‘We are defending a sanctuary of learning and of life’

“We will defend the University of the Philippines, our sanctuary, as much as it has defended us,” Lalah, a Grade 12 Lumad student, vowed to a crowd of protesters during a mobilisation at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman.

Members of the UP community assembled on 19 January at the steps of the historic Quezon Hall to condemn the unilateral abrogation of the 1989 University of the Philippines-Department of National Defense (UP-DND) Accord, the morning after Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the questionable decision.

The accord lays down the guidelines on military and police entry to all UP campuses. This limits the power of state authorities to interfere with university operations, effectively protecting the freedom of faculty to determine what to teach and how it should be taught, and the freedom of students to think critically without danger. The accord, in other words, asserts UP as a sanctuary of learning.

For Lalah and her schoolmates, UP is also a sanctuary of life. Almost a hundred indigenous children, teachers and Lumad elders are currently taking refuge at UP Diliman through the Bakwit School – ‘bakwit’ meaning evacuate in popular parlance.

The makeshift school offers a home for victims of militarisation in the Mindanao region as they work towards the reopening of indigenous schools forcibly shut down by the government following allegations of being rebel institutions in the countryside.

The autonym ‘Lumad’ itself, which means ‘born of the earth’ in the Cebuano language, emerged from the people’s struggle. Eighteen indigenous groups who neither belong to the Bangsa Moro nor the lowland Christian communities of Mindanao identify with the term. These include the Ata, Bagobo, Blaan, Bukidnon o Talaandig, Mandaya, Manobo, Banuaon, Mamanwa, Mangguangan, Mansaka, Subanën, Tagakaolo, Tïboli, Tëduray, Higaonon and Ubo.

It was on 26 June 1986 that delegates of the First Congress of what would later become the Lumad Mindanao General Assembly united behind the collective identity ‘Lumad’ with a vow to defend their lands from the neoliberal economic regime of the Marcos dictatorship.

Militarisation of Lumad lands

Decades later, the Lumad people remain steadfast in their campaign for the full and protected governance of the lands passed to them by their ancestors.

The Lumad school is one of their points of unity, a centre of community defence. Before, only one out of 10 Lumad children knew how to read, write and count. While these communities could have sustained themselves even without such skills, government agencies and corporate entities took advantage of illiteracy to sneak in misleading contracts that tricked elders into selling parcels of their land.

Taking development into their own hands, many Lumad communities established alternative schools with volunteers and allied groups to secure the future of the next generations.

These schools empower Lumad children to protect their lands and lives, frustrating the attempts of the state to control indigenous communities. And thus they became targets of repression.

Lumad school campuses, which numbered up to 215, have been tagged as institutions run by communists. Students, teachers and even parents were maliciously labelled supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, which the state calls enemies of peace and order.

These haphazard and baseless accusations have resulted in the closure of most of the Lumad school campuses and have been the excuse used for the militarisation, harassment and other state-led acts of violence that are rife in the Lumad ancestral domain.

To condemn these attacks and struggle for a life with dignity, Lumad communities, along with advocates and allied organisations, have been mounting the Lakbayan (‘people’s sojourn’) of national minorities for self-determination since 2015. The protest caravan to Metro Manila was attended by over 2,500 members of various Lumad communities. Since then, UP has become the site of the caravan.

The makeshift Bakwit School was also established in UP Diliman, bearing the campaign ‘og eskwela a puron,’ or ‘to school I wish’ in the Manobo language. As their communities continue to be plagued by soldiers in the countryside, Lumad students persevere in their studies, their highest expression of protest against their marginalisation in Philippine society.

In a similar vein, the accord that protects UP as a sanctuary is borne out of protest.

The political backdrop to the accord

The Filipino people’s struggle against former president Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship in the 1980s gave birth to the UP-DND Accord. Signed on 30 June 1989 by then-UP president Jose Abueva and then-defence secretary Fidel V Ramos, the agreement recognises the militancy of the UP community in participating in the First Quarter Storm of 1970 and later mounting the Diliman Commune in 1971.

In response to the worsening socio-economic crises in the 1960s, a series of demonstrations, protests and marches filled the streets. It was in this atmosphere that various student-led organisations erected the barricades in the Diliman campus of UP, a show of solidarity to public transport drivers who were on strike against oil price hikes.

The peaceful barricades triggered a deeper militancy when a professor opened fire to disperse students, leaving one dead.

Enraged students walked out and marched to the barricades, declaring UP a “liberated zone” against state fascism. Marcos’ Metropolitan Command and the Philippine Constabulary tried to forcefully disperse the series of protests only to be expelled from campus grounds by improvised pillboxes and Molotov cocktails. “Raise high the barricades!” the protesters proclaimed in fury.

What would later be known as the Diliman Commune transformed UP into a battleground between civil society and fascistic authority. It became a sanctuary for activists and human rights defenders as the government waged anti-communist witch hunts (not unlike the Red Scare) for those who dared to speak against the regime.

The barricades of the Commune were eventually torn down. However, its symbolic importance affected an entire generation of youth who continued resisting the Marcos dictatorship. UP continued to be a bastion of resistance in the name of democracy, offering refuge to those marginalised and silenced by the state.

In 1982, the Soto-Enrile Accord was signed between the League of Filipino Students and the DND. A pact between student leader Sonia Soto and then-defence minister Juan Ponce Enrile, the accord sought to protect students and faculty from police and military operations that intend to suppress dissent.

As civil unrest continued, the UP community assured the people that their campuses had remained liberated zones – and legally, at that point. A few years after the downfall of Marcos, the UP-DND Accord strengthened this in the name of academic freedom and, decades later for the Lumad bakwit, the freedom to live.

Under the accord’s provisions, no military or external police officer could enter the premises of UP campuses without prior consent from the school administration, except in cases of hot pursuit and emergency. Moreover, no state authority could interfere with protest actions being conducted on campus.

An attack on academic freedom

The accord serves as an additional (legal) safeguard for the bakwit, dispelling threats of violence as they protest the encroachment of their yutang kabilin or ancestral land. To terminate the agreement is to expose the Lumad refugees to further military and police harassment. It is a blatant attack not only on academic freedom but also on the decades-long campaign of the Lumad people for their right to land.

Despite the danger that the recent abrogation threatens, Lumad bakwit students have continued to persevere in their online classes during this pandemic. They persevere because they do not want future generations to have to flee from their lands again.

“We don’t want to happen here what happened to us in our communities,” continued Lalah during the protest. At the end of her message, Lumad students and teachers raised their fists in solidarity with the university’s fight for their sanctuary of learning. Likewise, the UP community raised theirs in solidarity with the Lumad’s struggle for life.

Jose Monfred C Sy teaches at the University of the Philippines and is a member of the Save Our Schools Network, an alliance of child rights advocates, organisations and various stakeholders working together to bring awareness and take action on the ongoing violation of children’s right to education, particularly those targeted by militarisation.

For more information about international efforts to establish a norm by which military forces and armed groups agree to implement guidelines to protect schools from military use and from attack, see the work of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.