Manobo villagers decry military occupation of classrooms in Mindanao

Rights groups also say soldiers have attacked and burned schools during counter-insurgency operations
UCA News, November 6, 2014

By Joe Torres and Maki Macaspac

Manobo tribal communities and local human rights groups this week condemned the Philippine military’s use of school classrooms as bases of operation for counter-insurgency actions in restive Mindanao province.

A “cultural caravan” comprising Manobo students and educators from Davao del Norte arrived in Manila on Wednesday to highlight the increasing violence that they say has disrupted access to education in rural areas of the country.

Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan, said the occupation of classrooms by soldiers was a “clear violation of the right of children to education”.

“We want to reiterate that these schools have been initiated by people’s organizations with the support of the Church and other advocacy groups as a response to the government’s inability to provide basic education to children in remote places,” Palabay said.

She added that the military has taken over at least five schools in southern Mindanao in the last four months.

“How can we study if the military is always there,” said Lando, a 15-year-old Manobo student, who along with 12 classmates and a teacher traveled to Manila as part of the caravan.

“We are here to ask for support so that we will be able to continue our studies,” Lando told ucanews.com following a meeting with lawmakers and human rights organizations.

The Save Our Schools Network, a coalition of community organizations, said the caravan was part of a broader appeal in the wake of recent military operations in Mindanao’s Surigao del Sur province that has displaced more than 2,000 Manobo villagers.

Madella Santiago, a spokesperson for the group, said classrooms had also been damaged or destroyed by the military during counter-insurgency operations.

“We are deeply saddened and at the same time enraged by the recent atrocities,” Santiago said.

She added that soldiers had burned a tribal school in the village of Buhisan in San Agustin town and a school building in Kabalawan village in Surigao del Sur.

“Soldiers poured kerosene on the walls of the school and set it on fire,” said Santiago.

Major Christian Uy, a spokesman for the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, dismissed reports that soldiers had burned schools as an attempt to “smear the reputation of the military”.

But he did acknowledge that the military was conducting operations in tribal areas.

Captain Jasper Gacayan, a spokesperson for the army’s 401st Brigade, said he had received reports of school burnings but said soldiers “were not involved in these activities”.

“The military is adhering to international humanitarian law. If any witness can help identify the perpetrators, we are willing to help,” he told ucanews.com on Wednesday.

SOS Network’s Santiago, meanwhile, said that seven community learning centers have been closed and 569 students have had to postpone their education because of evacuations due to ongoing military operations.

Congressman Antonio Tinio of the Teachers Party said he would file a resolution to conduct an inquiry into reported attacks on schools by the military.

“These attacks … committed in the course of anti-insurgency campaign but denied to the heavens by the military are deplorable to the highest degree,” Tinio said.

He further said there must be “immediate and substantial action” from the education department to revoke a 2013 memorandum that allows the presence of soldiers in and near schools during civil military operations.