Schools as military barracks | Inquirer Opinion
Passion For Reason

Schools as military barracks

Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected NGO based in New York and with a Manila field office, has reported that in the Cordilleras, the Philippine military has used school campuses as camps for their soldiers. From what I’ve read, the military presence seems largely benign, the soldiers generally well-behaved and even performing community work. That doesn’t make it right, however. The practice is dangerous, worrisome and outright illegal. It should be stopped forthwith, not just in the Cordilleras but throughout the Philippines.

HRW reports that, since 2009, military detachments have used schools as barracks for periods ranging from three months to more than a year. By way of example, Sadanga National High School in Mountain Province has 200 students, ages 12 to 18. HRW was told that the soldiers were using an adjacent private land, though military personnel and vehicles had to cross the school grounds regularly because their barracks were located at the end of the courtyard opposite the only entry gate to the school. Consequently, at some point an armed sentry was posted at the school gate.


To the military’s credit, it has constructed a small health center in the school, a gesture apparently well-received by the locals. (In another town, soldiers refurbished a basketball hoop, helped with the sweeping in the school, led morning exercises for the children, and cut some of the students’ hair.)

As noted by HRW itself, while such assistance is certainly welcome in remote communities, “there are safer and more effective ways to provide services than housing a dozen armed men near students.”


In our country, school buildings are the first recourse whenever we need facilities for public use. They are apparently the most ubiquitous large, built spaces in the country. Other nations use sports stadiums or public plazas. We use public schools. We go to them on election day when we cast our ballots. We house in them entire families, for months on end, who fall victim to floods, earthquakes or landslides. We hold community meetings in their auditoriums. It has been a bane to the schools, because the students are displaced, their education is interrupted, and when the relief centers are finally abandoned, their health is jeopardized by the filth and stench left behind by the home-bound “refugees.”

But using the schools for military encampments is particularly worrisome because in this case, the schools continue to operate as schools. The children and their teachers continue to use the schools every day, living side by side with the soldiers. In the words of HRW, these are “functioning schools” that are conscripted for military use.

Therein lies the legal problem. Under international humanitarian law, civilians may not be the object of attack. Objects that are “normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as … school[s]” are presumed to be civilian even in situations where they might be seen as “mak[ing] an effective contribution to military action.” The presence of soldiers in a school unduly exposes the students and their teachers to armed attack from rebels operating in the area. It tends to compromise the protected status of schools. Students are thus exposed to the risk of being caught in a crossfire. HRW reminds us that here we have a problem of children’s rights to their safety and to their education.

Beyond the rules, however, I also worry about the risk of inappropriate conduct by soldiers. The examples range from firearms left lying around the schoolyard where children might play with them; the soldiers’ consumption of alcohol while off-duty and the attendant hazards of drunken behavior; and especially in the case of Sadanga, the unsettling presence of armed men in a school attended by young men and women.

The dire possibilities are nightmarish, and history teaches us this is nothing new. Remember that the US Bill of Rights contains a specific clause against the quartering of soldiers in people’s homes without their consent. Remember, too, that under martial law, the militarization of villages was the perfect set-up to antagonize local populations. If before, the townspeople saw the rebels as enemies and the army as its friends, all that the New People’s Army had to do was cause enough provocation to bring the military to encamp in the town square (or in this case, the schoolyard). It was a surefire strategy for the rebels to win hearts and minds.

City slickers may belittle the power of gun-toting soldiers, but men carrying guns have one impact when you see them on well-lighted city streets, and a different impact altogether when you see them in the mountains, where dark nights are illumined only by the moon and the stars, and their guns are just about the most potent embodiment of state power.

It is no excuse to say that the country is poor and has to make do with this makeshift solution. That argument might work with using schools to house flood or earthquake victims. It doesn’t work the same way with using schools as barracks. The military is organized and funded specifically for operations that entail their being mobile, and sometimes camping out for extended periods.


In picking the site of soldiers’ barracks, the military should not try to scrimp on the budget. On the contrary, that is one decision that must be made not with an eye on budgetary numbers alone but on humanitarian norms. The presence of soldiers in schools is a ticking time bomb. I shudder to think what problem, what abuse, which victim, we might next hear about if we tarry any longer.

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