Human rights groups demanded Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte retract a threat to bomb tribal schools, which he accused of teaching students to become communist rebels.
Left-wing lawmaker Emmi de Jesus of the Gabriela Women’s Party said government troops may use it as a pretext to attack Indigenous, or Lumad, schools and communities in the country’s south that have come under threat from pro-military militias in recent years.
Duterte issued the threats in a televised news conference Monday, where he condemned the communists insurgents for destroying bridges and torching schools in the countryside but said they were sparing Indigenous Lumad schools.
“Get out of there, I’m telling the Lumads now. I’ll have those bombed, including your structures,” the president said. “I will use the armed forces, the Philippine air force. I’ll really have those bombed … because you are operating illegally and you are teaching the children to rebel against government.”
The attacks were also aimed at the New People's Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines, who have led an armed struggle against successive governments. Duterte has called off negotiations with National Democratic Front of the Philippines several times, leading the rebels to have no faith in his government.
Duterte ascended to the presidency in 2016 after campaigning on his tough approach on crime as a prosecutor and later as mayor of the southern city of Davao. Lumad groups, some of whom are based in Duterte’s home region, have pinned their hopes of justice and fair treatment on the president.
However, since July 2016, there have been at least 83 attacks on 89 Lumad schools, ranging from threats against students and teachers to extrajudicial killings, according to the Save Our Schools Network.
“We condemn this as a clear red-tagging on a large scale and endorsement of violence and murder against indigenous peoples,” ACT Teachers Representatives Antonio Tinio and France Castro said in a statement.
They also noted that while some Lumad schools operated without permits from the Department of Education, it was because “the applications of many are being denied as part of the systematic attack against Indigenous peoples, which the president is now openly advocating."
Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch said to the Associated Press that by calling for an attack on schools, Duterte “is directing the military to commit war crimes” as international humanitarian law “prohibits attacks on schools and other civilian structures unless they are being used for military purposes.”
He also urged Duterte to sign the Safe Schools Declaration, a 2015 international political statement that commits governments to support the protection of students, teachers and schools in times of armed conflict.
There are around 200 Lumad schools with around 4,000 students and 88 teachers in the southern Philippines, according to Junance Fritzi Magbanua, an administrative officer of the Mindanao Interfaith Foundation Inc. that runs Indigenous schools.
Magbanua said the Indigenous schools follow the government’s curriculum but have added a subject called ancestral land to teach students to value their home region. “We only hold chalk, ballpoint pen and paper,” she said. “If (Duterte) wants to find out, he should come to our school and observe," he said.