Philippines: Armed Forces University Ban Canceled

Philippines: Armed Forces University Ban Canceled
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The Philippine government has canceled a long standing agreement that barred armed forces from entering the country’s leading university, University of the Philippines.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on January 18 ordered the cancellation of an agreement barring military and police personnel from conducting operations inside the campuses of the University of the Philippines (UP), the country’s top school. The UP-DND (Department of National Defense) signed in 1989 has prevented armed forces from stepping onto university grounds without first coordinating with school officials or unless they are in hot pursuit of a criminal. 

In a letter sent by Lorenzana to UP President Danilo Concepcion, he said that the termination of the agreement was in pursuance of “national security” because there exists a “clandestine operation” to recruit students into the communist guerrilla group, the New People’s Army (NPA). 

The following day, a huge crowd gathered in UP to protest this abrogation of a landmark agreement. Concepcion called the decision “unwarranted” and insisted that as an educational institution they will remain “a safe haven for all beliefs and forms of democratic expression.”

Widespread condemnation has since ensued with various UP alumni, organizations, and politicians getting involved. Among the strongest voices in opposition was that of Vice-President Leni Robredo, who said that this is meant to “discourage dissent” and “silence criticism.” 

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Students and activists march to protest following the defense ministry’s cancellation of a decades-long pact hindering police and soldiers from the country’s state university, University of the Philippines (UP), at University Avenue in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, January 19, 2021.

Lorenzana tried to allay fears by asking the UP community to “have an open mind.” He said that because law enforcement is generally not allowed inside the school, it is only a safe haven for “enemies of the state.” He demanded an explanation from the university as to why so many of their former students were found to be as NPA insurgents in encounters with the Philippine military. 

Public trust in the government under President Rodrigo Duterte has been called into question many times, especially when it comes to its counter-insurgency agenda. Lorenzana’s narrative can be seen as red-tagging, a modern day red-scare and communist witch-hunt that has hounded many of the government’s critics. Whether or not there are NPA recruiters in campuses is beside the point. Under the administration of President Duterte, simply making critical comments about the establishment can lead to severe punishment. 

UP has prided itself on being one of the few spaces left that adheres to freedom of expression. It’s no surprise that many protests are held on its grounds, with the cops only able to checkpoint its entrances. Not anymore, however, with Lorenzana’s new order. 

A dangerous precedent

Indeed, UP has been known to produce its fair share of rebels. The founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA, Jose Ma. Sison is a graduate. Fifty years ago this February, its Diliman Campus was taken over by student protesters condemning state violence, and a tradition of activism continues today. On the other hand, those who claim the university is inexorably a hotbed for radicalism have to contend with the institution’s history of educating the country’s presidents and top politicians.

The UP-DND accord came about as a victory of the student movement pushing for their academic and democratic freedoms from military intervention. It is also known as the Soto-Enrile Accord, named for then-chairperson of the militant League of Filipino Students Sonia Soto and then-Defense Chief Juan Ponce Enrile. 

Student leader Froilan Cariaga of the Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP or Stand UP condemned the act by Lorenzana. He told The News Lens, “This follows the rampant fascist attacks by the government. Moreover, it doesn’t just threaten UP but other universities as well. We are just the start, and they will expectantly set out to militarize other so called ‘hotbeds of terrorism’.”

In 1992, the Prudente-Ramos accord followed. This was a student victory resulting in a pact made for the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), another school known for its activist culture. Days after Lorenzana terminated the agreement with UP, he made the PUP version his next target.

“Fascist to the core”

The human rights record of this administration has been widely castigated. Arbitrary arrests, evidence planting, killings, and trumped up charges versus critics and activists have amped up in recent years

The militarization of the campuses comes at a time when the administration is about to implement the controversial Anti-Terror Law, a blanket policy against loosely defined “terrorist acts.” 

Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Protesters hold slogans during a rally calling on legislators to junk the proposed anti-terror bill at the University of the Philippines in Manila, Philippines on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

“The police and military have proven many times over that they cannot be trusted to uphold basic freedoms. There is harassment and intimidation from their ranks left and right against activists especially,” said Cariaga. He mentioned that in June of last year, eight students protesting in UP’s Cebu campus were arrested illegally, violating the accords. The Anti-Terror Law was used as a justification. 

Another real danger is faced by the Lumad students, Indigenous youths forced to take refuge in the university to escape the violent and repeated military incursions in their hometowns in southern Philippines. They opened the Bakwit (colloquial term for “evacuate”) School in 2019 with UP, hosting more than 70 students and eight teachers. They have been relatively free from operatives of the armed forces, but now the reason they left their communities has suddenly gained a free pass into the sanctuary they’ve built for themselves. 

School coordinator and spokesperson of the Save Our Schools Network, Rius Valle, was livid with the decision. He said, “This government is fascist to the core. It is a coward; it fears critical thinkers who ask questions about social injustices. It is shaken by an educated youth who fearlessly demands accountability. The unilateral termination of the UP-DND accord is proof of such cowardice.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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