‘Students now vilified as enemies‍’ – Filipino researchers in UK | Inquirer News

‘Students now vilified as enemies‍’ – Filipino researchers in UK

/ 05:36 AM March 24, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — Student activists have become the new target of state repression, especially during the pandemic, according to a newly published study that calls on both domestic and international bodies to consider the protection of academic freedom as a key human rights obligation.

In their recently published report, “Students activists by day, rebels by night,” Filipino scholars Renee Karunungan and Chris Millora found that student activists who are at the helm of social movements worldwide were now being vilified as state enemies and terrorists at an unprecedented rate.

“As students continually prove that they are neither ‘apathetic’ nor ‘disengaged,’ their acts and voices of dissent have been met with stringent surveillance, vicious policing, criminalization and killings,” the researchers, who work in Britain, said. “These violent responses [have] become more frequent, coercive and intense in light of the current pandemic.”


Most vocal, energetic

The study had looked into the landscape of six countries — the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Colombia — where student-led movements thrived against the backdrop of social unrest.


In the other countries, governments often struck down student-led movements because they were the most vocal and energetic.

In Egypt, for example, a new crop of youth activists were key to some of their most decisive prodemocracy movements, such as the 2011 Arab Spring.

Often their dissent not only covered school-related issues like tuition and student housing, but also neoliberal policies leading to inequality, unemployment and debt, the researchers found.

As such, governments have often moved to keep politics out of school by branding and criminalizing student dissent.

Here, however, the roots of Philippine student activism in Maoist communist ideology “helped established the image of student activists in the Philippines, even those who are not connected to the Communist Party, as antiestablishment terrorists.”

“This has in turn allowed for the normalization of the criminalization and violence against student activists,” the researchers said.


Sweeping reforms

Quoting a Filipino student leader, the research found that the criminalization of student activists strengthened when the Duterte administration doubled down on the communist insurgency.

It passed sweeping reforms, including the antiterror law and the abolition of a key defense agreement with the University of the Philippines, to arrest hundreds of students simply for joining protests.

“That form of attack … we are rebranded as enemies of the people and enemies of the state … our demands are immediately being discredited because we are being branded as enemies, but we try to propose solutions. Of course, we want government programs to work,” the Filipino student leader said in the study.

But despite this continued impingement of students’ rights, the researchers found that oppression “both limits and agitates” student movements even more.

“When efforts to shrink civil society spaces persist, students’ agency and power will continue to claw into the banks until the river swells,” they said.

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Karunungan and Millora recommended, among other things, that the governments acknowledge student activists as human rights defenders, too, and therefore covered by domestic and international treatises.


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