Is Duterte Drumming Up a Red Scare in the Philippines?

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Is Duterte Drumming Up a Red Scare in the Philippines?

With the president’s allies victorious in the recent elections, Duterte seems set to pursue his desired policies.

Is Duterte Drumming Up a Red Scare in the Philippines?

Protesters display fourteen crosses to symbolize the victims who were killed in three townships on Negros province in central Philippines three days ago, in an indignation protest Tuesday, April 2, 2019 at Camp Crame in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Tensions between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his detractors are reaching a boiling point. Many of the president’s critics have been accused of attempting to overthrown the establishment.

In the last month, the Malacanang (the presidential palace) has released two matrices, both one-page web diagrams naming individuals and groups who are supposedly threatening the country’s national security by discrediting the Duterte administration. Most of the people singled out were lawyers, journalists and opposition candidates in this year’s midterm elections. Both iterations of the so called “ouster matrix” drew flak from the media and the public for containing widely unsubstantiated accusations and, to some, extent for their mere absurdity.

Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo said that the intelligence sources came from an anonymous text addressed directly to the president. The second matrix released just days later had more people scratching their heads. Television host Gretchen Ho was included, despite having dinner at the Malacanang less than a week earlier.  When pressed for more information as to the validity of the claims, Panelo brushed it off by saying “the President does not lie.”

These claims from the palace, however, are only the latest in a string of allegations hurled at critics or even perceived critics of the regime. More than most, the favored labels used for any whiff of opposition to Duterte are “communist” or “terrorist.”  The extent to which the administration has pummeled public perception with ideas of an impending political conflict has become dangerous.

Duterte himself regularly brands progressive, militant, and even church organizations as mere fronts for insurgent activity. Human rights network Karapatan cited six instances in which the president “maliciously tagged” them as a communist front in his speeches. In early 2018 the government produced a terror list of 648 individuals, including the UN Special Rapporteur for the rights of indigenous people (she was later removed).

Running in tandem with the above mentioned allegations is the government’s own counterinsurgency plan to safeguard national security and quell perceived threats. To do this, the government increased military spending this year by 37 percent from 136.5 billion Philippine pesos to 188.2 billion (from about  $2.6 billion to $3.5 billion).

All the Kings Men

Last November Duterte signed Executive Order No. 70 creating the “National Task Force to End the Communist Insurgency.” The decree formalizes what had already been laid out in the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) “whole of nation approach,” which outlines utilizing all levels and types of state machinery to target legal organizations operating as supporters of terrorist activity.

Rey Casambre, a veteran activist of the Philippine Peace Center argued last year in a forum that the “whole of nation approach” will strangle critical voices by fabricating charges against individuals, cutting funding to organizations and NGOs and promoting outright physical assault.

Ironically, a few months after speaking on the matter, Casambre and his wife were arrested and charged with attempted murder and illegal possession of firearms and explosives. The couple are well into their senior years and yet were alleged to have murdered someone on the other end of the country.

On the other hand, Interior and Local Government Assistant Secretary Jonathan Malaya downplayed the dangers of the executive order upon its passing, saying it would primarily take civilian initiatives instead of military ones. This, however, was precisely what Casambre had earlier called out, saying “the military seeks to control and manipulate access to basic and social services for their anti-insurgency campaign while feigning that they are apolitical.”

On live television recently, National Youth Commission Chief Ronald Cardema invoked the “whole of nation approach” as he attempted to berate several progressive political parties for their purported support of armed rebellion. He cited gatherings of agency heads to hear a lecture by former members of the Communist Party of the Philippines who enumerated the same organizations that are usually in the administration’s line of fire.

Congressman Carlos Zarate of the Bayan Muna (People First) party, one of the alleged rebel supporters in Congress, challenged Cardema to produce evidence and file cases in court. Witness testimonies done behind closed doors should not be enough, said the lawmaker.

Early this year, a Philippine delegation travelled to meet with representatives from the European Union to specifically ask donor nations to halt all funding toward “communist organizations.” Among the organizations named by the AFP was Karapatan, which subsequently filed for protection orders with the assistance of the National Union of People’s Lawyers in light of the allegations. Karapatan added that 48 of their colleagues had already been slain by the armed forces since 2001.

In response, AFP Spokesman Brig. General Edgard Arevalo maintained that they have damning evidence against the rights groups and will present them to the Supreme Court soon.

Karapatan and a few other grassroots organizations also had their registrations revoked by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). A late 2018 SEC memorandum (No. 15) explicitly underpins the military’s pursuit to identify groups, through “resource sharing” with the commission, that receive “terrorist funding.”

“This has never been part of the SEC mandate,” said Nonoy Espina, head of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). Espina went on to say that “they don’t even have to inform you that you are being investigated.” NUJP, among many others, is being required to submit their own financial records next month after being tagged as a “high risk” organization.

Killing Fields

Arguably the most glaring and violent reflection of the counterinsurgency design were the peasant killings on the island of Negros, central Philippines. In October 2018, nine farmers from the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers were gunned down, including two children while the bunch was sharing a meal.

Three of the victims’ bodies were burned. A month later, the lawyer for the families of those killed was shot dead while he was at a local store.

A multitude of arrests, destruction of crops, burning of homes and synchronized assassinations in six different towns across the island followed in late December 2018, all perpetrated against leaders of farmers organizations pegged as being rebel supporters.

On March 30, 14 farmers were killed and 15 others injured and arrested by various police teams.

The Union of Agricultural Workers (Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura or UMA) recently finished a fact-finding mission on the island. UMA says all those detained were slapped with charges relating to illegal possession of firearms or drugs, designed to paint them as insurgents, involved with the illegal drug trade, or both.

The police drew the ire of some lawmakers who wanted heads to roll. Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Oscar Albayalde, however, deflected critcism by saying “I attest that there is no basis to call for action against our part in the light of the death of 14 suspects during a recent series of police operations in Negros Oriental as I swiftly ordered the administrative relief of the Provincial Director of Negros PPO and three Chiefs of Police in the province to pave the way to the thorough investigation on the incidents.” 

While the PNP sacked officials directly responsible for the massacre, they still managed to turn the tables on critics and even the victims themselves who were branded as national security threats. “We should vehemently send our condemnation against these people supporting the perceived enemies of the state to gain power themselves, even sacrificing the innocent lives of young students to attain their own propaganda against our country and government,” said Albayalde, alleging the recruitment of young people to join the communist guerrilla group New People’s Army.

Central to law enforcement in Negros is the Synchronized Enhanced Managing of Police Operations, or SEMPO, which has also villainously been dubbed by police themselves as Oplan (operation plan) Sauron. Karapatan calls it an offshoot of the “whole of nation approach.”

The group’s secretary general, Tinay Palabay, explained: “In Negros, the pattern of attacks though has gone beyond merely anonymous killings and arrests using warrants on fabricated charges – the police and military are killing before an audience, calling these killing sprees Oplan Sauron/SEMPO as ‘legitimate’ operations and conducting these killings and arrests using spurious and unsubstantiated search warrants.”

Palabay also drew parallels with President Duterte’s infamous drug war, particularly the summary executions, portrayal of the victims as criminals, and the planting of the evidence to support such charges.

Tokhang (drug war)-style killings have now become a staple method of the authorities in their counterinsurgency campaign. It serves to discredit the victims and rationalize the vicious acts perpetrated by the police primarily.”

Karapatan’s tally of peasant killings under Duterte has surpassed 200 nationwide.

A Return to the Dark Ages?

On more than one occasion Duterte has teased a return to Martial Law and dictatorship. For Mindanao, the southernmost group of islands, military rule in response to an insurgency has been in effect for close to two years.

Palabay called it a “militarist design that miserably fails to address the roots of the poverty and armed conflict and has done much harm to civilians, most especially peasants and farm workers. Counterinsurgency measures want to press the people into submission and/or condition them into wanting iron fisted rule.”

Duterte has also led the charge for a shift to a federal government, one which would grant greater power to local governments. To accomplish this, a change in the constitution is necessary. Some experts have noted that the proposed amendments in of themselves present a whole other danger.

Former lawmaker and constitutionalist Neri Colmenares has been vocal about rewriting the state charter. After dissecting the proposals he said “charter change will open up the country for… transnational corporations, no term limits, no political dynasty prohibition, and of course cancellation of elections in one of the provisions.”

The results of the recently concluded midterm elections are also telling. Duterte-backed candidates swept the Senate, while the voting process in general was marred by allegations of fraud and vote-buying.

On election day, at some polling places members of the police force reportedly distributed “newsletters” actively discouraging the public not to vote for the “terrorist” opposition. Such instances were a clear violation of election laws that have so far gone unpunished.  PNP chief Albayalde said this week “we will look into that,” reminding reporters that the police are “non-partisan and apolitical.”

The Commission on Elections admitted while votes were being cast that problems with the vote-count machines tripled since the polls back in 2016. In addition, around 1,000 SD or data cards, each holding the votes cast from different precincts, also malfunctioned. Probably the most resounding issue among the public was the seven hour gap in transmission of the election results, as opposed to the real time updates that were expected. Before and after the gap ,the results remained largely unchanged in favor of administration backed candidates.

The election results represent a resounding win for Duterte and his allies at all levels in the country, from his hometown of Davao to the newly comprised Senate, in which no opposition candidate gained a spot.

Coupled with the intensification of counterinsurgency activity and the vilification of Duterte disparagers, the administration seems well positioned to implement its desired policies.

Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.