MANILA – The posters on campus were terrifying. They warned that the University of the Philippines had become a breeding ground for communist sympathizers and that students and professors should be on high alert for anti-government insurgents. Some students were even named as possible offenders.
Nobody knew where the posters came from, but they have been found in many different university locations across the country over the past few weeks, according to students and university activists. At the end of last month the government decided to get involved.
To weed out potential communists in the elite facility, Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana announced the decision to end a 32-year deal that prevented security forces from entering campus and arresting people without first coordinating with university officials. Professors and students can now be held on mere suspicion.
About 200 students gathered at the university in Manila’s northern suburb of Quezon City to protest the announcement. By allowing security forces back on campus, the government has targeted one of the few places in the Philippines where criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte is still tolerated. For them, the purpose of the new rule was clear: another crackdown on political freedom in a country where dissidents are often tagged and posted on short notice.
“This is the struggle of the people,” said Angelo Marfil, one of the students who camped outside the Quezon Hall building to protest. “Attacking academic institutions is attacking all of us because they are trying to scare us,” he said.
Mr Marfil, a 19-year-old political scientist, sat cross-legged on the floor with a cup of coffee in his hands, pointing at a new art installation being built by students at the university. The installation – made up of bamboo, old furniture and desks – was designed to look like a barricade and is reminiscent of a school rebellion in 1971.
“It’s a symbol of our protest,” he said. “President Duterte’s government has openly declared war on us.”
Like other students at the protest, some of whom wore brightly colored hair and indigenous clothing, Mr. Marfil has joined many demonstrations against the government, what he called the “Parliament of the Streets”, to fight against government corruption and the international To support the criminal court’s investigation of Mr Duterte into the mass murder of people suspected of being drug traffickers and addicts in what the court has termed a “crimes against humanity”.
As the youngest of four brothers, he said his siblings had advised him to tone down his rhetoric, but he had chosen to ignore their advice.
Cristina Chi, another student at the session protest, agreed that there was no time to remain silent and described the decision to break the agreement as an act of intimidation. Ms. Chi, a 21-year-old communications major with plans to become a journalist, said she remembered hearing radio broadcasts of rallies and protests as a child and wishing she could join. After studying at the university for two years, she remembered becoming even more passionate about the need for change.
The word “revolution” has become part of her daily discourse, she said, but that did not mean that she should be branded a violent insurgent.
“If any of the military finds out about this and accuses me, my professor, or my classmates of harboring communist ideas, the lack of a deal will allow them to pull me out of class and arrest me on trumped-up charges,” said Dr. Chi added that activists in progressive groups had already been targeted and that she feared such summaries would become the norm on campus.
“It is also insulting that they think we need protection from communist brainwashing, as if someone could simply choose to join the armed struggle overnight,” she said. “I think it is dangerous and only factually wrong to say that the university has to force revolutionary ideas into the throats of the students. If anything, it is exposed to the poor conditions of government education that open our eyes to become more radical and critical. “
The University of the Philippines has long been a haven of free speech and produces some of the best minds in the country. The sprawling, green grounds, lined with giant acacia trees, witnessed important moments in modern Filipino history, including the student protests that helped overthrow dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Mr. Marcos was a graduate of the school himself.
In 1989, three years after a popular uprising ended Mr. Marcos’ brutal regime, the government agreed to keep the security forces off campus. The decision came after a university employee, Donato Continente, was arrested at the school on suspicion of murdering Colonel James N. Rowe of the US Army, who was a military advisor to the Philippine Armed Forces. Mr Continente was eventually convicted, but maintained his innocence and claimed that he had been tortured to make a confession. He was released in 2005 after 14 years in prison.
At least 18 other universities, including four private institutions that are considered the best schools in Manila, have been classified by the military as “recruiting havens” for communists in recent weeks. The Philippines is one of the few places in the world where there is an active communist uprising.
The military recently released a list of 27 former students at the University of the Philippines who it claimed had become members of the New People’s Army, an insurgent group that seeks to overthrow the government through armed conflict. The list, which included the names of prominent journalists and a former government official, was posted to a government social media account before being deleted, forcing Defense Minister Lorenzana to apologize and fire an intelligence officer.
Fidel Nemenzo, chancellor of the main university campus in Quezon City, refused to speculate as to why the government suddenly lifted the agreement to keep security guards off campus after serving both the authorities and the university for three decades . He noted, however, that the move came a year after Mr Duterte signed an anti-terror law that activists said was designed to quell political disagreements.
This law, which gave the military the power to detain suspects for almost a month without an arrest warrant, was signed by Mr Duterte during major street protests organized by groups affiliated with the university.
“Part of this campaign is the ‘red marking’ of institutions and people critical of the government,” said Nemenzo. “Academic freedom – the freedom to think and speak – requires the absence of fear,” he added. “How can one speak freely when the military can enter the university unannounced?”
When Mr Nemenzo was in his office, Duterte Youth, a right-wing group represented in Congress, tried to hold its own rally on campus the day before the planned sit-in. Mr. Nemenzo encouraged them to disperse. There have been reports of uniformed men in military vehicles on campus, he said.
After the members of the group held a short program expressing their support for Mr. Duterte and Mr. Lorenzana, they left quietly.