International Rights Groups Criticize Philippine Police Raid on Indigenous School

Nonoy Espina and Froilan Gallardo
Bacolod and Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
2021-02-18
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International Rights Groups Criticize Philippine Police Raid on Indigenous School Workers with the Department of Social Welfare and Development gesture to indigenous children during a raid by police at a school on the premises of the University of San Carlos campus in Cebu City, central Philippines, Feb. 15, 2021.
BenarNews

Human rights groups have criticized a Philippine police raid on a school for displaced indigenous children in Cebu and the filing of criminal charges against seven people for allegedly training students as communist combatants, saying authorities must stop harassing tribespeople.

National police said the seven arrested during the operation earlier this week in the province in the central Philippines were training 21 students – 19 of them minors – to become guerrillas for the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

On Wednesday, police filed criminal charges of kidnapping, serious illegal detention and human trafficking against two teachers, three adult students and two tribal elders, local media reports said about those arrested from the school located on the campus of the church-run University of San Carlos in Cebu City.

“The raid on USC to supposedly ‘rescue’ Lumad children and arrest students and teachers is deeply alarming,” Emerlynne Gil, a deputy research director at Amnesty International, said in a statement late on Wednesday, using the local term for tribal groups.

“The University of San Carlos and Cebu City’s social welfare services who have been talking to the Lumad children have already dismissed police claims that the children were being held captive and trained as ‘future armed combatants.’”

Gil said the police should drop the charges against the seven people and release them.

“We call on the authorities to drop the charges against the [seven] individuals arrested and order their immediate release, unless there is credible evidence of any wrongdoing on their part,” Gil said.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said the police raid was part of a string of “violent incidents” in recent years targeting indigenous communities and their schools.

“Philippine authorities should stop harassing indigenous peoples with baseless allegations. They should release those wrongfully arrested in the raid and ensure the children are reunited with their families,” Carlos Conde, HRW’s Philippine researcher, said in a statement late on Wednesday.

‘Future armed combatants’

The children in the school raided by police were from the Manobo tribe, Philippine National Police chief Gen. Debold Sinas told reporters after the operation on Monday.

They had been “recruited” by community organizers in Davao del Norte province in Mindanao and brought to Cebu City “to undergo revolutionary training” as “future armed combatants” of the NPA, Sinas said.

The New People’s Army has been waging a 52-year insurgency against the state – Asia’s longest-running armed rebellion.

The raid was planned after six parents – accompanied by social workers from their hometown of Talaingod in Davao del Norte – sought police help to recover their children whom they said they had not seen for two years, said Brig. Gen. Ronnie Montejo, head of the police regional office in Cebu.

HRW’s Conde said that ever since Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in 2016, the military has alleged that tribal schools have links with the NPA.

“The military has repeatedly claimed tribal schools serve as New People’s Army training camps, prompting the Department of Education to shut many down,” Conde said.

“The Save Our Schools Network says as many as 178 tribal schools around the country have been closed since 2016, forcing affected children to seek education in cities like Manila and Cebu.”

Tribal communities have for years been caught in the middle of clashes between the military and armed groups, Amnesty’s Gil said.

In 2017, Duterte threatened to bomb these schools, accusing them of having been infiltrated by communist guerrillas who indoctrinate students into their rebellion.

BenarNews contacted military officials about the rights groups’ statements but they declined to comment.

Children ‘said nothing about being indoctrinated’                

Meanwhile, a social worker in Cebu province, who was present during Monday’s raid, denied police claims that communists had recruited the school’s children and were training them to fight.

The minors never mentioned they were “training to be child warriors,” said Annie Suico of the Cebu City Department of Social Welfare Services.

“We interviewed all of the children. They said nothing about being indoctrinated. All their guardians taught them were reading and writing,” Suico told the Philippine Star newspaper.

Videos of the police operation taken by local media showed young children scared and crying as officers roughed up and then cuffed two men, who were later identified as adult students.

The Cebu-based Children’s Legal Bureau, which is helping represent those arrested by the police, said “there was a serious breach of protocol as children were subjected to a horrendous and traumatic experience of being taken from a situation of safety to uncertainty.”

The group said that police could have acted with “greater prudence,” by coordinating with church authorities who run the university where the school was located.

“If the claims of authorities were true that the parents of the students sought assistance from the police, their reunion would have been arranged more humanely and peacefully without subjecting the children to unnecessary anguish and trauma,” the child welfare group said.

“The children did nothing wrong. Seeking refuge to finish school is not a crime,” the group added. “The authorities failed to have the best interest of these children in mind, or they would have sought a child-friendly way to take custody of the children.”

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