After his state of the union speech Monday night, Duterte told reporters, "I will bomb those schools."
"I will use the armed forces, the Philippines air force … because you’re operating illegally and you’re teaching the children to rebel against government."
The head of state’s comments elicited condemnation from humanitarian groups such as Human Rights watch, which warned that Duterte would commiting a war crime if he followed through on his threats.
The president later clarified that he meant to only destroy the school structures, as he says they teach children to be rebels, but he doesn’t intend to harm children.
Duterte’s remarks come amid violent conflict between Maoist rebels on Mindanao island and government forces, including an ambush last week that wounded five members of the presidential guard.
The schools in question are run by the Lumad ethnic group. Since July of last year there have been 68 military attacks against 89 schools, according to an NGO in the Philippines called the Save Our Schools Network.
"From Aquino administration up to now, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is consciously waging a genocidal campaign against Lumads and other indigenous peoples who are resisting the incursion of business interests in their ancestral land," lead convenor Eule Rico Bonganay said in a statement on the group’s website. "With the declaration of martial law in the entirety of Mindanao, state forces have the upper hand to militarize, kill and push Lumads and Moros away from their lands."
Junance Fritzi Magbanua, administrative officer at Mindanao Interfaith Foundation Inc., which runs some of the indigenous schools, said Lumad people are frightened by Duterte’s statement. "The words uttered by President Duterte are frightening because they give a go-signal to the armed forces to bomb our schools," Magbanua told the Daily Mail. "We only hold chalk, ball pen and paper."
Duterte’s effort to stop narco-traffickers has resulted in an estimated 7,000 deaths, and the Philippine Congress voted to extend martial law on Mindanao on Saturday through December.
More than 100 government troops are currently on the island fighting an extremist group linked to Daesh.