PHILIPPINES — Dozens of indigenous youth from the Mindanao region have been staying as refugees in Metro Manila’s University of the Philippines (UP) since October 2018. Driven out by militarization in their communities, the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, collectively known as the Lumad, have managed to open up a Bakwit (evacuee) school inside UP. It launched formally on September 2.
Since 2003, activists and educators established a growing number of Lumad schools based in their communities and practicing alternative methods of education. While they have since been recognized by the Department of Education or DepEd, 55 of the schools were suspended from operating last July on orders from National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon. The former military chief claimed the facilities were communist fronts and using children in rallies by instructing them “with ideologies that advocate against the government.”
Lumad students and their families have also been forced to flee their ancestral lands due to intensifying military abuses, particularly after President Rodrigo Duterte declared Martial Law in Mindanao in May 2017. A national network of child rights advocates, Save Our Schools or SOS, tallied that there have been 43 cases of soldiers using schools as encampments since the start of the Duterte administration as of July 2019, 35 of which happened after the imposition of Martial Law.
Furthermore, they noted 273 cases of harassment and intimidation by state forces, only 37 of which happened pre-Martial Law. Both students and school staff alike have also faced deadlier repercussions, with 13 victims of extrajudicial killings among the community.
When the exodus of the Lumad from their communities became a matter of national concern, the country’s national university stepped up to adopt some of the families displaced due to the conflict. Now, with the help of refugee teachers, UP’s faculty and a host of student volunteers, a Lumad school has re-opened inside the campus with a revamped curriculum holding class despite a closure order.
The School Must Go On
UP’s College of Arts and Letters hosts classes for 65 regular students and provides housing for five displaced teachers. UP Chancellor Mike Tan has been an ever present figure in the development of the education program, says SOS UP Diliman campus spokesperson and communications professor Rex Nepomuceno.
Nepomuceno explains that more than the support from the UP community, the establishment of the Bakwit school is both an act of duty as educators and one of defiance against the crackdown of the state on Lumad students. The professor called DepEd a “mouthpiece” of the government’s militaristic disposition.
Grade 10 student Edwin Oribawan Jr. said he and his schoolmates “will do everything they can to continue schooling, even if the DepEd attempts to shut down their operation.”
“UP has become a place of hope,” he said. “But we need solidarity and unity from all to defend our right to education.”
Oribawan hails from the town of Talaingod in Davao Del Norte and came to UP at the start of September. He shared that in July “soldiers came to his school telling him and his classmates and teachers to leave because the DepEd is shutting us down. We left our community which became more dangerous because of [the] military presence.” Their school was later turned into a military outpost.
He and others then fled to Davao City, setting up an informal evacuation center to continue classes. However, they were then visited by soldiers ordering them to halt to their classes. Oribawan’s family is still in Davao and having a hard time coping with their settlement inside the city, one which they had to rebuild after the evacuation center was razed by suspected paramilitary groups early this year.
Nepocumeno does not exaggerate when he disclosed that the students themselves, even at a young age, are well aware of why their communities are being attacked and why their education is so important.
“The government is afraid that if we become educated and more aware, we will oppose their entry into our ancestral lands. They want access for mining and plunder,” said Oribawan.
There are currently three proposals for mining exploration in Talaingod for domestic and foreign corporations. Last November, during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte signed an agreement that would allow Chinese companies to invest in mining operations in Davao Del Norte, which could adversely affect 31,180 hectares of the heavily forested Pantaron Mountain Range. The expanse is one of the few remaining intact rainforests in Mindanao.
Remilo Tikloy, also grade 10, adds: “If Martial Law is lifted and soldiers leave our communities, we will gladly come back. But the president doesn’t like progressives.”
Pedagogy of the Displaced
Around 10 professors from UP have become regular teachers since the Bakwit school’s opening, alongside five other volunteer teachers who came with the students.
Nepomuceno says that professors from the college of science and college of education have been very helpful in crafting a curriculum for the Bakwit students. “Our curriculum is subject-based at the moment though it is continuously being developed. It consists of science, math, English, Filipino, values, physical education and music and one made particularly for them, agriculture.”
While there aren’t any vast fields for them to practice their agricultural knowledge inside the UP campus, it remains an extremely relevant topic—one that has been integral to their study since the establishment of Lumad schools.
The educator clarified that “the point of this school is not to found a new one inside UP, but to continue their studies while struggling for their rights to be able to return home safely. Much of their learning, like agricultural development, is a link between their lives and the ancestral land of which their identities and survival have been tied to.”
“The appreciation for agricultural topics has increased,” notes China De Vera, senior high school coordinator of one of the few Lumad schools in Mindanao that have yet to be ordered suspended. “They have a better understanding of what being evacuated to Manila entails, part of their holistic studies is sacrificed. Now it’s mostly concepts of sustainable agriculture.”
Acknowledging the fact that UP is also home to a variety of political beliefs and inclinations, Nepomuceno notes that most if not all the colleges have been welcoming to the presence of Lumad children. Facing similar struggles, the refugees from Mindanao have also joined hands with marching students denouncing Martial Law and other policies of the Duterte regime they have labelled as tyrannical.
“The continued operations of Lumad schools, with or without suspension orders is a display of resistance. It evokes self-reliance from our indigenous countrymen despite virtually no support from the state,” says De Vera.
Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.