Lumad bakwit school students wailed and screamed as government workers took them from a retreat facility in the University of San Carlos (USC) Talamban Campus in a supposed “rescue operation” on Feb. 15 that turned up 19 indigenous minors.
The Save Our Schools Network (SOS) uploaded the video on its official Facebook page, calling the operation that occured at around 11:30 am “bogus and fake.”
SOS is a group of child-focused nongovernment organizations, church-based groups and other stakeholders championing children’s rights.
A longer version of the video, also available on the SOS page, showed the students resisting the team that included uniformed policemen from Philippine National Police (PNP) Regional Office 7 (PRO7) – a scene that sparked criticism among various groups and netizens.
While the video shows the “rescue team” filming the operation using various cameras, they can also be seen attempting multiple times to stop the SOS side from taking footage. Later reports noted that authorities confiscated all cellular phones.
In a press conference at Camp Sergio Osmeña Sr. in Cebu City, PRO7 regional director PBGEN. Ronnie Montejo said the police “successfully rescued 19 minors,”13 hailing from Davao del Norte and 6 from different towns in Sultan Kudarat.
PRO7 worked with the Cebu City Social Welfare and Development Office, the Women and Children Protection Center Visayas Field Unit and the Children Protection Desk of the Cebu City Police Office.
Montejo noted that six parents travelled from Talaingod in Davao del Norte, along with staff from the municipal social welfare office and two tribal leaders. They arrived in Cebu City earlier in the morning and sought the local agencies to help them reclaim the children, allegedly “taken by the members of the Salugpungan Ta Tanu Igkanugon without their knowledge and consent” back in 2018.
SOS spokesperson Rius Valle denied the claim. In a pointed retort from the bakwit school in the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, he said that the children “voluntarily headed to Metro Manila and Cebu … to inform you [fellow Filipinos] about our true situation during the Duterte administration.”
Institutions like USC and UP have provided sanctuaries to Lumad students evacuating their ancestral lands due to armed conflict and deciding to continue schooling elsewhere, thus the term “bakwit school.”
“It is untrue that what [PRO7] conducted was a rescue operation because this is not an isolated case and is not new to us Lumad,” Valle told media platform Now You Know. “This supposed rescue operation is not justifiable because the students have their parent’s consent. In fact, they have a notarized parent’s consent that the police sequestered in Cebu. Their parents know exactly where they are. “
SOS, in a statement, noted that members of the notorious Alamara were present during the operation. The paramilitary group has allegedly committed atrocities against IPs in the provinces of Bukidnon and Davao del Norte.
In connection to this, SOS found the motivations of the operation suspect and noted that the parents may have been forced into the spectacle.
Montejo erroneously called Salugpungan “an alternative learning institution run by the communist terrorist group,” continuing on a red-tagging spree by state agencies.
The Department of Education ordered the permanent closure of its 55 schools after their permits to operate were suspended based on an alleged failure to comply with governmental requirements and reports from National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon that they taught “left-leaning ideologies.”
PNP chief PGEN. Debold Sinas, in a statement sent to the media on Monday, said the students were “brought to Cebu City to undergo revolutionary training as future armed combatants.”
“The children … are a victim of indoctrination and recruitment by the communist terrorist group and exploitation by the Salugpungan as they were used during protest rallies against their government. They also asked for donations using the IP minors,” said Montejo.
“The rescue operation is a manifestation that the Reds have been continuously engaged in recruiting minors to be trained as child warriors which is a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law,” added Sinas. At least two possible cases hinge on this claim.
The SOS statement rejected that the event was a “rescue,” saying: “Time and again, police and officials mouth the words ‘rescue’ but this disturbed the peace of Lumad evacuees and students, just as what happened in UCCP Haran in Davao last 2015 and January 2020.”
Adding that the Lumad had been subjected to various forms of intimidation since 2015, Valle emphasized that the alternative learning spaces in UP and USC were “isang paglaban ng mga Lumad na galing pa sa Mindanao” (a resistance by the Lumad coming from Mindanao), hoping to inform the broader public that their “schools are shut down, students are killed, teachers are arrested and face fabricated charges, schools are ransacked and burned down – attacks that have persisted even during the pandemic.”
While the children will reportedly undergo interventions, the police are preparing to charge at least seven adults, including teachers and community elders, with kidnapping, serious illegal detention, human trafficking and violations of the International Humanitarian Law as well as Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict.
Among those who may face litigation is Chad Errol Booc, a volunteer teacher of the Lumad schools and a petitioner against the Anti-Terror Law, currently heard at the Supreme Court.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers-Cebu is set to represent Booc, the Lumad students and teachers. However, the counsels have reportedly encountered difficulties in meeting their clients.
“Additionally, we are also in the process of consolidating all reliable information and evidence that shall be used for other appropriate cases to be filed against the suspects and other persons who are involved in these criminal activities,” said Montejo.
USC is not off the hook yet as a “thorough investigation” by the police will see if they can be charged “for housing the IP minors and the suspected members of the Salugpungan school.”
In a joint statement, the university, the Archdiocese of Cebu and the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) Philippines Southern Province found the operation unnecessary as the students were already set to go home in batches, considering COVID-19 requirements.
At least four were already back prior and another group was set to travel this week. Ironically, the children will likely remain in Cebu while the investigation moves forward.
The SVD had been hosting 42 students, 5 teachers and 3 community leaders or datu, since March 11, 2020. The alternative school wrapped up on April 3, at which point they would travel to Mindanao.
However, the Cebu City government imposed a strict COVID-19 lockdown since March 13. The SVD accommodated at their retreat house the 50 people who were effectively stranded until the restrictions loosened up and the journey home was both possible and safe.
“Here, no rescue need ever be conducted because the presence of the Lumads in the retreat house was for their welfare and well-being, and all throughout, they were nurtured, cared for and treated with their best interest in mind,” the statement noted.
Let them speak
Human rights watchdog Karapatan also criticized the operation as uncalled-for.
“The Lumad students and the rest of those taken from the Lumad school are civilians, and are not in any way armed or dangerous. There is apparent use of violence on the students, and how police elements have carried out this so-called ‘rescue’ should be looked into,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay. “We are deeply concerned about the condition of the Lumad students, especially those who have become victims time and again by State forces.”
Human rights defenders, activists from various sectors and netizens also expressed concern about the incident. Some have asked if the seven adults caught during the operation were read their Miranda Rights. Many others are calling for the unconditional release of all 25 individuals.
“Let the Lumad, the children and their teachers speak in front of the media,” appealed Valle. “Do not frighten or harass them and their parents. Let them speak and we will prove to the Philippines that these children know their rights, they can think for themselves and were not used. They are here because they know they have a right to join any struggle, any protest to insist on their rights.”
“To all who saw the video, you decide if that was a rescue operation – taking, handcuffing, strangling the students in Cebu – because, for us Lumad, due to what has happened since 2015, we are victims of military harassment, abuses and various forms of intimidation, not only in our communities but also in our sanctuaries.”