Datu Awing Apuga. (File photo by Mac Villarino/PCOO)

DAVAO CITY – A former child warrior of the communist New People's Army (NPA) called on the Department of Education-Region 11 (DepEd-11) for the "total closure" of tribal schools managed by the controversial Salugpongan Tu’Tanu Igkanugon Community Learning Center, Inc. (STICLCI).

Datu Awing Apuga, who is also a former teacher of a STICLCI-run school in Barangay Palma Gil, Talaingod town in Davao del Norte, said Salugpongan schools that originally intended for educated children belonging to the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) have "lost their purpose’. “

"Most of my students became leaders of the New People’s Army, and if not, they became activists,” said Apuga, who taught at the school for three years.

He said his former classmates were also hired as teachers in the Salugpongan schools and were assigned to various IP communities in Talaingod town.

Founded by his father, Datu Guibang Apuga, the young Apuga said the school was originally named Salugpongan Tu’Tanu Igkanugon and was later changed to its current name.

“We founded the school hoping that the IPs will have a better education. Now, we want to have it closed because they are teaching NPA ideologies," he said, referring to the rebel movement's objective of violently overthrowing the government.

Child warrior

Apuga recounted that he was only five years old when his father brought him to an alternative school, which they believed would give him a proper education.

“As far as I remember, we were taught on how to read and write but during our recess time we were trained to handle guns and target enemies,” he recalled.

He said at the age of nine, he was taught to handle an M16 rifle and trained to become a child warrior by the NPA.

He then joined the NPA and became a rebel under the Southern Mindanao Regional Committee (SMRC) for seven years.

“We exactly did what they wanted us to be, because that is what they taught us. I witnessed how the NPA ideologies were planted to the minds of the learners,” he said.

After years fighting for the communist rebel movement, however, the young Apuga and his father decided to return to the folds of the government last year.

Currently, Awing is a tribal leader in Talaingod and an IP rights advocate. He is also an active member of Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) in Talingod town, tasked with defending their ancestral domain from NPA incursion.

Different phases

Datu Malapandaw Nestor Apas, chief of Langilan Manobo tribe of Davao del Norte, said Salugpongan schools underwent five phases in its years of existence.

Originally, Apas said the tribal schools were meant to educate IP children to equip them to defend the tribe's ancestral domain.

The second phase, he said, was when the schools came under the management of STICLCI when leftist party-list Gabriela offered funds to take the schools under its wing.

Third, he said, was when the schools morphed into a political arm of the NPA's “Komitibang Rebulusyonaryong pang Munisipal (KRM) and fell under the direct control of the rebel commanders.

Fourth, he said was when Salugpongan International was established by the leftist Bayan Muna USA (United States) to solicit money from other countries to support the establishment of other left-affiliated schools all over the country.

“The solicited money will be utilized to purchase firearms, which would eventually be used to kill us,” Apas said.

Apas said Salugpongan schools were used by the NPA's Pulang Bagani Command (PBC) as a training ground for recruitment.

“If these schools will continue its operation, our children will be the future commanders of the NPA who will kill us all,” the tribal leader added.

DepEd-11 spokesperson Jenelieto Atillo said they will consider the tribal leaders' statements and appeals in deciding whether to let STICLCI continue to operate.

The DepEd suspended 55 STICLCI-run schools after National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon issued a dossier detailing the alleged infiltration of the NPA into the school system.

Atillo said the DepEd’s fact-finding committee is currently conducting an investigation and assessing evidence to help DepEd-11 decide whether to lift the suspension or close STICLCI for good.

The NPA, armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines. (PNA)