle, was forwarded to him by a priest-friend who received it from his sister.

The post was traced to a Facebook account of one “Randy D Alagaban,” who claimed on “her” wall that she moved to Kitcharao, Agusan del Norte on May 9 and on May 10, posted a graphic against Lianga Councilor Samuel Dollano at 12:25 p.m. and a minute later,  posted the graphic on Ambray as “her” cover photo. The graphic had a warning at the bottom: “Huwag Magpalinlang” (Don’t be deceived).

This graphic, was posted by one Randy D Alagaban on Sunday, describing Fr. Raymond Montero Ambray as a harbinger of evil. Ambray says this is likely the handiwork of the military. The military denies involvement.

“The  (graphic) serves like a death sentence for me as I try warding off death from the corona virus,” the  43-year old Ambray, who is also an anthropologist,  said in a statement on Monday.

“I am not afraid at all to die. I used to say and I say it now, working for the Lumads is a privilege.  Dying for them is an honor,” he wrote.

The priest said he did not expect that his apostolate “will put my life in danger due to this sinister plot of the military.” Ambray is presently busy “volunteering as a driver in our local Incident Management Team / Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19  to augment the work force of our Local Government Unit.”

Fr. Raymond Montero Ambray’s new role during the COVID-19 crisis: volunteer driver of the iinter-agency Incident Monitoring Team in Lingig, Surigao del Sur.

“I strongly condemn this cowardly act especially in this time when our focus should be on defeating the corona virus. I have no other suspect/s behind this but the military especially the 36th IB and the 401st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army or their paramilitaries,” Ambray wrote, adding that the post “is trying to besmirch my work as ideological and reduce my apostolate with the Lumads as a mere front of the CPP-NPA.”

He likened his situation to other priests who are being linked to the NPA, as it  “seems to suggest that I become their target” and therefore also “serves as warning or intimidation not to continue my work with the Lumads.”

The Diocese of Tandag posted Ambray’s statement on its FB page on Tuesday.

Living with Lumads

Ambray’s thesis for his MA in Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University was on the lives of the Manobos in the hinterlands of Lianga in Surigao del Sur.

He studied the practice of Critical Pedagogy in a Lumad school, Alternative Center for Agriculture and Development (ALCADEV) in the context of a New Social Movement of MAPASU (Malahutayong Pakigbisog alang sa Sumusunod), a Lumad organization.

During his fieldwork of over a year, Ambray recalled having experienced “how to be displaced together with the Lumad communities due to military operation.”

While on fieldwork for his MA in Anthropology in 2017, Fr. Raymond Ambray lived with the Lumads and experienced evaucating with them to avoid the crossfire between government and the New People’s Army. Photo by FR. RAYMOND MONTERO AMBRAY

“My experience living with them intermittently for more than a year, allowed me to account about their struggle as a people,” he said, adding he presented papers about them in various fora.

He recalled there have been many military campaigns to close ALCADEV as the military has been pointing to it as a training ground for the NPA. On September 1, 2015, the ALCADEV Executive Director and two others were killed by a paramilitary group, triggering a mass evacuation towards Tandag City. A Senate hearing on the killings and harassment of Lumads was called for by Mindanawon senators Aquilino Pimentel III and Teofisto Guingona III in early October 2015.

Mindanawon senators Teofisto Guingona III (in black) and Aquilino Pimentel (right), at the Senate Probe on Lumad killings held in Tandag City on October 1 and 2, 2015. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

The two-day Senate probe ended with Guingona and Pimentel echoing the call of Lumads, church and local government leaders to arrest, disarm and disband the “Magahat-Bagani” paramilitary group that has been repeatedly accused of sowing terror in several towns in Surigao del Sur, including the September 1, 2015 killings, and whose disbandment has also been repeatedly sought.

Then Bishop of Tandag Nereo Odchimar, told MindaNews at the end of the hearing that he was still waiting for answers to critical questions about the “apparent unholy alliance between the military and the paramilitary which the military vehemently denies.”

READ: Senate probe on Lumad killings: “apparent unholy alliance” and denials 

Literacy and Numeracy

In February this year, Ambray appeared before the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to refute allegations that ALCADEV was a training ground for the NPA.

Involvement with the Lumads’ struggle is inherent in the Diocese of Tandag.  In the 1980s, then Bishop Ireneo Amantillo, a Redemptorist, “brought literacy and numeracy program among the Lumads.” The successor-bishops also followed. Odchimar, now the Bishop Emeritus of Tandag, continued the program “with the coming of its secondary school, ALCADEV,” Ambray said.

Bishop Nereo Odchimar in an interview with MindaNews after the Senate public hearing (Oct. 2, 2015). MindaNews photo by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

Ambray said he and the new Bishop, Raul Dael,  have been discussing his long-term Lumad apostolate and planned on talking with the Department of Education (DepEd) “for a possible accreditation if not partnership.”

On March 2, Ambray said he had an initial meeting with the DepEd but COVID-19 got in the way as movements were restricted due to the community quarantines.

Ambray stressed that education equipped the Lumads to “assert for their rights.”

The Lumad’s struggle for self-determination, he explained, is “just a struggle for the reconstitution of their pre-colonial social organization and socio-economic and political system. It is also called cultural citizenship when a certain ‘tribe’ asserts their cultural identity.”

He said the help he extends to the Lumads is “too little compared to their enormous fight. And yet I am being accused as the ‘ influencer’ or ‘manipulator’ among them. This has absolutely no place in anthropology because we work to develop agency as opposed to dependency. This has no place also in theology for I don’t espouse violence. In fact, I am advocating peace or the resumption of peace talks as long term solution to their problems.”

November 2017

Sought for comment, Lt. Col. Jeezreel Diagmel, commander of the 36th IB told MindaNews Monday night: “I have no idea regarding that post. Nasa bukid po ako” (I am in the mountains).

Captain Aldim Viernes, Civil Military Operations chief of the 401st Infantry Brigade told MindaNews on Tuesday that they do  not know Ambray and “Alagaban.”

Priest-anthropologist Raymond Montero Ambray lived with the Lumads in 2017 for his fieldwork in Anthropology and as part of his apostolate. Photo from Fr. Ambray’s FB

Lt. Col. Ezra Balagtey, spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command told MindaNews on Monday afternoon that he looked for Ambray’s recent post but found instead a November 2017 post on “Fieldwork Hazard”  where Ambray also wrote  “Blame AFP for my death.”

In that post, Ambray recounted how 257 families of Lumads from 12 hinterland communities fled their villages and trooped to Sitio Simowao in Diatagon, Lianga town in Surigao de Sur on November 26, 2017 upon hearing the sound of gunfire in their areas.

The next day, the Municipal Peace and Order Council (MPOC) of Lianga met at the Mayor’s office and “without blinking an eye, a certain Col. Andres Centino, brigade commander of the 401st IB, implicated Bishop Modesto Villasanta (UCCP) and I to have coaxed the lumads to leave their communities.”

“By floating my name in this MPOC meeting, I feel I am indirectly tagged as in cahoots with the rebels. I don’t take this sitting down. I appeal for reasonability. If the colonel cannot prove his claim, then he better shut up,” said Ambray who answered the allegations point by point.

“I have now the impression that the AFP is slowly implicating me to be connected with the armed rebellion as I am connected with the Lumads for both roles as student of anthropology and as a country priest. By doing this, the AFP is maliciously putting a cherry on my head, making me a justified target,” Ambray added.

Fr. Raymond Montero Ambray says working with the Lumads in Surigao del Sur is a privilege, dying for them is an honor. On Sunday, after posting a forwarded graphic red-tagging and vilifying him, he said only the military is capable of doing it and if something happens to him, “blame the military for my death.” The military denies involvement. Photo from Fr. Ambray’s FB

“But while I am still alive, I condemn this AFP’s evil ploy on me. I am not afraid to die if it is a price for standing for the least of my brothers and sisters. I am not cowed by this cowardly act,” Ambray wrote.

“The threat I received here is nothing in comparison with the pains, hunger, sickness and discrimination of the Lumad IDPs (internally displaced person) in Simowao now. Working with them is such a privilege. Dying for them is an honor,” he concluded.

Ambray finished his MA in Anthropology in April last year. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)