BERN, SWITZERLAND (MindaNews / 26 Nov) — For Monika Baumann, it feels like their 28 years of work to uplift the plight of Lumads, or the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, was going down the drain.
Baumann heads the Theresa Laden, a Swiss volunteer group based in Jegenstorf here, which has been helping non-government organizations (NGOs) in the south, particularly in the Davao region, since 1991.
But the government’s move to close Lumad schools in Mindanao and the renewed counterinsurgency campaign targeting suspected communist members or sympathizers in the mountains have affected Theresa Laden’s development work.
Under the Duterte administration, at least 89 Lumad schools in Mindanao have been forcibly shutdown, affecting around 3,000 students, the Save our Schools Network recorded.
In July, the Department of Education-XI suspended the “permit to operate” of 55 Salugpongan schools across the Davao region that cater to Lumads. The move was based on the instruction of Education Secretary Leonor Briones to suspend schools that are operating using “their permits for recognition.”
Baumann lamented that at least 15 schools that they supported have been closed.
The schools were built with funds coming from the European Union. The Theresa Laden was providing salaries to the teachers and assistance for school materials.
“It’s a very bad situation. The schools were closed and now the people are in danger,” said Baumann, claiming that the teachers have been harassed by the Army and are now afraid to go back to teach.
The military’s Eastern Mindanao Command earlier back DepEd’s decision to close the Salugpongan schools, noting they were “indoctrinating communism and teaching students to hate the government.” The military also denied harassing the civilians.
Baumann and her colleagues questioned why the schools were closed.
“For what (or whom) do we work now? We wanted to help develop these areas in Mindanao, for the children to go to school so they can be educated and afterwards they can go to work,” said Baumann, quoting her colleagues.
Baumann and 20 other Swiss women formed Theresa Laden, which opened a store for used or second-hand items in the community’s protestant Reformist church to raise funds for their development and solidarity work in Mindanao.
Their work in Mindanao had made a positive impact that in 2000, Theresa Laden was among those awarded by President Joseph Estrada with the Presidential Award for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas.
The Swiss group was lauded for its exceptional and significant contribution to Philippine reconstruction, progress and development.
Baumann lamented this year’s closure of the schools they have been supporting.
“We were supporting them for many years. These are the only schools for the indigenous peoples in the mountains,” said the retired nurse during the annual Christmas sale that Theresa Laden held in Jegenstorf.
This year, part of the proceeds will be given to NGO partners that were affected by the recent earthquakes and floods in Mindanao.
Theresa Laden partners with about 30 organizations in Mindanao and works closely with the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) and the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc. (MISFI).
Some of their partners have been accused by the military of working with communist groups, with reported cases of several farmer and tribal leaders being killed, arrested or harassed as a result.
“It is now difficult to communicate with our partners. They are harassed and cannot speak openly, and some even have to change their numbers and emails,” Baumann said.
She cited Kasama, a sugar workers’ group that was forced to close their office in Bukidnon reportedly because of Army harassment, and whose officers had to flee to as far as Manila for security reasons.
Baumann noted the predicament in Mindanao is becoming difficult for Jegenstorf, a rural community populated by at least 5,697 residents northeast of the Swiss capital Bern.
The community, which supported Theresa Laden since it opened in 1991, has come to accept the group’s solidarity work in the Philippines as its own.
They love to come here to donate because they know their donations will help the NGOs and the schools, she said.
In April 2019, Baumann wrote President Rodrigo Duterte asking him to reconsider the closing of the Lumad schools, and to help stop the political persecution of the staff of RMP and MISFI.
She sent the letter to the Philippine Embassy in Bern, which did not merit a reply.
Baumann claimed that the government had allegedly blacklisted her and Theresa Laden, citing information provided by their partners in Mindanao.
Due to security concerns, Theresa Laden’s project monitoring and assessment work were affected, she said.
Owing to the situation, Theresa Laden is using its funds to support the legal fees of political prisoners and their handicraft livelihood project.
Baumann urged their NGO partners in Mindanao to remain steadfast in their advocacies, noting the Swiss volunteer group “will continue to be behind them.” (Brady Eviota/Special to MindaNews)