By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
“Mindanao is no longer home for the Higaonons, for the B’laans, Ata Manobos and other indigenous people. Their leaders are either killed by the military and paramilitary groups or slapped with trumped-up criminal charges to bring them to prison. Their self-initiated schools are closed down, their communities are bombed, and they are evacuating.”
The quotation is from an urgent appeal for public support issued by human rights defenders through the mass and social media. It shines a light anew on the conditions of the three tribes mentioned that since 2011 have been at the receiving end of human rights violations ensuing from intensified military operations under the Aquino government’s counterinsurgency program, “Oplan Bayanihan.”
The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, an alliance of Catholic religious congregations in Mindanao, has denounced the military operations as targeted “against people’s organizations in communities actively protecting the people’s interest against large-scale mining, private energy development, and agribusiness ventures.”
Through this space, I’ve endeavored to call public attention to Oplan Bayanihan’s outrageous impact on the lives of the lumad, or indigenous peoples of Mindanao, particularly the children. This is the seventh piece I have written on the subject since August 13, 2011.
What’s the problem?
In pursuance of “peace and development” programs, AFP troops have been occupying schools, health centers and chapels in rural communities and, by their mere presence and behavior, terrorize the villagers. They have been doing so in blatant violation of Republic Act 7610, and the corresponding guidelines issued by the AFP (Letter-Directive No. 25: Guidelines on the Conduct of AFP Activities Inside or Within the Premises of Schools or Hospitals) and the Department of Education (Memorandum No. 221: Guidelines on the Protection of Children During Armed Conflict).
While RA 7610 prohibits the use of schools for military purposes, the AFP and DepEd guidelines allow the military to conduct “civil-military operations” within the school premises provided the AFP makes a written request and the school authorities approve it. A clever – no, devious – way to go around the law!
Since 2011, the Children’s Rehabilitation Center has documented 82 incidents of “state-instigated attacks” involving 57 schools and day-care centers in Mindanao. In January-May this year, 13 cases were documented and reported in southern Mindanao alone.
As schools nationwide began classes this month, the dire impact on 2,896 lumad children in Davao del Norte acquired prime focus: they could be denied of their right to continue studying if the 24 schools they go to would be permanently closed down. That’s what the province’s division superintendent, Josephine Fadul, recommended last May 22 in a letter to DepEd-Region XI Director Alberto Escobarte. She also reportedly requested permission to set up a public school where soldiers would handle classes as para-teachers.
The 24 schools, located in different areas of Davao del Norte, are run by the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Ingkanugon (Unity to Defend our Ancestral Land) Community Learning Center and the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation Inc. Academy.
(Altogether, 146 community schools provide formal and non-formal education in various lumad communities in Mindanao. These include those in the Caraga Region, run by the Alternative Center for Agricultural Development; in Surigao Sur, by the Tribal Filipino Program; and in Saranggani, the B’laan Literacy School and Learning Center in Malapatan. Majority of these schools implement the DepEd-accredited formal education curriculum, and provide literacy and numeracy programs, introduce scientific agriculture, and strengthen indigenous culture and traditions.)
The Salugpungan schools have practically been closed since last year, after being occupied by AFP troops and military operations in the Ata Manobo communities forced 1,700 villagers to trek to Davao City to solicit support for their demand to pull out the troops. Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and Davao del Norte Gov. Rodolfo del Rosario managed to induce the AFP to pull out. But in no time they returned and pursued more intense operations, under the command of now AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang.
Recently intensified military operations pushed hundreds of Ata Manobo families from Kapalong and Talaingod into trekking back to the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) compound in Davao City, where they had been received and looked after last year.
(Similarly, 54 B’laan families from three villages in Barangay Upper Suyuan, Malapatan, Saranggani province were forced to leave after the 73rd IBPA troops encamped in their communities. Fifty of the families found refuge at the UCCP compound in Gen. Santos City. Soldiers had barged into and ransacked their houses, throwing out their belongings and taking over their homes. A fact-finding mission documented many violations of human rights: violation of domicile, illegal searches; divestment of property; interrogating, harassing and threatening villagers; forcing them into hamlets; illegally detaining and torturing some individuals; involuntary servitude; imposing food/economic blockades; indiscriminate firing, and the like.)
Salugpungan school administrators urged DepEd in vain to reopen their schools. They were told to comply with new requirements for reopening: 1) secure a free, prior and informed consent clearance from a tribal council, now controlled by the paramilitary group Alamara; and 2) get the endorsement of the provincial peace and order council, which includes the AFP brigade commander in the area.
How precious to the lumads are their schools? Take it from this touching passage in the human rights defenders’ urgent appeal for public support:
“For the lumads, the establishment of the [Salugpungan center] is a priceless gift of education for the next generation, which the elders never had. The schools have been their hope to uplift their lives away from poverty and illiteracy. The schools teach the children how to read, count, analyze, criticize and fight in defense of their tribe and their land.”
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Published in The Philippine Star
June 27, 2015