Lumads sustain fight to save their schools

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The deployment of more than 60 percent of the total number of AFP troops in (Mindanao) has resulted in massive militarization in rural communities, particularly the indigenous people’s ancestral domain… The pervasiveness of the AFP and its paramilitary groups in securing the interests of big landlords and capitalists over the [natural] resources in Mindanao has impacted the social structure, self-identity of the Lumad and their right to governance including the right to establish community schools.”

The quotation is from the summary report on the Save-Our-School Campaign of the Lumad (indigenous peoples) in four regions of Mindanao – Southern Mindanao, Caraga, Northern Mindanao, and “Socsksargends” (South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, General Santos, and Davao del Sur).The campaign is now on its sixth year.

While their efforts have made significant gains, the Lumad and their supporters have endured human rights violations (HRVs) including losses in lives and property. They continue to confront repressive measures pursued by state security forces in their counterinsurgency drive “in collaboration with national government agencies” against the local communities (not just the Lumad). These measures have included extrajudicial killings of Lumad leaders and children, closure of schools, filing of trumped-up charges against Lumad advocates, and a series of forced evacuations (about which I have dwelt in this space).

For three days this week I was in Davao City, responding to invitations to speak at two Mindanao-wide activities: first, a forum on the status and prospects of the GRP-NDFP peace talks, (organized by Sowing the Seeds of Peace and allied peace-advocacy formations); and the Fourth Save Our Schools (SOS) Conference. Both events closed on a high note of hope sounded by the participants, who renewed their commitments – given the all-too evident obstacles – to pursue their inter-related advocacies with greater perseverance, courage, and vigor. I came away from both events infused with that same spirit and resolve.

I first wrote in this space (August 13, 2011) about the heart-tugging story of how six Blaan tribal communities in Upper Suyuan, Malapatan municipality of Sarangani resisted and defied the AFP troops’ intrusion into and occupation of their communities in a bid to forcibly close their school, the Blaan Literacy School and Learning Center. The school was set up in 2008 by a nongovernmental organization, the Center for Lumad Advocacy and Services (CLANS). Alongside the school, another NGO, Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya (SIBAT) had built a mini-hydropower plant that lighted up the village at night and ran a multi-grain mill for their rice and corn harvests. The Blaan adopted the projects as their own to maintain and protect.

Today about 230 indigenous people’s (IP) learning centers built by NGOs and church institutions are operating in Mindanao. Currently they serve the craving for education of some 7,000 Lumad children. The Save-Our-School (SOS) network reports that 9 out of 10 Lumad children have no access to education. Along with basic education, the children of 18 ethnolinguistic tribes also are in dire need of basic health services.

At the SOS Conference, the report quoted above says that from October 2015 to February 2017, there were 168 incidents of military attacks on 47 Lumad schools by state security forces and their paramilitary groups pursuing the counterinsurgency plans Oplan Bayanihan (under the P-Noy government until end-June 2016) and Oplan Kapayapaan (under the Duterte administration since January 2017). The attacks affected more than 1,000 families and 5,000 students as victims of “forced evacuation, threat, harassment, intimidation, red-tagging, and surveillance.”

If the iron hand seems excessive, it’s because the Lumad peoples are seen to be obstacles to the desire of big corporations, foreign and local, to aggressively exploit the mineral resources which happen to lie within the communities’ ancestral domains. Thus, the issue has been turned into a counterinsurgency matter.

A total of 16 battalions and 2 brigades of the Philippine Army were involved in the attacks, the report points out. Paramilitary groups were also involved, such as Alamara, Bagani, Magahas, New Indigenous People’s Army for Reform (NIPAS), and the AFP’s Military Intelligence Group (MIG). Moreover, the report adds, government agencies such as the Department of Education, National Commission for Indigenous Peoples, the Department of Interior and Local Government and local government officials also are implicated in these attacks.

The increase in human-rights violations was noted, the report says, at the height of the implementation of Oplan Bayanihan and the “Whole-of-Nation Initiative (WNI)” during the last year of the Aquino government. The WNI approach entailed the closure of, or denial of DepEd permit to operate, certain Lumad schools, and the establishment across their physical locations of counterpart DepEd schools. Accusing national government agencies such as OPAPP, DSWD, NCIP, DepEd, DILG, and the AFP of actively engaging in the counterinsurgency campaign, the report says that this has resulted in the forced evacuation of Lumad communities in the provinces of Bukidnon, Surigao del Sur, and Davao del Norte.

The violations have continued under President Duterte, the report continues, particularly after he “cancelled” the GRP-NDFP peace talks on February 4. During that short period of “all-out war against the CPP-NPA,” the SOS Network documented 15 cases of military encampment affecting five Lumad schools.

Even as the Duterte government and the National Democratic Front resume the formal peace negotiations in the first week of April and in June, the Lumad and their advocates are concerned that Oplan Kapayapaan is continuing to operate against the tribal communities. Unless the President steps in to stop the violence, the SOS summary report warns:

“The AFP will increase its military operations through aerial bombings [already happening], indiscriminate firing, (EJKs) targeting the communities and alternative schools. The all-out war will also mean the aggressiveness of local and foreign companies to encroach on the ancestral domain of indigenous peoples for plunder and exploitation of mineral resources.”

Vis-à-vis these challenges, the SOS Network is assured of sustaining its strength by various types and levels of support – local, regional, national, and international – which it has built up in the past five years in a network of nongovernment organizations and institutions, the academe (including the University of the Philippines), religious groups, and foreign solidarity formations.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in The Philippine Star
March 18, 2017

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