Government must stop trying to crush bakwit schools

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - February 20, 2021 - 12:00am

First the Philippine National Police dubbed it as a “rescue” mission. But after a video streaming on social media showed the Manobo children – the supposed rescue subjects – screaming and crying as they, along with their teachers and leaders (some of them handcuffed), were being taken away by armed policemen, the PNP called the operation a raid.

It must be noted, however, that the raiding police team did not show any court-issued warrant to justify the operation. And they didn’t notify the administration of the educational institution into whose premises they intruded and instantly carried out their objective in the morning of Feb. 15.

Yes, this is about the operation conducted by the Police Regional Office-7 in Cebu City on a retreat house used as a bakwit school for displaced Lumad children. The school is housed in the Talampas campus of the University of San Carlos, run by the Society of the Divine Word (SVD).

The raid, the harsh police actions and the apparent illegality have been widely condemned, nationally and internationally. Local and international human rights watchdogs have demanded the immediate release of those arrested. They also want a stop to the red-tagging and harassment of the Lumad and other indigenous peoples.

A statement was issued by university authorities and the Catholic SVD order, saying the Lumad group was in their campus in response to the request of the Archdiocese of Cebu’s Commission on Social Advocacies (COSA) to have a school program for evacuees.

This was affirmed by the COSA vicar-executive director, Fr. Nazario Vocales. He said Cebu City Archbishop Jose S. Palma approved the program in late 2019, after meeting with the Lumad delegation, the COSA and the Save Our Schools Network (SOSN), which is assisting the Lumad students. Besides the USC, five other schools and religious congregations in Cebu responded to COSA’s appeal to help in the children’s schooling and in providing for their food and medical needs.

In the House of Representatives, the six-member Makabayan bloc has filed a resolution urging an immediate public hearing on the incident. Deputy Speaker Michael Romero has delivered a privilege speech assailing the questionable actions by the police and called for their accountability. He has offered a P500,000 legal fund to help the lawyers of the arrested teachers and Lumad elders and called for their immediate release.

Moreover, Romeo co-signed the Makabayan bloc resolution and took steps to facilitate the early start of public hearings. He has been joined by the former minority leader now with the majority, Rep. Bienvenido Abante, and Nueva Ecija Rep. Ria Vergara, who both co-signed the resolution. Abante called the raid “clearly unconstitutional” and urged the relief of the police officers involved. Vergara observed that based on the video of the incident, “it was an act of violence and terrorism against innocent young children and teachers.” “Do we need to wait that this will also happen to our children?” she asked.

As of yesterday’s news reports, the 19 “rescued” children had been taken into custody by the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Ironically, two volunteer teachers and five Manobo leaders were arrested by the PNP’s PRO-7 and charged with kidnapping, child abuse and human trafficking.

PNP chief Gen. Debold Sinas (PRO-7 chief before he was elevated to national posts) has backed up the claim, mainly by the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflice (NTF-ELCAC), that the Manobo children underwent communist indoctrination and “some form of warfare training while in the custody of their handlers.” That claim was used as the excuse for the “rescue” mission.

However, the social welfare officer of Cebu City’s Department of Social Welfare Services (DSWS), Annie Suico, belied the NTF-ELCAC claim. She did so after she and her colleagues, who were asked by PRO-7 to accompany the “rescue mission,” had interviewed all the 19 children in their custody.

“We interviewed all of the children,” Suico told the media. “They said nothing about being indoctrinated. Sulat at basa lang ang (i)tinuturo ng mga guardians nila. Nothing about training to be child warriors.”

The Commission on Human Rights, through its chief investigator for Central Visayas, Leo Villarino, on Thursday affirmed the DSWS finding in its initial investigation of the incident. He added that even the parents who originally sought the DSWD help to get them united with their children said they never expressed concern that their children were being recruited by communist rebels.

The Manobo children’s schooling was disrupted after their Lumad schools in Talaingod, Davao del Norte were forcibly shut down in November 2018 by the paramilitary group Alamara, backed up by the military which held sway in the area. Subsequently, at the instance of the Duterte government, the Department of Education ordered the shutdown of all Lumad schools in Mindanao.

Villarino said that the parents had “consented” to have their children taken to Davao City by one of the teachers, whom they trusted. They agreed, he pointed out, “because they knew the kids needed to study” which became impossible in their area. “They did not know nor agreed that the children end up in Cebu,” he said.

“Definitely, on the topic of whether they were forced or taught to rebel against the government, there was none,” Villarino emphasized.

Back in November 2018, I was in Talaingod when the last of several Lumad schools, ran by the Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center, Inc. (STTICLCI) in the locality, was shut down. I was invited to join a National Solidarity Mission to assist the students and teachers of the school who were running out of food and supplies. I ended up arrested with 16 others in the mission, after we assisted the students and teachers forced out of their school. We were charged, initially with the same charges filed against the teachers and elders as mentioned above (later reduced to child abuse).

At the time, the DepEd explained they had no hand in the Lumad schools shutdown. In a statement issued on Dec. 5, 2018, the agency defended the schools’ rationale. It said:

“It is in the belief and confidence on the role of and partnership with private institutions and community stakeholders that the Department consistently underscores the importance of these learning institutions to secure recognition and permit to operate from their respective DepEd regional offices.”

There were then 73 Lumad schools across Mindanao, but mostly in Davao del Norte. Now all have been shut down. The bakwit schools in UP-Diliman and in other sites in Luzon and the Visayas have become the alternative venues for continuing the Lumad children’s quest for learning, surely something worth supporting. The government must stop crushing them one by one.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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