Fighting For An Education: Lumad Schools In The Philippines Under Attack

The Lumad people are struggling for their right to survive. “Lumad” is a collective term, used to refer to a number of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. The word is Cebuano and means “native of the land.” Due to the ongoing conflict plaguing Lumad communities, many Lumad children have evacuated to sanctuary schools housed on college campuses, which have increasingly become targets of violence.

On February 15th, the Philippine National Police attacked a Lumad sanctuary and school at the University of San Carlos-Talamban (U.S.C.). The police took 21 students, including 19 minors, into custody and arrested several other adults, including teachers and Lumad elders. In a video posted by the Save Our Schools Network, children can be heard screaming as police officers enter the building and forcibly taken away. Police claim the attack was a rescue operation. Others, including activists involved with the Lumad community, believe it was a raid. No warrants were presented at the time of the arrests.

The teachers and elders are facing allegations of kidnapping and have been accused of indoctrinating the children into the New People’s Army – the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (C.P.P.). Those arrested, the C.P.P., and the Department of Social Welfare Services (D.S.W.S.) have all denied these allegations. The D.S.W.S. reported that none of the children mentioned anything regarding “child warrior training” or any similar topics in the exit interviews it held with the children. The children did report that the teachers helped them with reading and writing.

According to Annie Suico of the D.S.W.S., Filipino news outlet Philstar reported that “the children were assessed to be in good condition.” Philstar also reported that school administrators said the presence of the students at U.S.C. was “for their welfare and wellbeing” due to the history of violence against Lumad communities and schools.

From May 23, 2017 to July 2019, the Save Our Schools Network documented over 500 cases of violent attacks against Lumad schools. The Save Our Schools campaign in Mindanao describes soldiers systematically destroying, burning, and vandalizing Lumad schools. Teacher Ramel Miguel of Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center told the campaign he remembers being “indiscriminately fired at by members of a paramilitary group” for several days.

Military operations in Lumad schools were legalized through Memorandum Order 221 in 2013, issued by the Department of Education’s former secretary Armin Luistro. The order enabled the military to enter and occupy schools as part of a supposed counterinsurgency plan.

This regular violence is what has led students to evacuate Lumad lands to attend “Bakwit schools” elsewhere, such as the ones at U.S.C. and other college campuses. (“Bakwit” is a Tagalog term for evacuees.) Quick searches on the internet will bring up multitudes of first-person accounts of the violence students and teachers faced in Lumad schools. In an article documenting the lasting traumatic effects these events have on students, independent Filipino news group Rappler tells the story of Chricelyn Empong, a Lumad student from Mindanao who experienced terror at the sound of fireworks due to its similarity to gunshots she heard during an attack on her school. Empong is one of 97 students staying at the University of the Philippines Diliman in a Bakwit School program. Another student, in an interview Rappler filmed in January 2020, describes being unable to hear her teacher over the sounds of “gunshots and bombs” during an attack on her school.

Even schools not facing direct violence are facing closure in many Lumad communities. In October 2019, the Department of Education closed 55 Lumad schools. These schools were closed, not because of alleged relations with the New People’s Army, the Department of Education claims, but because they were not in compliance with department standards. However. Ruis Valle, spokesperson for the Save Our Schools initiative, says that the Department of Education approved the schools’ curricula itself when the schools were started. The Department of Education holds that its goal is always to “protect the children” and “uphold their right to education,” but continues to close schools.

President Rodrigo Duterte himself is the biggest source of the threats against these schools and their students. During his second State of the Nation Address in 2017, Duterte threatened to bomb Lumad schools, accusing them of teaching communism and encouraging children to “rebel against government.”

Children should never be the targets of violence, and even empty bomb threats have the potential to traumatize students. But these threats are not empty. There have been countless reports over the years of Lumad schools being attacked with children still inside. This is abhorrent. Every child deserves a safe and relevant education.

The United Nations recognizes schools – along with hospitals – as zones of peace “where children are granted protection even in times of conflict,” according to the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Attacking schools is one of the six grave violations condemned by the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. should therefore investigate the military and paramilitary forces’ attacks on Lumad schools and take action to protect Lumad children from violence at the hands of the Philippine government.

The Communist Party of the Philippines released a statement on the day of the U.S.C. raid, condemning the Philippine National Police for “trampling on the Lumad children’s rights” and calling the school a sanctuary. The C.P.P.’s statement also pointed out the long history of attacks on Lumad community schools for what the C.P.P. describes as “Teaching their children how to love and defend their ancestral land and culture.”

Ruis Valle explained to Rappler that the schools’ curricula are tailored to fit the needs of Mindanao’s Lumad communities, with a focus on agriculture. In 2007, the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanogon established the first accredited school in Sitio Dulyan, Talaingod. Students in Lumad schools such as this one are able to learn reading, writing, and counting in addition to sustainable farming techniques and their tribal history, rights, and culture. Lumad schools are also unique in that they offer lessons for students of all ages. Due to Lumad communities’ disenfranchisement, some Lumad adults did not learn reading, writing, or math at younger ages.

The Lumad people have faced decades, if not centuries, of invasion by the multitude of forces that have taken control over the Philippine islands. They have stood their ground to defend their rights to their ancestral lands and their self-determination. Now, their children are suffering at the hands of the Philippine government. The attacks on Lumad schools must end immediately. The teachers, elders, and remaining students in custody should be released and allowed to return to their communities and their educations. It is a matter of both morality and human rights.


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