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MANILA, Philippines – Sixteen-year-old Chricelyn Empong, a Lumad student from Mindanao, came to watch the University of the Philippines (UP) lantern parade in Diliman on Friday, December 13. (READ: IN PHOTOS: U.P. Lantern Parade 2019 displays call for societal change)
It didn’t turn out to be a pleasant experience for her and her fellow Lumad.
“Kahapon po may nangyare na Lantern Parade, tapos may mga fireworks at putukan. Natakot at nagsigawan po kami. Feeling po namin hindi fireworks ‘yung naririnig namin kundi baril,” she told Rappler.
(They held a lantern parade yesterday, and there were fireworks and firecrackers. We were all scared, we screamed. We felt like those were not fireworks but the sound of gunshots.)
Empong is one of the 97 Lumad students who are living and studying at a building in UP Diliman through the Bakwit School program of Save Our Schools Network. These students have evacuated their hometowns in Mindanao last October following the closure of 55 Lumad schools operated by Salugpongan Ta’Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center Incorporated (STTICLCI).
Lumad schools have been the targets of a military vilification campaign, saying those were being used as training centers for New People’s Army (NPA) communist rebels.
The Department of Education (DepEd) said the closure was not solely based on the STTICLCI’s alleged links to NPA but on the findings that these schools violated regulations and didn’t comply with DepEd requirements.
But Rius Valle, spokesperson for Save Our Schools Network, said the curriculum of Lumad schools are tailored fit for the needs of the indigenous peoples (IPs) communities in Mindanao; it is centered on agriculture.
“Our curriculum was even approved by the Department of Education when we started,” said Valle.
For Empong, their struggle for the right to education is just half the battle. They are also fighting off the trauma from the attacks in their community. (READ: What the Lumad are fighting for)
“Nakakapag-aral man po kami ngayon sa tulong ng Bakwit School, makakakuha naman po kami ng karunungan, pero hindi pa rin po ‘yun sapat dahil natatakot po kami sa aming kaligtasan,” said Empong.
(Even though we’re able to study and gain wisdom through the Bakwit School, it’s not enouugh because we fear for our safety.)
Intensified attacks under Duterte
In his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to bomb Lumad schools who were allegedly teaching “subversion” and “communism.” (WATCH: Rappler Talk: The love-hate relationship between Duterte and the Lumad)
“Bobombahan ko ‘yan. Isali ko ‘yang mga istraktura ninyo. I will use the Armed Forces, the Philippine Air Force. Talagang bobombahan ko ‘yung mga…lahat ng ano ninyo. (I will bomb them. I’ll include your structures. I will use the Armed Forces, the Philippine Air Force. I’ll really bomb all your structures). Because you are operating illegally and you are teaching the children to rebel against government,” Duterte had said.
According to Valle, the attacks on Lumad schools intensified under the Duterte administration. “They have deprived the Lumad students with the basic right to education,” she said.
Based on the records of the organization, prior to declaration of Martial Law in the region, there were already 87 documented incidents of school attacks since Duterte assumed office in 2016. However, from May 23, 2017, to July 2019, Save Our Schools Network had documented 584 more cases of attacks, ranging from school-related extra-judicial killings, sexual harassment cases, and aerial bomblings, among others.
Fifteen-year-old Lumad student Sharmaine Dausay said they are no longer safe in Mindanao. She evacuated North Cotabato because she feared for her life and wanted to continue her studies even if they needed to transfer from one place to another.
“Nakaranas po kami na habang kami ay nag-aaral ay pinagbabaril kami sa loob ng paaralan. Tapos hindi na namin marinig ‘yung teacher namin na nagtuturo sa amin dahil baril na ‘yung naririnig namin, bomba. Kaya patuloy kami nagbabakwit,” said Dausay.
(There were times, while we were studying, we were fired upon inside our school. And we could not even hear our teacher teaching because all we could hear were gunshots and bomb explosions. That’s why we keep on evacuating.)
Dausay hopes to be a journalist someday so she could tell the struggles of their community.
“Kami mismo ang nakakaranas ng mga atake at pangha-harass. Kapag naging journalist ako, ako mismo ‘yung maka-share sa iba na ito talaga ang nangyayari sa amin,” said Dausay.
(We’re the ones experiencing the attacks and harrassments. If I become a journalist, I’ll be the one to share these stories because these are actually happening to us.)
‘Right of children to education is protected’
Rappler has reached out to DepEd for a comment, but they directed us to a statement posted on their website dated October 20, 2019.
In that statement, the DepEd said its actions are guided by the interest of protecting the children, and it is “always mindful that their right to education is upheld at all times.”
It added, “Our actions also accord due process to all concerned.”
DepEd also wrote that aside from their findings that the schools did not follow regulations and standards, they also received a report from National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon that “some students were already taught to dismantle and assemble firearms,” and that “some students were not allowed to go home and they were controlled by the administrator and teachers of Salugpongan.”
DepEd said it acted in good faith and emphasized that the suspension directed by Esperon was a precautionary measure for the protection of students, pending investigation of the matter.
It again assured the public that it had taken all possible steps to ensure that the rights of children to education is protected throughout the process.
‘Stop the attacks’
The Lumad students have only one wish this Christmas: “stop the attacks on our schools.”
Dausay appealed to Duterte to lift the closure of the Salugpongan school. “Ang aming pag-aaral ay hindi lang para sa aming sarili kundi para sa mga kabataang Lumad na nangagailangan ng edukasyon.” (We are studying not just for ourselves, but for the Lumad children who also need education.)
“Ang Lumad school po ang nagturo sa amin kung ano po ang karapatan namin, kung paano pahalagahan ang kultura namin,” Empong added. (The Lumad school has taught what our rights are and how we should value our culture.) – Rappler.com