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Philippines: Militarization and Lumad cultural rights

3 min read

At 4.00 am on 1 September 2015, a troop of armed men stormed an alternative school for indigenous Lumads in the southern Philippines. Teachers and students were dragged from their dormitories and rounded up, together with hundreds of other civilians, in the small village of Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur. Two indigenous leaders – known for their work protecting the community’s ancestral lands against encroachments from mining companies–were hauled in front of the crowd and executed at point-blank range. The head of the alternative school, Emerito Samarca, was later found in one of his classrooms, with his throat cut and two  gunshot wounds in his abdomen.

According to local activists, there were 95 attacks on Lumad schools in the southern Philippines between September 2014 and 2015, an average of eight cases per month. In February 2016, a compound hosting displaced children in Davao City was torched by unknown assailants, destroying two dormitories and a shelter for evacuees. ‘Lumad schools continue to draw the ire of the regime’, noted the Alliance for the Advancement of Peoples Rights (Karapatan). ‘The attacks range from red tagging, actual military encampment, threat and harassment of the teachers, students and parents, closing down and burning of school houses.’

The Lianga shool, Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), was founded in 2004 as a unique facility to support secondary education for indigenous youths relevant to their culture and needs. It offers a combination of academic, technical and vocational skills, focusing on providing sustainable livelihoods for Lumad communities. Formed by two indigenous organizations, the school aims to boost educational opportunities for marginalized Lumads and help protect their cultural and land rights in the face of growing threats. It is one of a network of culturally sensitive schools offering alternative pedagogy for Lumad children recognized by the Filipino education ministry. Indigenous peoples in Mindanao, which has been racked by ethnic conflict and a communist insurgency for decades, have some of the lowest educational levels in the Philippines. Part of the problem is the entrenched discrimination towards indigenous youths within the centrally managed school system, which often treats them as outsiders and second-class citizens. The time and cost of travelling long distances to reach public schools also place insurmountable burdens on many Lumad families. Furthermore, Lumads –a cluster of 18 indigenous communities in Mindanao –are often caught in the crossfire of a protracted civil conflict in the southern Philippines, and regularly accused of harbouring communist sympathies. Alternative education has become the target of particular scrutiny and distrust, with the military accusing indigenous schools of promoting communist propaganda. State officials have drawn outrage for recommending the introduction of new schools run by the military.

The Save Our Schools Network has accused the army and pro-government militias of staging premeditated attacks on alternative education institutes in order to marginalize indigenous land and cultural rights. Samarca, who was slain at Lianga, was also a vocal campaigner against large-scale development projects that fuel violence and displacement in the southern Philippines. Mae Fe Templa, Convenor of Save Our Schools Network, stated, ‘Alternative Lumad schools are pushing for their own culturally relevant pedagogy that liberates indigenous peoples from the yoke of institutionalized discrimination and corporate plunder of ancestral lands.’ The government has denied any involvement in Samarca’s murder, claiming the attackers merely dressed up in army fatigues that matched the insignia of the nearest battalion.

In October, the University of Philippines hosted a major cultural event in Manila, the Manilakbayan 2015, to commemorate Lumads and raise awareness of the escalating assault on indigenous rights in the country’s restive south. It included a mix of political and educational activities, as well as a celebration of Lumad culture, arts, food and sports. This year’s event was strategically focused on the destruction and militarization of indigenous schools in Mindanao.

Indigenous activists in the southern Philippines insist that the right to a free and culturally tailored education is fundamental to defending indigenous heritage and rights, which are often intimately tied to the protection of ancestral lands and resources. The government’s failure to investigate crimes against Lumad schools has left the communities more vulnerable to further attacks and encroachments.

By Hanna Hindstrom

Originally published in State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016.

Photo: Lumad woman in The Philippines. Credit: Andy Enero.