Some valuable truths underlie Oplan Bayanihan, the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ 16-month-old internal peace and security plan. Chief among them are that the various insurgent groups in the Philippines are unlikely to be beaten by force alone, that better standards of living can curb the roots of the rebellions, and that the military could do more to “win the sentiment” of the general population. But in translating these truths into practice, something seems to have gotten warped along the way. The AFP’s practice of mixing soldiers with schools amply illustrates this misguidedness.
Philippine law prohibits using schools for military purposes. Yet in the past four months, I found as I visited schools from northern Luzon to Mindanao that the AFP is using school grounds and classrooms as military bases and barracks, sometimes temporarily, but at times for half a year or longer.
Such use of schools used to be driven by the soldiers’ convenience, as school buildings provided the safety and comfort of solid walls and dry roofs. But increasingly, the presence of troops on school property or nearby is being justified on the grounds of providing development projects to the schools and their communities. This is because Oplan Bayanihan expands the AFP’s role beyond its constitutional mandate of protecting the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to take on a “support role in the nation-building efforts of the national government,” under the guise of peace and development.
When I visited Sadanga High School in Mountain Province in the Cordillera, the soldiers encamped on the school’s land and an adjacent plot had provided free labor to construct a nice little clinic for the school’s nurse. A sergeant at the school conceded that their presence on school grounds was “against the law,” but said it was justified by the assistance to the school and because it was “with consent” of local officials.
In Davao City, soldiers from the 69th Infantry Battalion camped across the road from Paradise Embac Elementary School put up a sign to declare that their distribution of books and maintenance assistance was part of an “Adopt a School Program.” Not all of the local community appear to have returned the embrace. Two city councilors, including the chair of the council’s committee on education, sponsored a resolution calling on the detachment to leave.
At Nagaan Elementary School in Cotabato in Mindanao, a teacher described to me the repairs carried out by soldiers to classrooms in 2011 as “one of the few good things that have come out of this conflict.” But she questioned why the troops had continued to sleep in some of the school’s classrooms and in the teachers’ housing for another seven months after completing the repairs, all the while accruing an electricity bill that the school felt “too shy” to ask the soldiers to pay.
Understandably, some principals appreciate any assistance that comes their way. But few of the principals I interviewed felt they had any power to oppose the troops’ presence or even their choice of projects. This lack of civilian control belies the claim that such projects are providing any sustainable development assistance.
If the government wants to increase development assistance to remote under-served communities, that is to be applauded. But it is important to remember that there are already government agencies that are supposed to be carrying out these functions, and that have the capacity, skills, and experience to do them more effectively, more efficiently, and more safely. If schools need repairs, the Department of Education should be responsible. If a rural community needs a medical mission, it is the Department of Health’s job. If census information needs to be collected, that is the specialty of the National Statistics Office. And around the country, parents, teachers, students, and community members successfully manage to sweep away the cobwebs for the annual brigada escuela, without the help of armed men.
If an area is so dangerous that the regular civilian government structures cannot safely provide these services, then the last thing students need is for soldiers to attract this insecurity to their school grounds.
Schools should be a protected space for children, where the government’s sole priority should be ensuring that children receive a quality education. Yet the presence of soldiers endangers students and teachers and disrupts learning. In choosing their targets, the insurgent groups might not distinguish between soldiers about to go on patrol and those tending a school vegetable garden. Teachers told me they worried about how students often interact with the soldiers, including handling their weapons. Teachers also expressed concerns about the soldiers sending students to run errands for the detachment, and drinking alcohol, making loud noises, and keeping pornography on school grounds.
Civilian-military projects motivated by a desire to enhance appreciation of the armed forces as part of an internal security plan are inherently motivated by a strategic military purpose. Military deployments in, or near, schools should not be part of that plan. Simply respecting the law would be an easy first step if the Philippine armed forces are truly concerned with winning the respect of their fellow citizens.
Bede Sheppard is a senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. He has investigated military use of schools in the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Yemen.