Occupying Schools with Guns and a Hammer

INEE: Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, November 21, 2012

By: Jake Scobey-Thal

When soldiers arrived in Bangued village in the mountains of northern Philippines in May 2011 they set up a barracks in the storage bunker below the principal’s office in the elementary school. Teachers reported that while the soldiers kept weapons in their quarters, they never carried arms on school grounds and rarely wore uniforms. The soldiers played basketball and chess with the students, and assisted the school staff with cleaning and small building projects.

After six months, the unit abruptly left.

The Philippine government is engaged in a long-running armed conflict with the insurgent Communist New People’s Army (NPA). While the area around Bangued has seen limited conflict since 1990s, the military maintains a presence in the region.

Acknowledging that there has been little fighting of late in the region, the troops I spoke with described their role as “civilian-military operations.” Ostensibly deployed as instruments of community development, these battalions aid in a range of public service initiatives, and, often in return, are housed in public institutions, such as schools. During my investigation in the region in November 2011, I documented five cases in which the military had used parts of functioning schools as military detachments since 2009.

In a number of these schools, teachers offered examples of soldiers providing basic services to the community. At a school in Gueday village, soldiers constructed a basketball hoop; at Sadanga High School, soldiers built a small health clinic building.

The Philippines military has had a tenuous relationship with many indigenous communities owing to both the legacy of abuses committed during the era of former President, and dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and ongoing violations by forces in the efforts to dismantle the communist insurgency. The NPA has also committed abuses against the local population. Civilian-military operations are part of a larger government strategy to engage indigenous communities and isolate the NPA.

Yet the staff at the schools I visited also highlighted the risks to students and staff. Indeed, even in areas of low-level conflict, students and teachers confront a myriad of threats to both their education and safety when soldiers use their schools.

At Sadanga High School the soldiers’ encampment sat adjacent to the large courtyard that hosts classrooms and other facilities. While government officials claim the encampment was built on private land, when I visited, at least part of the detachment—two soldiers, their sleeping quarters, and a large camouflaged truck—sat well within school property. And anyone seeking to access or leave the military camp had to cross the school’s playground, also placing students in the middle of any potential incursion.

At Aguid Elementary School, military personnel established a base in a storage house on school grounds from February to September 2010. Teachers reported instances when soldiers drank alcohol during school hours and carried guns on school property. Pointing toward the area where children played basketball and the soldiers would patrol, a teacher indicated to me where “the kids would come up to the guards and touch their guns.”  

A report released this week by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack­­–a partnership of UN agencies, humanitarian organizations, and human rights groups–documents the widespread use of schools by military forces in areas of conflict around the world. The study, which aggregates research from a range of inter-government organizations and NGOs conducted from 2005 to 2012, found that armed forces and armed groups used education institutions in at least 24 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. Soldiers have converted all or parts of educational facilities into military barracks, exposing students and teachers to attack, sexual violence, and harassment. The occupation of schools also has deleterious consequences for the institution’s capacity to offer educational services; the report documents high dropout rates, reduced enrollment, lower rates of transition to higher education levels, overcrowding, and loss of instructional hours.

The benefits of military-led development initiatives do not mitigate the inherent problems of an armed presence on school grounds. At schools I visited, teachers reported that students often interact with the soldiers. Teachers described instances in which students ran errands for the detachment, and joined soldiers in their barracks to eat lunch and watch “bang bang” movies. Moreover, the occupation of educational facilities makes the school a legitimate target for insurgent forces. 

In 1992, the Philippine government passed a law that prohibits the use of schools for military purposes, such as for barracks and bases. The law reflects lessons learned from years of internal armed conflict and the detrimental consequences when the military occupies educational facilities. The Philippines should better enforce its own law, even as the conflict wanes in certain regions of the country.

The Global Coalition calls on governments to consider what more they can do to restrict militaries using schools. The Philippine’s law prohibiting the practice is a strong example for those countries documented in the report that have failed to protect schools in armed conflict. But those countries could also learn from the Philippines’ mistakes: whether they are carrying guns or a hammer, schools are no place for soldiers.

Jake Scobey-Thal is the Senior Associate in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, which is a member of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack­­.