MANILA, Philippines (ViaNews) – Concepcion Empeño has nothing but both dismay and rage with the current spate of human rights violations in the Philippines following President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration to conduct a crackdown against progressives, the signing of an official proclamation tagging the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing the New People’s Army (NPA) as terrorist groups.
“The country’s situation may go far worse than (President Duterte’s) predecessors, Marcos and Arroyo included,” Empeño told ViaNews, referring to two former Philippine presidents — strongman Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who launched a bloody counterinsurgency program dubbed “Oplan Bantay Laya.”
Some 12 years ago, Empeño’s daughter Karen, along with a fellow activist and university student Sherlyn Cadapan and farmer Manuel Merino, was disappeared in Hagonoy, Bulacan, a town north of Manila. Their enforced disappearance took place at the height of the implementation of Oplan Bantay Laya that targeted legal activists who are being red-baited as so-called “front organizations” of the CPP and the NPA.
With the current terror tagging of the CPP and its armed wing the NPA, Empeño fears this will, yet again, lead to an unprecedented spate in human rights violations against legal activists and civilians this 2018, resulting to more Karens, Sherlyns, and Manuels.
In November and December 2017, President Duterte signed two executive orders that ended the peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines Negotiating Panel and declared the CPP and the NPA as terrorist organizations, respectively.
The bloodbath, the filing of trumped-up charges, and the harassment of progressives that soon followed were almost inevitable, just as Empeño feared.
Bloodshed, harassments, threats
Long before President Duterte’s executive order declaring the CPP and the NPA as terrorist organizations, many activists are already facing harassments and threats. Hundreds of others were brutally killed. Still, the human rights community in the Philippines was quick to point out that such terror tag could do more harm to activists and the masses than the supposed members and cadres of the revolutionary organizations.
In his speeches, President Duterte has also repeatedly sounded off threats to conduct crackdown against members of progressive organizations. And it was not too long when the new wave of bloodbath and the harassments began.
In November alone, two were killed and another was injured when armed men opened fire at a group of 30 human rights workers who were conducting a fact-finding mission in Negros Oriental. Two other Mindanao-based activists Vivencio Sahay and Apolonio Maranan were shot dead in separate incidents in Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte, and Davao City, respectively.
Still, the deadliest of the series of attacks against legal activists came on December 3 and 4, 2017, which left 10 people killed in just about 48 hours.
Two clergymen, Pastor Lovelito Quinones and Fr. Marcelito Paez, were gunned down in separate incidents in Mindoro Oriental on December 3 and Nueva Ecija on December 4, respectively.
Then, on December 3, soldiers belonging to the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines opened fire at a house in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato in Mindanao that left eight indigenous peoples killed. An eight-year-old minor was also reported to be injured. Later, the military claimed it was a legitimate clash between government troops and NPA members. It never was, said human rights activists.
Three farmers were also reportedly disappeared and are believed to be abducted by members of the 20th Infantry Batallion of the Philippine Army.
Activists are also facing trumped-up charges. An indigenous peoples activist Jerry Santiago of Oriental Mindoro is facing trumped-up murder charges. An environmental advocate Sherwin de Vera was also arrested last December 12, charged with rebellion. Human rights group Karapatan called his arrest as Duterte’s “cheap ploys to silence genuine opposition.”
The media, too, were also not spared. In his radio interview last December 19, President Duterte implied that there are journalists who are members of the NPA. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said this is a “potential death warrant” against journalists.
The NUJP said that with President Duterte’s “penchant for such wild and dangerous claims” it will not be long before he “directly targets the critical media in his government’s efforts to stamp out dissent.”
Martial law extension and internal displacement
Meanwhile, the Philippine Congress, where President Duterte reportedly has a supermajority among lawmakers, approved the extension of the martial law rule in Mindanao, which was earlier declared to quell attacks of armed elements who reportedly have links to the infamous ISIS. After the so-called “liberation” of Marawi City, the martial law rule was never lifted and was, in fact, recently extended for a year.
This has received raised eyebrows from the human rights community, adding that this could lead to graver human rights situation, most especially because President Duterte and his allies have been threatening to declare martial law rule all over the country.
The December 3 killing in South Cotabato, Karapatan said, is a “carnage waiting to happen again” with a martial law rule in place.
In fact, the martial law rule in Mindanao has been used as an excuse to block food and other forms of assistance to internally displaced indigenous peoples, known as the Lumad, who were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods due to intensified militarization in their respective communities. Many of them are students of alternative tribal schools, which President Duterte threatened to bomb early this year.
This 2018, in the face of all these unabated rights violations, Empeño remains steadfast that the human rights community, who is also helping her look for her disappeared daughter and send to jail the perpetrators behind her abduction, will be ready to face any challenges ahead.
“We will not be cowed,” she said.