Lumad children’s cry: ‘Save our schools!’

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

“Og iskwela puron…”

In Talaingod Manobo, “I wish to go to school…” Thus do the lumad (indigenous people) children express their eagerness for education, firmly supported by their parents, grassroots organizations and tribal leaders.

This week 13 Talaingod Manobo children, accompanied by adults, arrived in Manila from Mindanao on a month-long cultural caravan. They are students of the Salugpungan Ta ‘Tanu Ingkanugon (Unity to Defend our Ancestral Land) Learning Center, who have created a cultural presentation depicting their lives, culture, and struggle for human rights, particularly their right to education. They had an initial performance at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City.

Yes, the Talaingod Manobo have their own schools, and the children were enthusiastic learners.

Let me tell you about this tribal community that I once visited in the highlands of Davao del Norte. They have managed to preserve, relatively intact, their dynamic culture against the attempts of both foreign colonizers and Filipinos from the lowlands to intrude into and change their way of life. They have valiantly defended their ancestral land against landgrabbers, foreign mining firms and other interest groups.

“Unique aspects of their culture, some of which have disappeared from other neighboring indigenous groups, continue to flourish among them,” says SOS, a newly-launched support network. “They practice their traditional tattooing, called pangotoeb, with many artists still working in their communities and younger people receiving this mark of identity and spirituality. For them receiving a tattoo ensures their well-being in the afterlife.”

Also, their epic tradition remains vibrant. “Chanters can still recount from memory the story-cycles of Tolalang and Man-oloron, both hour-long in length. Innovation of these epics continues as younger people learn and add their own styles and changes.”

In contrast, most of the rest of us Filipinos have forgotten, and are even ashamed of, these hallmarks of our original culture.

But the Talaingod Manobo schools have been forced to close. Since last March, government troops have been practically occupying their communities and taking over their schools.

As I wrote in four previous pieces, since 2011 AFP troops have been occupying schools, health centers, and chapels in rural communities and terrorizing the villagers as they pursue “peace and development” programs under Oplan Bayanihan, the Aquino government’s counterinsurgency plan.

They have been doing so in blatant violation of international humanitarian law, Republic Act 7610, and the very guidelines issued in 2013 by the AFP (Letter Directive No. 25) and the Department of Education (Memorandum No. 221) – all prohibiting the use of schools for military purposes.

The military operations-occupation in Talaingod caused the displacement of 1,700 villagers, who mostly trekked to Davao City to draw attention to their plight and elicit support. Through the intercession of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Davao del Norte Gov. Rodolfo del Rosario, the military agreed to pull out from the communities so the evacuees could return home in May.

But in no time at all the troops returned and pursued more intensely their counterinsurgency operations, now under new AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang. The Talaingod Manobo and their human rights defenders were dismayed to hear Governor del Rosario admit he could no longer tell the troops to leave their communities.

A similar exodus of 2,000 villagers from 14 communities occurred recently in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, after paramilitary forces shot dead Manobo leader Henry Alameda and threatened villagers. Also, through the intercession of Bishop Modesto Villasanta of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and a representative of Gov. Johnny Pimentel, the villagers have agreed to return home, under the following conditions:

1) That the military, police and local government officials uphold a 2009 written agreement that the Philippine Army would not conduct “peace and development” programs in their communities (the agreement was signed between the Malahutayong Pakigbisog alang sa Sumusunod, the organization of which Alameda was a leader, and Col. Henry Robinson, then head of the Philippine Army’s 29th IB); and

2) No soldier or policeman would be allowed to escort the villagers back to their homes.

But will the AFP uphold the 2009 agreement?

Back to the Talaingod Manobo schoolchildren, good news! Their plight — and their grassroots organizations’ determination to maintain alternative schools to provide them comprehensive education: literacy, numeracy, applicable science, while strengthening their indigenous culture and traditions — has gained support at the national level.

Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns, a nongovernmental grouping of 24 child-focused organizations and institutions, has pitched in. Last June Salinlahi initiated the formation of SOS (Save Our Schools),bringing together the Children’s Rehabilitation Center, Gabriela, Gabriela Women’s Party, Act Teachers Party, Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas, and Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights).

The network has set three goals: 1) increase public awareness about the plight and the culture of the Talaingod Manobo; 2) lobby among concerned government agencies and institutions for them to support the demands and the human rights of the Talaingod Manobo; and 3) gather support for the continued development of the Talaingod Manobo’s rich culture and traditions.

Meantime, the school’s executive director and the head of basic education have filed with the Department of Education-Region 11 a complaint against the 68th IB for rights violations in Talaingod.

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Published in The Philippine Star
November 8, 2014

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