Rights Watchdog Castigates Philippine Leader for Threat to Bomb Schools

Felipe Villamor
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170726-PH-NPA-1000 Guerrillas with the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, stand in formation during a turnover ceremony of captured government troops to officials and peace advocates, in Matanao town, Davao del Sur province, April 19, 2017.

Updated at 7:46 a.m. ET on 2017-07-24

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday accused President Rodrigo Duterte of inciting the armed forces to bomb two schools in the southern Philippines that, he claimed, were being used by communist rebels as fronts for spreading their ideology.

Duterte made the controversial remarks shortly after giving his state of the union speech to Congress on Monday, during which he said he would no longer engage the underground Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in peace talks. Last week, the party’s armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), wounded five of his bodyguards in an ambush in the south.

Duterte threatened to launch airstrikes on schools for indigenous children in the southern island of Mindanao, saying these were being used by the guerrillas to expand their dwindling ranks.

But Carlos Conde, a Philippines researcher for New York-based HRW, said Duterte’s order was practically tantamount to directing the military to commit “war crimes.”

“International humanitarian law – the laws of war – prohibits attacks on schools and other civilian structures unless they are being used for military purposes,” Conde said.

“Deliberately attacking civilians, including students and teachers, is also a war crime,” Conde said.

‘I will bomb those schools’

About 40,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed since the 1960s, when the NPA rebels began waging a guerrilla campaign mostly in the countryside. Military officials estimate the rebel strength at 3,200.

Duterte said the schools, attended by children from non-Muslim indigenous tribes that are collectively called Lumads, should be vacated, because, he alleged, these were operating without permits from the Department of Education and were being used to promote subversive teachings.

“I am telling the Lumads now, get out of there. I will bomb those schools. I will include your structures,” Duterte said, according to official transcripts released by the presidential palace Tuesday.

Duterte said he would order the military to carry out the bombings, according to the transcript. The president did not specify a time frame for the offensives.

Following Duterte’s warning, the police officially asked education officials to launch an investigation into the operations of the Center for Lumads and Advocates Schools and the Mindanao Interfaith Services Inc. – two schools suspected of being communist fronts.

Police said about 400 primary school students belonging to the Mandaya indigenous tribe were enrolled in both schools, which offer alternative learning programs.

The schools are on Mindanao island but far from the southern city of Marawi, where government warplanes have been dropping bombs in order to dislodge Islamic State-Inspired militants, who seized the city on May 23.

End to talks

Duterte’s threat came after he declared an end to peace talks with the communist guerrillas.

Conde said indigenous-run “peoples’ schools” had long been in the crosshairs of the armed forces, which claim they are being used as training grounds for new rebel fighters.

“Government security forces in Mindanao have largely escaped accountability for such abuses," he said. “Duterte should publicly retract his threat of violence against tribal schools before the military acts on them.”

He noted that the military had often ignored the Department of Education’s directives banning the military from using schools as temporary bases.

Duterte, a self-proclaimed leftist who was once a student of Communist Party founder Jose Maria Sison, immediately launched fresh peace talks upon assuming office last year.

However, he later suspended the negotiations after the guerrillas continued with their attacks, despite his order to release dozens of jailed guerrillas as part of confidence-building measures.

Last weekend, the government reacted to the ambush of Duterte’s bodyguards in the south by scrapping the back-channel talks.

On Monday, Duterte said he would strengthen the armed forces, with plans to purchase new equipment ahead of the offensive against the rebels.

“So no more talks. So from now on, do not question me about the reds,” Duterte said. “This is not a joke.”

Joseph Jubelag and Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this story.

Updated to clarify that Lumads is a collective term for indigenous tribes in the southern Philippines.


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