University of the Philippines students protest against the government scrapping an agreement over allowing security forces on the university's campuses on Jan. 19. (Photo courtesy of Sophia Sibal)
Civil and political groups in the Philippines have lent their weight in a growing row by condemning the government for breaking a 30-year-old agreement with the country’s top state university over allowing security forces onto its campuses.
The deal required police and the military to seek permission from administrators of the University of the Philippines (UP) if they wanted to enter its grounds.
The university, which has 32 campuses across the country, has become a hive of “clandestine recruitment” activity by communist rebels and needed saving, according to the Defense Department.
University bosses and students deny the claim, saying its an attempt to stifle freedom of expression at an institution well known for its criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule.
On Jan. 21, a Philippine labor coalition said protection from state forces should not only apply to places of learning.
“Workplaces are also off limits to the military and police. It is on this principle of freedom that workers stand with UP as we believe that schools and workplaces are not soldiers’ battlefields,” said Sonny Matula, chairman of the Nagkaisa Labor Coalition.
He said academic institutions like UP are special because under Philippine law universities and schools are zones of peace.
“They are sanctuaries that operate within ethical principles of non-violence, free from weapons or acts of violence. Their populace and visitors exemplify mutual respect and non-violent behavior while on site,” Matula told UCA News.
He also said scrapping the agreement posed a threat to labor groups who hold regular meetings on the university’s campuses.
“Organizing trade unions is a right … Educating workers about basic trade union rights and their ultimate emancipation from slavery by building organizations, movements and political parties are guaranteed rights under the constitution, the Labor Code and international conventions,” Matula added.
Matula said a military presence at the university contravened the principle of non-interference in trade union activities by security forces of the state.
The left-wing Akbayan Party also condemned the government move.
“The University of the Philippines needs no saving. Save the West Philippines Sea instead,” its chairwoman Etta Rosales said on Jan. 19, referring to attempts by China to claim disputed islands in the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines.
Critics accuse Duterte of bowing to Chinese pressure over the issue.
“That is where the real and present danger is. If you can’t protect our seas, don’t lash out at students and their university,” Rosales said.
Another civil group said Duterte should target the real enemies of the nation and not academic institutions.
“Target the real traitors in our country and not students and Filipinos who love the country and would protect our patrimony and democracy from totalitarian rule. The armed forces should defend the people,” said Ricky Javier of the People's Choice Movement.
Divine Word Father Flavie Villanueva accused the government of “bullying” a university that stands against tyrants.
“If you cannot protect our seas, you have no business bullying an institution that stands against tyrants and despots, like your boss,” he said of the government, also referring to the South China Sea dispute.
“Hypocrisy is the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. Claiming UP is the enemy but allowing China to rape our nation is one example.”