Alvin’s dream is simple. He wants to finish his education and become a teacher in his upland village in the town of Kapalong, Davao del Norte province.
The boy’s village can only be reached after two days of hiking. It is a place where the only chance of getting an education is through a school set up by an NGO for indigenous peoples in the area.
This year, however, the 17-year old boy’s dream of going to school might remain just that.
His education is at risk as a result of harassment, intimidation and threats against schools by the military and government officials, who mistakenly think they are recruitment centers for communist rebels, according to tribal leaders, and NGO’s working in the area.
Last week, Alvin, along with 50 other tribal children, was forced from the village of Gupitan as soldiers and members of an armed militia took over their community.
The evacuation happened days before the start of another school year this week.
In another upland village in Talaingod town, nobody has yet enrolled in the tribal school. The villagers are afraid because soldiers reportedly threatened to burn it down.
Soldiers occupied the school located in Tibukag village, tribal leader Datu Ginom Andel told ucanews.com. He said soldiers even dug foxholes on school grounds.
The military, when asked about this, dismissed the claim as “rebel propaganda”.
“There is a standing order for soldiers to leave civilian communities and to stay away from schools,” said General Eduardo Ano, commander of the army’s 10th Infantry Division.
Alberto Escobarte, regional director of the Education Department in Davao region, said he will investigate the claim, but added that his office had received information that tribal schools were “operating without proper permits”.
Lindy Trinilla, regional coordinator of Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc, said the allegation is untrue.
“The renewal of permits are ongoing,” she said.
Trinilla’s organization is supporting tribal schools in several hinterland villages in the area.
“It appears now that [government authorities] are using the renewal of permits as a tool to make things more difficult for schools to fulfill their mission to help children,” said Trinilla.
On Wednesday, the government announced it would be closing the schools.
“The tribal schools must undergo inspection and re-evaluation in terms of performance in providing efficient, quality and relevant education services consistent with national educational policies, plans, and standards,” said Dr Josephine Fadul, head of the Davao del Norte Schools Division.
The official said new schools will be built in hinterland communities “utilizing military personnel as para-teachers”.
“This is unbelievable,” said Ricky Balilid, a teacher in the village of Gupitan. “This is a state-sponsored violation of human rights,” he told ucanews.com.
“Our schools are the only ones that have responded to the needs of children who have been deprived of education for many years,” Balilid added.
Fadul, however, said her office received a petition from community leaders to stop the operations of tribal schools because communist rebels were using them.
Balilid denied the allegation, saying the government had approved the school curriculums.
“I could not understand why they suspect us of being fronts of the communists when we are only trying to help educate children,” Balilid said.
The children, however, are left without a choice. Last week, Alvin and 125 pupils from five hinterland villages attended a “moving-up ceremony” conducted in Davao City, several kilometers away from home.
“This was the best and the safest place for us to conduct this,” said one teacher.
The Save Our Schools (SOS) Network, an organization that calls for the protection of tribal schools, say “attacks” by the military on non-government institutions in hinterland areas resulted in a sudden “abnormal spike” in the number of school drop-outs.
The 125 pupils who “moved up” to the next grade last week were among 357 children who were supposed to attend the ceremony.
“The drop-outs and harassment have forced us to close some of our schools,” SOS Network spokesperson Rius Valle says.
The military has been “targeting and victimizing not the insurgents, but civilians especially tribes and their children,” Valle said.
Representative Antonio Tinio of the Teachers Party told ucanews.com that this kind of “harassment and red-tagging” has forced at least a third of enrollees to drop out, with even more children expected to stop attending schools when they re-open next week.
“All units and [education] officials should know that military presence in schools endangers children, deprives them of the right to education, and violates international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” said Tinio.
Last week, the SOS Network filed a complaint with the Department of Education against the military for “attacks on schools” in Davao del Norte.
The group accused the military of violating “The Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act” which states: “Public infrastructure such as schools … shall not be utilized for military purpose such as command posts, barracks, detachments, and supply depots.”
Captain Alberto Caber, spokesman of the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command, said his unit knows nothing about the allegations.
The SOS Network documented 13 “incidents of attacks on schools in the form of military encampment, threat, harassment and intimidation”.
In the southern Mindanao region alone, the non-government Children’s Rehabilitation Center has documented at least 41 instances of “attacks” on schools and tribal community learning centers since 2011. | Jefry M. Tupas for Ucanews