Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has put certain schools of indigenous communities on notice – stop teaching subversion and communism or become targets of the Philippine Air Force. And virtually within minutes of issuing that ultimatum, he was under attack from human-rights groups and the progressive Left.
They called on him to make an immediate retraction. Human Rights Watch (HRW) – an arch Duterte critic – claimed the president was “directing the military to commit war crimes”. Militant-Left party-list group, Action Concerning Teachers – another of Duterte’s detractors – condemned the statement as “clear red-tagging on a large scale, and endorsement of violence and murder against indigenous peoples”. Red-tagging is the public denouncement of communist sympathisers.
It was the usual outrageous inflammatory rhetoric. It sought to flare passions by invoking images of school children whose bodies would be torn limb from limb as attack helicopters strafed their classrooms and warplanes leveled them with gravity bombs; of the innocent falling prey to a government’s military might – the oppression of vulnerable minorities by an egregious brutal bully.
Of course, none of that was even vaguely implied in Duterte’s statement. He simply wants to put an end to the communist brainwashing of Filipino youth among the lumads (photo) – the tribes of the southern Mindanao region comprising some 18 ethnic groups – which have sought self-determination for the best part of 35 years.
Directing his remarks at the NPA, Duterte said this: “I would free the children from your perdition, because otherwise they would learn to be like you”. He continued: “They grow up there hating government and going to war when they are adults. You are perpetuating the violence in this country and I have to stop it. I have every reason to stop it because you are producing another generation of haters”.
So, just for the record, the president has no intention of issuing the order to kill school children as the progressive Left would like us to believe – “I did not say I would kill the children, he said – but he most certainly has the appetite to raze their classrooms to the ground if the NPA persists in using these facilities for proselytising and recruiting among the indigenous groups.
That didn’t stop HRW, however, as it saw in Duterte’s remarks yet another opportunity of painting him as a tyrant. “Deliberately attacking civilians, including students and teachers, is also a war crime”. It suggested that “Instead of denying Filipino children their right to safe education, Duterte should sign the Safe Schools Declaration”.
Leaving aside the irrational licence which the wholly politically motivated HRW took with Duterte’s comments and its bizarre definition of “safe education”, let’s take a little closer look at that Safe Schools Declaration.
This was an inter-governmental political initiative that came out of an international conference in Oslo in May 2015 and has been signed by 68 counties. To date, Malaysia is the only state in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – of which the Philippines is a founding member – that’s signed up to it. Furthermore, of the G20 states, a grouping of the world’s 20 major economies, the United States – HRW’s home country – hasn’t, nor has China, India, Russia, Australia, Germany, Mexico, Turkey, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea or the United Kingdom.
But now, apparently, according to HRW, would be a good time for the Philippines to buck the trends in both Asean and the G20.
Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, has further clarified Duterte’s remarks. “The President notes that certain lumad/indigenous schools are being used to foment rebellion against the government. [He] warns them in the strongest terms to discontinue these actions; persistence will warrant appropriate government action”.
The lumads’ wish is to live in their ancestral lands and be free to enjoy their culture and practice their customs. But for three and a half decades now they’ve been embroiled in conflicts raging across their region involving Moro (Muslim), communist and government forces. Furthermore, over time, this indigenous population has regularly been used as a pawn in a bitter political game of chess – by every group from government to the Marxist-Leninist National Democratic Front to the Roman Catholic Church.
There’s no question that members of these tribes have borne arms for the NPA and continue to fight in their ranks; no question that lumad communities, generally, support the communist insurgents; no question that their schools are protected by the NPA. A 2013 United Nations report – “Grave Violations Committed Against Children in 22 Situations of Concern” – identified and blacklisted the NPA for recruiting child soldiers. The NPA is heavily engaged in the lumad-populated areas on Mindanao making the ethnic groups a ready source of recruitment.
In 2015, Magdalo party-list representative, Ashley Acedillo, claimed that lumads account for as much as 70% of all NPA forces in Mindanao Lumads have also fought alongside the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Moro insurgent groups, despite the fact that they’re non-Muslim.
The main issue here though is the schools – literally hundreds of them. Like the madrassas – the Islamic religious schools of Pakistan – which have been used as jihadi academies, the lumad schools are perceived as breeding grounds for militant communism. In between being radicalised, their young charges are used as look-outs, couriers and camp staff and are given rudimentary training in handling firearms according to former pupils.
Acedillo identified a school in Talaingod, Davao del Norte, as an NPA recruitment centre, where children are instructed on being hostile to the government. He has evidence that pro-government answers to tests were marked as wrong. Children there also sing a “different national anthem”.
Clearly, on many levels this situation is a mess. Like so much of what goes on in the Philippine hinterland, the state or rural education in these areas is reprehensible. Government neglect over many decades is responsible for what effectively has become a breeding ground for rebellion. Of that there’s absolutely no question.
These are poor people to start with; add to that the lure of access to education and parents will seize the opportunity in a New York minute. It matters not that it’s not government approved; it matters not that the NPA are the board of governors of these schools. In the absence of anything else – there are places there where government education has never reached – they’ll take it. After all, they ask, what has the government ever done for them? Their ancestral lands have all but disappeared; they’ve been uprooted, evicted, evacuated and dispersed with every successive chapter of conflict as their culture and customs wear evermore thin.
The plight of the lumads is sad; it’s a stain on the country’s history and it’s high time it was addressed. One problem has been that they’re a long way from Manila – and so out of sight, out of mind; an abiding problem where Mindanao’s been concerned in the past.
But the odd thing is that successive governments, any amount of human-rights and civil liberties groups and, of course, the Roman Catholic Church all claim to be concerned about their plight. The question is though, with so much support how come the lives of the lumad remain so wretched?
We only ever hear about them when they’re caught up in some hellish combat and each side in the conflict blames the other for their misery, or when the Church is opposing the erection of power-generation plants, or logging or mining or anything that threatens its vision of some odd ‘pastoral economy’.
Meanwhile, the NPA will continue to poison the minds of the young and exploit them in their reckless Marxist obsession; their addled romantic quest to turn the Philippines into a new Cuba. It will continue to use the lumad youth to swell its ranks and foment rebellion. And that’s why, unless these schools are made to comply with the requirements of the Department of Education; unless the NPA is removed from these establishments, Duterte will close them down – one way or another.