By JON ERNST PASCUAL
MANILA — Recently released teachers and students of a Bakwit Lumad school are at a loss why the Phililppine government is targeting indigenous peoples who aspire to learn and dream.
“When does it become wrong to protect our lands? When does it become wrong to go to school, to learn and to dream of becoming a graduate?” Jomar Benag, one of the arrested students, said in tears in a media briefing after their release.
Benag is among those arrested in a raid in February 2021 inside a university in Cebu City, where they sought refuge since the country was put on lockdown as a measure against the spread of the COVID-19. Seven students, volunteer teachers, and datus were arrested and charged with trumped-up cases for allegedly kidnapping students participating in the Bakwit school.
Bakwit schools were put up across the country as Lumad communities were forced to leave their ancestral homes and livelihood due to militarization.
The schools they have put up, where Lumad students learned not only of reading and writing but also of their rights, became subjects of government’s ire claiming that these schools taught children how to fight the government troops.
Under the Duterte administration, Save Our Schools said that at least 176 Lumad schools have been shut down by the Department of Education.
The Lumad then sought refuge in various parts of the country, putting up Bakwit schools in these sanctuaries where they voiced out their plight, struggles, and small victories.
“They trampled our identity, destroyed our school. We evacuated to the city so that we can continue our schooling and register our grievances but we are still being harassed. Even imprisoned,” Benag recounted as he held back his tears.
Attacks against the school
Benag said that it was painful for him and his classmates to see government soldiers abducting minors, raiding their schools and treating them as if they were common criminals. Those who tried to help, on the other hand, are red-tagged.
Following President Duterte’s imposition of martial law in Mindanao, and long after it was lifted, the attacks against the Lumad schools continued.
“The schools are being destroyed, being set on fire, being occupied by soldiers. Parents are being threatened by lawsuits, detention or being killed” Chad Booc, a volunteer teacher of the Bakwit school, also among those arrested in Cebu, shared.
Despite the attacks on them, their aspirations to learn never wavered, said Datu Benito Bay-ao, also among those released last week. He said that the government must “acknowledge and respect our right to land and education so that we and other bakwits can return to our communities.”
One student shared that it is difficult to study while moving from one place to another but they carry on because they are happy.
For the Lumad, it does not help that the Duterte administration passed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and established the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which is armed with billions of public funds to continue maligning Bakwit schools.
Ruis Valle, Save Our Schools Network spokesperson, said they have documented 1030 attacks from 2016 until September 2020 and almost 94,000 Lumads were affected by the state-sponsored attacks.
The Lumads and Bakwit schools are united in their calls for the immediate release of other illegally detained indigenous peoples, particularly of 18 Lumad students, 13 of whom are still in the custody of the military; to stop the attacks on their schools and communities, and to abolish NTF-ELCAC.