By Mike Phipps
Just under a week ago, at least nine human rights activists were killed in the Philippines, in what is locally being called ‘Bloody Sunday’ – yet there has been barely a word about it in the western media.
The atrocities came two days after President Rodrigo Duterte publicly instructed security forces to “kill” communist rebels. The victims were gunned down in a series of raids in provinces south of the capital Manila.
Running for office in 2016, Duterte promised peace talks with communist insurgents in order to end the 52-year old internal conflict. A year later, he broke off the talks, denouncing the rebels as terrorists and offering a bounty for every rebel killed. Since then, left-leaning activists, lawyers and farmers have been targeted in an increasingly violent clampdown.
The government and security forces often tag activists and government critics as members of the Communist Party or their sympathizers. Called “red-tagging”, it can be a death sentence.
Eight days ago, President Duterte made a characteristically rambling speech which included the ominous words: “I told the military and police that during encounters, if the enemy is holding a gun, kill them. Kill them right away. Ignore human rights.”
According to the New York Times, the activists who were killed had worked for a variety of organizations, including a group that works on behalf of Philippine fishermen and another that campaigned for the rights of the urban poor.
Activist-couple Chai Lemita-Evangelista and Ariel Evangelista were killed while their 10-year old son watched from under the bed. Others, including union organisers, were arrested and had firearms and ammunition planted on them, according to human rights groups.
“The Duterte administration’s brutality knows no bounds… In light of the rapidly worsening human rights situation in the Philippines, states have the responsibility to hold the Philippine government to account for its commitments before the UN Human Rights Council, which must now take overdue action and launch an independent international investigation to address this alarming situation and end the cycle of impunity that continues to fuel violations.”
The UK-based Campaign for Human Rights Philippines said in a statement: “These dedicated activists were involved in supporting the rights of workers, of the homeless and of fishing communities. They had already been publicly tagged by the police as ‘terrorists’. It is a process that has shown once more that what the Duterte regime calls counter-terrorism, is nothing more than the cold-blooded extrajudicial murder by the state of legitimate human rights defenders.”
Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of Karapatan, a human rights NGO, said, ““Through the government’s rabid red-tagging rampage, the Duterte government deliberately violates and tramples upon the principle of distinction under international humanitarian law with impunity by conflating civilian activists and their organizations as mere fronts for rebels.”
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, agreed. “The fundamental problem,” he said, “is this campaign no longer makes any distinction between armed rebels and non-combatant activists, labour leaders, and rights defenders.”
Since Duterte came to power in 2016, an estimated 6,000 people have been killed in the war on drugs. There was outrage last December when police were caught on video gunning down an unarmed woman and her son at point-blank range. And thirteen people were left dead following a drugs raid earlier this year.
But the human rights violations go wider. Eighteen journalists have been killed since Duterte took office. Land defenders protesting against Canadian mining have been shot dead. Last December nine Tumandok Indigenous people, campaigning against the construction of a nearby dam, were killed in police operations on Panay Island in what rights groups labelled a “massacre.”
Also in December, five farmworkers were massacred by the military in Baras, Rizal. The Department of the Interior and Local Government posthumously “red-tagged” the victims, to cover up the crime, according to Karapatan.
A year ago, with the onset of the COVID pandemic, the President called on the police to “shoot dead” anyone caught violating lockdown orders. Over 120,000 people were arrested, with some curfew violators being held in dog cages and children locked in coffins.
Last July, while citizens were focusing on surviving the pandemic, the government passed a new terror law which critics rightly feared would be used to target journalists and activists. It expanded the scope for warrantless arrests and enabled government to brand anyone a terrorist or enemy of the state.
Former US President Trump was enthusiastic about Duterte, with whom he boasted of a “great relationship.” His Administration showered Duterte’s regime with armaments.
Biden too is reported to be keen to shore up his relationship with the Philippines. In February, the US reaffirmed there were “no restrictions” on arms sales to the Philippine military – despite House Democrats last year proposing a halt to all security aid to the country because of the army’s involvement in the extrajudicial killings of environmental and land rights activists.
The US is by far the largest arms supplier to the Philippines. Its State Department maintains the fiction that the Philippine military has “largely kept a distance from the counter narcotics campaign and associated reports of killings.”
Brandon Lee, a U.S. citizen who worked as an activist defending indigenous land rights in the northern Philippines and was shot four times in August 2019, disagrees. He says fellow advocates at the Ifugao Peasant Movement and Cordillera People’s Alliance remain “under constant attack” from the military, which falsely labels the groups as fronts for the communist New People’s Army.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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