On February 15, police in Cebu City raided the school of an Indigenous group in what they described as a “rescue operation” of the students. The raid, which happened on the campus of University of San Carlos, resulted in the arrest of 22 students, two teachers, and two tribe elders. Inquest proceedings for the detained began on February 17. Seven of the detained faculty and adult students have been charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention.

Started by the non-profit Salugpongan Ta’Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center, Inc (STTCLCI) in 2007, the Lumad schools, as they have come to be known, have educated Indigenous youth of the Mindanao region. Also called “Bakwit (evacuee) schools,” these institutions have sought refuge within the campuses of universities to escape the incessant militarization of their ancestral lands.

Local police claim that the operation was intended to reunite the children with their parents. All the detained minors have since been put in the care of the Department of Social Welfare and Development who coordinated with the authorities in the raid. But university officials maintain that incursions by the authorities were unnecessary as the children and staff were properly accommodated.

Rius Valle, a teacher and spokesperson for the Save Our Schools (SOS), the Salugpongan’s network of support told The News Lens that the cops “always use the term ‘rescue’ but this disturbed peace of Lumad evacuees and students has happened several times before.” He mentioned two major incidents in 2015 and 2020 in Mindanao wherein violence from operations of the authorities caused locals to flee their communities.

The news broke around noon on Monday as one of the students broadcast part of the raid live on Facebook. In the short video children were heard screaming. SOS claims the detained, including some of the minors, were “manhandled and handcuffed.”

“What kind of rescue involves fear and force from the police? This is coercion and crackdown disguised as a humanitarian effort. The President himself has many times made threats against us Lumad and violence police have shown in Cebu proves that Duterte was not lying,” said Valle.

The Duterte government has long been antagonistic towards the Lumad schools. State officials have accused the schools of fostering rebellious ideas and brainwashing the students to resent the government. Duterte himself threatened to bomb the schools in 2017 and in 2018 ordered soldiers to “hamlet” communities — a likely reference to the U.S. military strategy of militarizing and isolating villages during the Vietnam War — or weed them out in order to drive away any dissenters.


Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Jong Monzon, a representative of Mindanao’s Indigenous Lumad community, protesting Duterte's rule in Manila in February 2018. Duterte has threatened to bomb Lumad schools over alleged links to leftist rebels.

Cebu social workers who interviewed the children after being detained said that there was no evidence the students were being indoctrinated. According to their findings, the school children were being taught to read and write.

Congresswoman Eufemia Callamat of Bayan Muna (People First) party-list is the first Lumad from an impoverished background to become a lawmaker. Speaking at a protest, she slammed the overall response of the administration to the plight of the Lumad. She said “Since Duterte came into power, he has not made life any easier for Indigenous peoples. They would much rather silence us because we want to defend our ancestral lands from their intervention. The Lumad schools were established simply because we want our children to have better futures, it was a victory for our right to education.”

Fears intensify

Valle shared how the various Lumad schools, including the one at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Metro Manila, have been taking extra precautions. “There are many cases of surveillance on our students and staff. Either the UP security or our own night marshals have noticed. Since last year there have been several attempts at a break-in that have thankfully been foiled by the local guards. Even the act of broadcasting and documenting any forcible entry has been taught to students hence the video of the incident in Cebu,” Valle explained. He also lamented the irony of how they have tried to escape militarization yet they are continuously hounded.

“It seems the Lumad will never be safe unless the government changes its treatment of us. We are under constant threat,” said Valle. SOS is currently consulting with their legal counsel on pressing counter charges against the cops and filing a report at the Commission on Human Rights.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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