As COVID-19 has risen to the level of a global pandemic, President Duterte has ordered the deployment of 40,000 military and police in Metro Manila and placed all of Luzon on lockdown. Instead of giving immediate attention to the health care system and health care workers, Duterte has set up military checkpoints and empowered state forces to monitor the movement of people already facing harsh economic and social realities. 

While appalling, Duterte’s militarist response to COVID-19 keeps with the character of his violent regime; 4 years into his presidency, Duterte continues to shift from policy to policy that all manifest in de facto martial law in the country. 

Duterte’s Legacy of Militarism

After Duterte’s brutality became infamous through his “war on drugs”, the President declared martial law in Mindanao in spring 2017. The military intervention in Mindanao resulted in the flattening of Marawi City and the displacement of 400,000 people in a crackdown on activists all over the Southern Philippines. In late 2018, martial law was extended for another year in Mindanao, and Duterte created Executive Order 70 & Memorandum 32, unleashing the Task Force to End Local Communist conflict and empowering already corrupt military and police forces with the command to “prevent lawless violence.” Such policies laid the basis for Sagay Massacre in November 2018, the killing of 14 farmers in Negros in April 2019 and another spate of 21 killings in Negros in July 2019. These cases represent only a few cases of the widespread violence across the nation. 

In early 2020, after the regime lifted martial law in Mindanao, the Philippine Senate passed the “Anti-Terrorism Bill,” a piece of legislation that is anti-activist and pro-state terrorism. The language of the bill is vague, leaving more room for trumped up charges against activists and allowing arrest upon threat or suspicion of crime. The bill further empowers state forces, allowing police to keep a suspect for up to 30 days in detention before presenting the case to a court, and also limiting the ability of said suspect to travel. 

Such policies lead up to Duterte’s most recent move to militarize Manila on the basis of COVID-19, once again responding to a crisis of health and poverty with a military solution. 

Undying U.S. Support of Duterte’s Militarism

Despite the indisputably fascist nature of Duterte’s regime, the United States has not relented in it’s military support of the regime. In fact, U.S. military aid and involvement has increased since the election of Duterte. Operation Pacific Eagle, the U.S. counter-terror operation in the Philippines, began alongside the implementation of Duterte’s martial law. Duterte’s current military operation, which seeks to involve all government agencies in intelligence gathering, psy-war and military operations, is modeled after the U.S. 2009 Counter insurgency guide. In 2020, the U.S. military has planned to conduct a record setting number (over 300) joint exercises between the United States and Philippine state forces.

On the surface, it may appear that President Duterte’s recent order to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States is a positive move forward in limiting U.S. military influence in the country.  We applaud the bold U.S. Senators and representatives who have put forth legislation holding Duterte accountable, but the United States has not flinched at Duterte’s shameful crimes. U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper recently expressed disappointment over the VFA termination but indicated the United States will continue to pursue arms deals and procurements with the Philippines. Others, including Philippine Ambassador to the U.S, Romualdez and former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines John Maisto, indicated a future military deal may well be in the works

If the progression of Duterte’s military policies stays true — replacing one violent policy with another — any new deal with the U.S. will only likely do the same. 

People’s Rights, Not Martial Law

The overall crisis in the Philippines calls for people’s rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to self-determination. In the specific case of the COVID-19 pandemic, it calls for the right to health. However, these are rights that the Duterte regime continuously denies with iteration after iteration of martial law. It is further a violation of the rights of working people in the United States that U.S. tax dollars continue to support the Duterte regime while many face layoff, eviction, debt and little access to health care. 

As the global pandemic and economic crisis worsens, we call for the broadest unity of people against Duterte’s military solutions and U.S. support thereof; we call for widespread political education on the situation in the Philippines as a flashpoint in the global situation, and for advocacy work across communities and all levels of government. Violations of people’s rights requires a people’s solution; the people of the world demand health care and livelihood, not martial law!

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