THE THIRD ISSUE OF FIHRM-AP - Was It a Lockdown or a Crackdown?

Anti-Martial Law protest (Photo credit: Michael Beltran)

Anti-Martial Law protest (Photo credit: Michael Beltran)

Author profile - Michael Beltran

Michael  has been a journalist for six years and also spent much more of his life as a political activist. His work has led him to cover stories in his home country concerning human rights, the shrinking democratic space, the interventionism of China and other global superpowers, forced migration, eviction and displacement along with a host of other stories focusing on various marginalized sectors.

As the Philippine edges closer out of lockdown, the whole country still reels from the collective trauma shared throughout the pandemic. It was not the virus, nor the uncertainty over a vaccine and a future that troubled Filipinos the most.

In the Philippines, there are a wide range of civil society groups with different approaches to their causes. Likewise, NGOs, mass organizations, sectoral and cultural groups have all contributed widely to the country and its most vulnerable citizens staying afloat. 

Civil society groups have stepped in to fill the at least some of what has been lacking amid the pandemic lockdown. Food and food security has been a major an ongoing urgent matter throughout the pandemic. Both the sustainable access and the storage of food in lower-income communities is something many cause-oriented groups have had to contend with. 

Mass organizations and foundations have set up Community Gardens and Kitchens throughout the country especially in slum communities where food sources and security has been scarce. Crops hang from rooftops in makeshift pots made from recycled plastic bottles. Harvesting is done by community groups collectively and the result is a cooperative effort at cooking and serving the food to all who are hungry and destitute. 

Another initiative which also gained extreme popularity was the mutual aid phenomenon known as the community pantry. Patricia Non, a local activist and artist started with a modest idea, wherein one set up a table or shelf in a public place, packed it with food and bore the phrase “take what you need, leave what you can.” It sparked a nationwide mass movement for mutual aid. 

Besides addressing a clear and present need, these efforts exposed the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the state’s pandemic response. Unsurprisingly, the state reacted by attempting to suppress these efforts, deeming them to be “terrorist” in what became a recurring theme in the politics of the pandemic. 

The incredible distrust over the government’s response to the crisis has characterized much of the public sentiment over the last two years. Either that or a pervasive view that the Duterte government was incapable to do anything amid such apocalyptic circumstances. Instead of addressing a medical emergency, it had used the lockdown situation to exact more state-sponsored violence and terror on its victims. 

Since late 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government had declared war against its political opponents. In the eyes of the state, only a communist or a terrorist - they used the term interchangeably - would question the regime. What’s more important is what comes after being labelled as such. Red-tagging or the labelling of activists and critics as supporters or recruiters for the communist insurgents is done towards the government’s political detractors. The label itself makes the case that someone who is a terrorist is fit for liquidation. 

Concretely, Duterte established the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict or NTF-ELCAC. For context, a civil war has been going on in the Philippines for over 50 years, waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) with the armed guerrillas of the New People’s Army (NPA). While they have been the toughest opponents of an oppressive Philippine government for years, the civilian critics of the regime are being subjected to the same scrutiny as the rebels. The regime goes so far as to treat any and all forms of speech against the state as communist propaganda intended to recruit the youth into armed revolution. 

The armed conflict in itself presents a myriad of questions left unanswered by the state. Why are there so many Filipinos rising up in arms, and why have they been doing this for so long? There has been a roadmap to peace agreements for a long time, but Duterte especially has chosen to answer this by clumping all his enemies together and demonizing them in order to rationalize increased violence. 

This communist witch-hunting, reminiscent of McCarthyist practices during the cold war parallels Duterte’s infamous and bloody drug war. Early into his tenure, Duterte enacted Oplan Tokhang, a law enforcement–led anti-drug campaign. Much like the drug war, wherein those labelled as drug addicts or pushers were automatically ordered for elimination, the same was being done to the state’s political rivals. 

In 2020, when the pandemic was at its most intense, it meant that activists were at their most vulnerable. Stay at home also meant staying in the line of fire. The killings among red-tagged activists noticeably increased as high-profile leaders were summarily and gruesomely assassinated in their homes. 

Jory Porquia, Randall Echanis, Zara Alvarez and Carlito Badion were just a few of the prominent victims of state violence. Prior to their deaths they had carried the accusation of being a “communist-terrorist.” The term has been popularised by the military seeking to underpin that one cannot be a communist without being a terrorist as well. Subscribing to any ideology is not illegal in the Philippines. But to the armed forces, someone who is left-leaning is definitely a communist and therefore also and always a terrorist. Thus this terrorist must be eradicated.

Even the Commission on Human Rights expressed alarm over the disturbing pattern by which red-tagging landed you in a coffin. And it wasn’t just activists that were red-tagged. A whole array of civil society members were deemed terrorists, from lawmakers, members of the church, journalists, even a UN Special Rapporteur and also popular celebrities who were merely carrying out philanthropic efforts. 

Criticism of the state was severely warranted! The Philippines has had some of the largest donations and loans for COVID-19 but has offered some of the lowest and littlest forms of aid. Most of the funds were funnelled to boost the police and military presence in the country enforcing severe prejudice against even the smallest violations. No mask, violating curfew, or even stepping outside your front door meant you could be handed a jail sentence. 

Commonly you would hear Filipinos in slums fearing starvation and hunger over lost jobs and livelihood than the virus itself. All of this came to the fore when in April 2020, hundreds of slum dwellers in Metro Manila spontaneously protested the lack of aid and food shortages while Duterte’s allies flaunted their wealth and privilege. They were met with battering batons, truncheons and handcuffs. Twenty-one of the nation’s hungriest were thrown in jail and it took a national outcry to release them on bail. 

In July of 2020, the state even made the whole process of eliminating targets easier. It passed the controversial Anti-Terror Law. It is the most draconian and repressive state policy since the country experienced all-out dictatorship during the Martial Law years of the 70s and 80s. 

The Anti-Terror Law crystalized everything that Duterte and his cohorts were prattling on about and it allowed the unbridled curtailment of civil liberties. Arrests can now be made without warrants and only based on mere suspicion that one is a “terrorist.” The notion of terrorist itself is broadly defined to encapsulate anyone. 

Most of what I have described is just the year 2020. Unfortunately, like the virus, these events set the tone for what has been happening in the Philippines up until the present. The country has been going through one of the worst human rights disasters in its contemporary history with the economic rights of the most vulnerable being continually deprived as well. What is grotesque about the Philippines is not only its atrocious human rights record, but the enormous social inequalities that were on full display during the lockdown. More of the same, if not ripples of the past crises persist to haunt us. The recent election results in May 2022 only cemented this feeling further. 

The overall encroachment of human rights has been met with unprecedented opposition in the form of protests, assemblies, social media wars and the like. 

Thankfully because of community-led efforts, the push back from civil society to carve out even a small space for democratic rights has gone a long way in terms of not letting the country fall completely back into its draconian and Martial Law era.  

There are reasons to be hopeful. The gardens, kitchens and pantries represent just one side of the resistance. Opposition takes on many forms. But the undercurrent of dissent has been spilling out into the streets with more people and with more frequency. Things will get worse before they get better and many Filipino, organizations, associations and the like are readying themselves for that. 

Community Gardens (Photo credit: Michael Beltran)

Community Gardens (Photo credit: Michael Beltran)

Community Gardens (Photo credit: Michael Beltran)

Community Gardens (Photo credit: Michael Beltran)