Philippine Military Set Sights on Prestigious Campus

University of the Philippines no longer a potential intellectual sanctuary

By: Criselda Yabes

For the duration of the pandemic lockdown that began last year, the sprawling campus of the premier University of the Philippines was shut down. I live about one kilometer away, and it felt as if a breathing space had vanished. Just before the holidays, it opened to a limited schedule allowing people to jog, do their daily strolls, picnic at sunset – a return to what it used to be. On the weekends, it becomes a crowded park that is uncommon in a metropolis lacking green landscape.

Then, in mid-January, just out of the blue, the secretary of national defense announced that the government was unilaterally breaking a decades-old accord with the university that barred the military and police from the campus – on the apparent grounds that it is a recruitment environment for communists classified as terrorists.

At that instant social media burst into resistance and outcry, as if an ominous deja vu had reappeared of the social unrest during the martial law years of the Marcos dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. The policy then became part of a script the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has been aiming for – a return to authoritarianism.

Just like that, the government had painted a picture of the university as a nest for communists as though it was school policy to send students to the mountains to fight. It is almost laughable and yet so flabbergasting as to make one wonder if the military has lost its sense of history – or its mind. That a backlash might actually create the opposite of its intention, which they claim is to save the kids from turning red. The military managed to embarrass itself by putting out a list of former UP students claimed to have been National People’s Army members who now dead or have been captured by the armed forces. Unfortunately, at least eight on the list are still alive, some of them prominent public figures, and none of them NPA members, now or ever.

The university, a creation of the American colonial regime, has been known to be a hotbed of student activism and a setting for academic freedom – a privilege in a country where most private schools are run by Catholics. It is meant to breed the best for nation-building but it has also over the decades seen its products turn into capitalists, corrupt government officials, and fascists.

Gone are the days when the fires of activism saw students lead massive demonstrations that threatened the government, as they did in the early 1970s when Ferdinand Marcos eventually declared martial law and reigned with terror until he was ousted from power in 1986. Is the military establishment trying to return to the past? Did it not learn that martial law spawned the insurgency?

Insurgency slowly diminished in the post-dictatorship years, with the outlawed Communist Party bitterly splitting into two factions. One could not discount members still trying to recruit students not only from the main campus but from other schools as well, and in the current mood of the University of the Philippines, they are likely competing with other flocks such as religious groups, fraternities, or even Korean students searching for English-speaking tutors.

I have known military officers taking their degrees in higher education. I sometimes run into them doing their jogging rounds or joining bicycle races around the campus. I meet them for lunches in restaurants also favored by leftists and they greet each other amiably. We have long chats at cafés and no one bothers us.

The campus is an icon of freedom and also of tranquility, and it remains that way. Where else could one go for peace of mind in a city blasted by noise, literally, and for open discussions of just about anything under the splendid arcs of ancient acacia trees? Where else could one enjoy cheaper classical concerts all year round and the colorful lantern parade before Christmas?

All of that came to a halt when the pandemic struck almost a year ago. In my bike rides looking for food on the campus periphery, I’d see school buildings that were used to temporarily house front-liners and others as quarantine shelters. Scientists from the university designed testing kits that the government ignored.

The government could not even get its act together when it came to mass testing and contact tracing, putting us in one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, whose effects are debatable. We are second to the highest number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia. The country is currently struggling to figure out how to get access to vaccines while the president’s security officials were caught in a scandal of having had their shots secretly and illegally.

And in all those months of quarantine, virtually imprisoned in our own homes, freedoms were being snatched away. Foremost was when the giant television network ABS-CBN was shut down in May. It was the only station that could reach remote villages around the country. And now this issue with the university. It is not going to go away soon.

The defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, likened the campus to Korea’s demilitarized zone, clearly distorting an image of the university that is just less than 10 kilometers from his headquarters, in between a strip mall, other universities, condominiums, and restaurants. It is that kind of propaganda that will likely backfire and unveil the intention of making this part of the military’s on-going red-tagging campaign similar to the McCarthyite era of decades past.

On the day of his announcement, armed soldiers in fatigues drove into the campus in trucks supposedly for a civil-military operation of helping to plant vegetables for the pandemic. I have seen such kinds of operations so many times in conflict areas in the south but this one smacks of hilarity. The military has invited ridicule upon itself. But if it tries once again, as it did in the days of martial law, to destroy the sanctity of academic freedom, it will be inviting dire consequences.

Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning journalist and most recently the author of “The Battle of Marawi,” a blow-by-blow account of the Philippines’ longest urban battle. She is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel

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