In the Philippines’ Mindanao islands, 55 indigenous schools have been suspended due to alleged national security risks.

The islands have some of the poorest regions in the country. Davao, for example, has a fourth of its 4.89-million population living below the poverty threshold of US$1.17 a day. It is also home to a diverse indigenous population collectively known as the Lumads.

In the poverty-stricken region, Lumad schools have been the victim of unabated attacks, threats, and harassment from government soldiers and local paramilitary as the schools were labeled as a hotbed for rebel activities.


Photo Credit: Save Our Schools Network

In 2017, military encampment and intensified military operation on the Mindanao islands have forcibly displaced 442 households.

On July 10, the Department of Education (DepEd) ordered the suspension of 55 Lumad schools under the recommendation of Hermogenes Esperon Jr., the national security adviser. These schools have been run by an organization named Salugpongan Ta’Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center Inc (STTCLCI or Salugpongan schools) since 2007 to provide education for indigenous children.

Esperon accused Salugpongan schools of manipulating the children in rallies and instructing them “with ideologies that advocate against the government.” According to DepEd, Salugpongan schools had also failed to comply with certain documents required for the permits.

President Rodrigo Duterte has been vocal about his distaste for the Lumad schools. In 2017, he threatened to bomb the facilities because the staff were “teaching children to rebel against the government.”

“We hope DepEd listens to us. Our teachers do not teach us how to rebel and take up arms. Instead, we are being taught of our rights as a tribe. What’s wrong with learning about our rights that DepEd continues to silence us? Do they think of us as mere aesthetics for festivals?” said Sharmaine Dausay, 16, a Lumad student at Salugpongan schools.

Supporters, students, and staff of the Salugpongan schools schools have been trooping to the local DepEd offices in protest. School director Meggie Nolasco said the protests will continue to shun Esperson’s accusations.

“The Duterte government and its cronies don’t want Lumads who are critical thinkers, students who question their policies, and students who assert human rights. They want to quell that resistance expressed in the schools,” Nolasco told The News Lens.


Photo Credit: Save Our Schools Network

Several Lumad schools, along with Lumad school Center for Lumad Advocacy Networking and Services (CLANS), were burned and destroyed on May 13, 2017. This prompted Lumad residents to flee and seek sanctuary from different neighboring communities.

Ineffective Martial Law Deprives Children of Both Education and Safety

Save Our Schools Network (SOS), a child advocacy, condemned the suspension of Salugpongan, pinning the blame on the imposition of martial law. On May 23, 2017, the Duterte administration announced martial law in Mindanao due to alleged violence committed by Muslim extremists and communist insurgents. It is set to expire at the end of this year but the government has eyed a year-long extension.

“More than 100 Lumad students are still in an evacuee school as militarization reigns in their ancestral lands,” said Rius Valle, SOS Mindanao’s spokesperson. “Two years ago, a grade six Lumad student, Obillo Bay-ao was shot to death by the paramilitary group Alamara just 50 meters away from their school.”

According to human rights group Karapatan, there have been 250 extra-judicial killings since Duterte took office in 2016, and 134 of which happened in Mindanao.

On April 21, 2018, Jhun Mark Acto, a 15 year-old Lumad student was shot to death by the military who were at that time conducting military operations in Davao del Sur.

Since martial law was declared in Mindanao as an anti-terrorism measure, SOS recorded five incidents of aerial bombardment, affecting 2,350 civilians. Valle also said there have been around 11,000 displaced Lumad children in the past two years, while 111 school staff are facing a multitude of trumped-up charges like kidnapping and trafficking minors.

After DepEd’s suspension order, SOS setup a temporary evacuee (Bakwit) school in Manila for the Lumad children. On July 22, the advocacy also submitted an order to show cause, requesting the DepEd to justify the school suspensions.

Why Are the Lumads Targeted?

The paramilitary attacks on the Lumad schools are fueled by an economic agenda to take the ancestral lands from the Lumads, Valle suggested. To do this, the government needs to weed out any form of critical thinking and resistance that is engendered from the schools.

Valle said these troubles are “due to new mining explorations being proposed in Talaingod, Davao del Norte where the Salugpongan schools were first established. These mining exploration proposals, including one from a Chinese firm, would cover 31,180 hectares of heavily forested ancestral land of Pantaron Mountain Range ⁠— one of the few remaining intact rainforests in Mindanao.”


Photo Credit: Save Our Schools Network

A two-year old child was grazed by a bullet wounding him on the head during a shooting near the Lumad school premise. He had six stitches and is now recovering.

In 2012, Salugpungan was accredited as a learning center by the local government. The school gained access to over 10 hectares of land within Talaingod for classroom operations without having to pay rent.

After the closure of the indigenous schools, Senator Leila De Lima filed a resolution seeking an inquiry into the case. She decried the fact that students and staff were victims of red-tagging in the Duterte administration’s continuing conflict with the New People’s Army (NPA).

She noted that the allegations of the schools not having valid and subsisting permits only came after Esperon’s report. The senator’s office told The News Lens they are currently lobbying to get the matter on the floor as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Nolasco is still leading the Salugpongan schools to protest against the suspension order.

“The Lumads are the most marginalized, most deprived, and most discriminated,” she said. “We hold our position here that we are educators, we mold minds, we are multipliers in bringing free, quality, and culturally-relevant education to the hinterland communities of indigenous peoples we serve."

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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