"We told the children not to enter the building because the soldiers had weapons everywhere,” an official explained as he pointed to the corner of a government office where the soldiers had stacked guns. The troops had arrived in Gueday, a small village in the Cordillera Autonomous Region in northern Luzon, Philippines, in April 2010, just before the national elections.
As we sat in the village’s municipal hall, local officials described the military’s four-month stay, gesturing around the building the soldiers had transformed into a barracks. The officials squabbled over the size of the detachment (eventual consensus was approximately 15) and recalled how the troops gave out goods (canned food mostly). They pointed us to the basketball hoop the detachment built and the yard where soldiers would conduct morning exercises with the children.
But after the second cup of coffee, they revealed that the municipal hall was actually the second structure the detachment had used as a camp. For the first three months of their stay, the soldiers had occupied the smaller of the two buildings that make up the local elementary school.
The Philippine government is engaged in a long-running armed conflict with the insurgent New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. While the NPA maintains a presence in the mountains of northern Luzon, there has only been limited military action in the Cordillera region since the 1990s. Despite the low levels of conflict, the military continues to place troops and guns in local communities. And in some cases these troops and their guns establish a home on school grounds.
During our eight-day investigation in November, Human Rights Watch documented five cases in which the military had used parts of functioning schools in the area as encampments for military detachments since 2009. School administrators, principals, and teachers described the troubling dynamics of running a school on top of, adjacent to, and occasionally within, de facto military barracks.
The first thing we saw as we approached Sadanga High School was the military sentry overlooking the access road. The lone entrance to the school opens up to a large courtyard, surrounded by individual classrooms. A school official told us that at one point the army had placed an armed guard at the entrance, but on the day we visited the soldiers were confined to a patch of land across the yard.
Local officials assured us the land the soldiers used was actually private, adjacent to the government-owned school grounds. While a portion of the camp was built behind the school on land that could, conceivably, be independently owned, we observed that at least part of the detachment—two soldiers, their sleeping quarters, and a 3x3 camouflaged military truck—sat well within school property.
The camp sits directly across the courtyard from the school’s one entrance. In order to leave the base, the soldiers - even those encamped on the ostensibly private land – must cross the school grounds. If a firefight were to occur, students and staff could well be caught in the middle.
At Sadanga, soldiers explained that they were on a “civilian-military operation.” Their mission is not combat related, they said, but rather focused on community development. The local mayor consented to their occupation, though in the Philippines sometimes local officials find it difficult to refuse the military’s requests.
The Philippines military has had a tenuous relationship with the indigenous communities of the Cordilleras owing to the legacy of Marcos-era abuses and ongoing violations by military forces in the efforts to dismantle the communist insurgency. The NPA has also committed abuses against the local population. Civilian-military operations, such as the one at Sadanga, are part of a larger government strategy to engage indigenous communities and isolate the NPA—an effort to “win hearts and minds.” Human Rights Watch saw these types of projects in a number of schools we visited.
While some people expressed unqualified contempt for the soldiers, many not only tolerated, but appreciated the military’s presence. In Sadanga, the soldiers built an office for the school nurse and led a Boy Scout troop; in another school, soldiers had maintained a small vegetable garden.
However, the question remains: Why are the soldiers in the schools?
As the soldiers at Sadanga High noted, the military occupation of schools is banned under Philippine law, and can violate international humanitarian and human rights law—and for good reason. The presence of soldiers endangers students and staff and disrupts education. The occupation of educational facilities also makes the school a legitimate target for insurgent forces. Human Rights Watch has documented the bombing of schools as part of insurgency tactics in India, Afghanistan, and southern Thailand. In the Philippines, teachers reported that students often interact with the soldiers, and with only a few staff members, schools do not have the resources to supervise these interactions. Teachers described instances in which students ran errands for the detachment, joined soldiers in their barracks to eat lunch and watch “bang bang” movies, and ran up to soldiers to touch their guns.
A teacher in Gueday ¬– one of four who taught while the military was encamped in the school - spoke highly of the troops. She recalled the morning exercises the soldiers led with the students and the help the soldiers provided in cleaning the school. We asked her why, after three months, the soldiers had left the library and moved to the municipal hall. She replied matter-of-factly, “The community asked them to leave… The danger to the students.”
If the government is serious about putting an end to military abuses in the north, it should protect students and teachers by ordering the armed forces to respect the law and to stay out of educational facilities. The military will not win hearts and minds by putting schools in the line of fire.
Jake Scobey-Thal is an associate in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.