In Mindanao where Martial Law has been imposed, tensions remain high as the military battles radical terrorists. With the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, suspected insurgents and communist rebels are being hunted down and killed. Among these people who are alleged to be rebelling against the government are a group of indigenous people of the southern Philippines, the Lumads. In fact, being associated with a Lumad school is a sure-fire way of being tagged as an insurgent and summarily killed. Lumad students, whose only desire is to learn, live in fear. That very desire to study that they may have a good future, has now threatened their survival.

It’s 2 in the morning and a bomber plane patrols overhead. Below, a dog barks once, twice, thrice. Inside the school dormitory, children cower behind blankets and shed tears. These tears are brought about by fear, fear that they will be found out and killed. By 5 AM, the teachers and students have packed their meager belongings and are ready to make the arduous journey towards the nearest evacuation center. Despite the rain, they continue to trek on foot. They do not stop for food or rest, anxious that the military, guns ablaze, will catch up with them, shooting them right where they stand.

It will take two weeks to reach their destination. Before they arrive at the relative safety of the evacuation center, they have to pass through countless military checkpoints strewn throughout the area. They pack light- with little to no food or supplies for fear of being questioned and detained.

Some checkpoints are more perilous than most- they have pictures of the schoolchildren printed on them. The military absurdly claims that the faces plastered throughout the checkpoint are pictures of communist rebels, never mind those pictures are of children, fifteen-year-olds whose only crime was to seek an education.

Prisoners of their own land

“Lumad” (meaning, “born to earth”) pertains to the non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Mindanao comprised of the B’laan, Mandaya, Manobo, Subanon, and T’boli tribes. They reside in the mountains and agricultural lands of Zamboanga, Northern Mindanao, Davao, SOCKSARGEN and Caraga.

These people have historically been persecuted and exploited. They only seek to till the land that their ancestors have cultivated before them, yet they have to defend their ancestral lands from corporate plunder (usually from mining companies) and militarization. Faced with an enemy that has far more resources and military might than them, many are forced to flee. However, they have not seized their call for their right to self-determination and for their ancestral lands.

In order to educate their youth, particularly about their rights, cultures, and traditions, Lumad schools were built. However, on the 24th of July 2017, President Duterte threatened to use the full force of the military and ordered to bomb Lumad schools. He claimed that these schools teach their students to be subversive and communist rebels. Following this were the arrests and torture of Lumad activists, teachers, and students.

According to the Save Our Schools (SOS) Network, more than 80 Lumad schools have been closed because of military violations and the Department of Education’s (DepEd) suspension of permits. Notable among these closures are the 55 Lumad schools operated by Salugpongan Ta’ TanuIgkanogon Community Learning Center Inc. They were accused by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. of “deviating from DepEd guidelines and spreading supposed anti-government propaganda.” Soldiers have furthermore systematically destroyed and vandalized property, intimidated and interrogated volunteer teachers, and took pictures and listed the names of the students.  With this, many students and teachers have evacuated to Manila and set up Bakwit schools, which literally translates to ‘evacuate’ schools.

Allies for security and education

Lumad students are not alone in their battle against discrimination and exploitation. Fighting with them are volunteer-teachers who share their knowledge and resources. They believe that the Lumads, like everyone else, deserve freedom and education.

Most of these bakwitteachers also graduated from Lumad schools. One of the volunteer-teachers interviewed was a Lumad who graduated with a degree in secondary education. She left her home in Davao to go with the Lumad students to Manila, despite her mother’s disagreement. Her decision to volunteer is not only because of utang naloobor just a way of giving back; but because no one would teach these students except for individuals who understand their plight. With a teary eye, she shared her motivations- a former student, she connects with her students through their desire to learn. Until now, she is haunted with questions of why these students are being deprived of their rights.

The government has never been open to the idea of Lumads having a school of their own, suggesting instead that they should be relocated on mainstream public schools. However, the volunteer-teacher who was interviewed notes that these students, who live in distant communities, have at times, to cross several hills and valleys in order to reach these public schools. Aside from this, many are unable to afford to bring money for school supplies and for baon, or the money to buy food for lunch and snacks at school. Bakwit learning centers, supported by civil society organizations, made it possible for them to access free education. As Lumad schools allow for students to be housed in dormitories, their food and supplies has been well taken-cared of.

Furthermore, the academic curriculum of Lumad schools is similar to what the DepEd requires, the difference lies in how they are taught. Unlike in public schools, bakwitteachers make sure that no student is left behind in understanding the lessons. The foundations of their curriculum are Makamasa(inclusive), Makabayan(patriotic), and Siyentipiko(scientific). Volunteers furthermore educate the Lumads about their rights – as citizens of the country and as protectors of their ancestral domains. Aside from being culture-sensitive, the lessons taught to Lumads are more progressive and awakening compared to the majority.

They teach peace through the cultivation and protection of their ancestral domains. It is important for the Lumads to foster peace not only among themselves but also with their natural resources. Their lands reflect peace – which is now being disturbed by the military and exploited by private corporations. Therefore, it is important for the Lumads to educate themselves in order to capacitate themselves in promoting peace and in protecting their heritage.

Not all volunteer-teachers are Lumads. The establishment of a Bakwitschool in the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman in Quezon City, opened the door for professor and student volunteers. One of them is a scholar-activist of UP who started to volunteer on 2017. She was inspired by the plight of Lumads during the Manilakbayan protest during 2016. At first, she struggled with cultural and language barriers, which she identified as the main challenges for any non-Mindanaon volunteer. She eventually adjusted and became a strong advocate for Lumads. She vividly narrated how the Lumads are being threatened by the military, and how she herself experienced this firsthand.

As many children have left home without their families in order to continue their education, Bakwit teachers not only serve as educators, they also are guardians and advocates who continuously support these children towards their aspirations. Further, many students have seen systematic violence and hatred aimed at their communities. Some may understandably find difficulty in speaking of their traumas, therefore, volunteer-teachers also serve as their listening ears if and when they choose to share their experiences. Beyond oppression, these volunteers became the allies of Lumads who fight with them and amplify their voices.

Fight for peace and freedom

Lumad education hones its students to become defenders of their heritage, but ironically it has made them prisoners of their own land. Despite the worsening condition of Lumads under Martial Law in Mindanao, they continue to fight for peace and freedom. Because of the media blackout in the region, Bakwitschools and CSOs (like the SOS Network) have made conscious efforts in spreading the situation of Lumads in Mindanao.

At present, the Bakwit students in Diliman are set to go home to Mindanao in April, the end of the school year. If Martial Law will be lifted before the year ends, then the Lumads will have no reason to return to Manila. Instead, they will go back to their communities, hopeful that they may live peacefully at last. However, their future is still uncertain, especially that some of their communities are currently undergoing transition with the new Bangsamoro government.

SOS Bakwit teachers have acknowledged the struggles of Muslims for self-determination as separate from the Lumads’ autonomy. However, if the Bangsamoro region is designed properly to incorporate and protect the Lumad’s rights already guaranteed by national laws, then there is potential for a mutual coexistence of the two minorities.