Duterte’s Military Response to COVID-19: Another Iteration of Martial Law

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!

Did Duterte Just Endorse Campaign to End US Support of Duterte?”

On Wednesday January 29, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he will not allow any member of his Cabinet to travel to the United States. This announcement came just a few days after he ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a 1998 military pact between the Philippines and US which accords legal status to US troops who were rotated in the country for military exercises and other operations. The termination order was given after Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa’s visa was canceled by the US. Dela Rosa is well known as President Duterte’s close confidant and leader of his bloody war on drugs.

It is clear that Duterte’s blatant abuses of power, leading to the egregious violations of human rights in the Philippines over the past 3 years, are ringing alarm bells for some US legislators. While the US has given Duterte’s regime 550 million dollars in military aid since 2016, the US Senate and House of Representatives have also both passed resolutions condemning the Government of the Philippines for its continued detention of Senator Leila de Lima, Senate resolution 142 and House resolution 233.  The “threat” to terminate the VFA, as well as the barring of his Cabinet members’ travels to the US, function as Duterte’s test of the loyalty of the US government, his closest military ally and most ardent supporter. 

ICHRP-US welcomes the termination of the VFA, and sees it as a key step in end support of Duterte, if it is actually enacted. Since its inception, the Filipino people have protested and pushed back against it, and against any presence of US troops in the Philippines. ICHRP-US  welcomes any action taken by the US government to withdraw its ongoing support for human rights violations in the Philippines vis-a-vis military support for Duterte’s state forces.  

As the murderous war on drugs continues in the cities, we also see the heightening of abuses against human rights defenders, in Negros and throughout the country, through Executive Order 70 and Memorandum 132 with the establishment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Insurgency (NTF-ELCAC), and the brutal Oplan Kapanatagan and “whole of nation approach.”  While these are sold to the people as peacekeeping and stabilizing efforts, in reality, they are nothing more than fascistic crackdowns on legal activist organizations and terror-tagging of individuals who disagree with Duterte’s policies and practices, modeled from from the 2009 U.S. counterinsurgency guide.

While Duterte tests the level of public support he can receive from the United States, it is ever more urgent we register our dismay and outrage towards ongoing U.S. support of the regime and to win over those who support human rights in the Philippines to become even bolder in advocacy. We hold strong in our support for genuine sovereignty and self-determination in the Philippines, which necessitates freedom from U.S. military intervention in the country.

Portland Human Rights Commission Votes in Favor of Resolution to Suspend Military Aid to Duterte Regime

Portland, OR — In the evening of January 8th, the Portland Human Rights commission voted to submit a historic resolution to the Portland City Council to suspend U.S. military Aid to the Philippines. Since 2016, the U.S. has provided the Philippines with over 550 million dollars in military aid, despite Philippine President Duterte’s infamous and widespread human rights violations that have resulted in over 30,000 killings in the country.  

Dozens of Filipino human rights activists and community members joined the Portland Human Rights Commission meeting to support the resolution and testify about the effects of Duterte’s “war on drugs” and crackdown on human rights defenders.

“Youth should not have to grow up looking down the barrel of a gun” said Veronica Porter from GABRIELA Portland and the Malaya Movement, describing the situation of many youth growing up in the Philippines who are facing indiscriminate harassment from state forces. Porter recently returned from a delegation to Panay island in the Visayas, Philippines. 

Dr. Crystallee Crain, Portland Human Rights Commissioner and author of the resolution, stated, “I believe that it’s important to use our voices for change and to impress upon the leaders of the city, state, and country that we do not support these violations of human rights.”

Clearly moved by the constituent testimonies, the Commission voted 6-1-1 to push for the resolution at the level of Portland City Council. The Commission also voted to write a public statement of support. The current draft of the resolution will be submitted for a vote at Portland City Council on a later date yet to be determined. 

“While this is a big step in the right direction, I encourage leaders in Congress to divest unnecessary military aid that are being unjustly utilized. We should not allow our elected officials to squander tax dollars to dictatorships that aim to bolster their own power. We need massive review and reform of appropriations on the federal level. Our local work is meant to catalyze the movement in that direction,” continued Dr. Crain. 

Sam Miller, Regional Coordinator for the Portland Chapter of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, added, “In a progressive city like Portland, this is an important move forward in living those progressive values on an international level. I applaud the members of the Human Rights Commission for recognizing the interconnectedness of their advocacy for human rights in Portland and the global struggle for freedom, democracy and justice.”

The Portland resolution is a part of growing diplomatic pressure against Duterte and a contribution to the U.S.-wide campaign to suspend military aid to the Philippines. In 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for an investigation of the human rights situation in the Philippines, and in September, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a similar resolution, which calls for the suspension of military aid to the Philippines. On the same day of the Portland Human Rights Commission vote, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution S142, which condemns human rights violations in the Philippines and the detention of Senator Leila De Lima and harassment of journalist and Time Magazine Person of the year Maria Ressa. 

Support the Filipino People’s Struggle, Not U.S. War

On December 10th, Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson announced the President would lift martial law in Mindanao two years after its initial implementation. This is a welcome development; however, under a President who has authored 30,000 killings in a war on drugs and unleashed endless attacks against human rights defenders, the move to lift martial law in Mindanao neither absolves Duterte’s guilt nor indicates a change a halt to the Presidents growing list of crimes against humanity. 


The news brings further attention to the fact that Duterte has not needed to declare martial law over the whole country in order to carry out military rule; Duterte has instead implemented Executive Order 70, the National Task Force to End Local communist armed conflict, and Memorandum 32, a redeployment of state forces to “suppress lawless violence.” According to Karapatan, Duterte’s program of harassment and violence have resulted in 293 political killings, at least 204 people tortured, 429 victims of frustrated extrajudicial killings, 94,075 threatened and harassed and the arrests of 382 of the 629 political detainees in the country. As long as Duterte can continue such a level of repression with impunity, he has no need for any formal declaration of martial law. 

But whatever guise Duterte uses to try and obscure his dictatorship, his attempts to dupe people in the Philippines and abroad are failing. As evident in the UN Human Rights Council investigation on human rights in the Philippines, the International Criminal Court movement towards its own investigation, the recent statement from U.S. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders against repression of workers and unions in the Philippines, and in the growing number of people protesting Duterte worldwide, international dissent against the regime continues to grow. Even Bono is calling Duterte to accountability.  

Still, there are those who lend support to Duterte. Since 2016, the U.S. has supplied $554.55 million in defense assistance to the regime. Furthermore, In a recent report from the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines, “47 major companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Total, could be found legally and morally liable for human rights harms to Filipinos resulting from climate change.”  Whether it is President Trump or multinational corporations, only those who seek to profit from the exploitation of Filipinos align with Duterte. In the end, those who do win financial gains from political repression are far outnumbered by those of us who support and uphold human rights in the Philippines; what remains for us is to organize more broadly and boldly. 

On International Human Rights Day, ICHRP-US declares our unequivocal solidarity with the Filipino people, and we voice our support not only for individual and civil rights in the Philippines, but to the Filipino people’s collective right to self-determination and national liberation. While millions of dollars flow to U.S. defense assistance and multinational corporations that exploit people and their land, we call on people in the U.S. to join the solidarity movement for the Philippines and support the Filipino people’s struggle, not U.S. war and exploitation! 

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As Attacks Against Activists Increase, Fight Like Brandon Lee! Advance the Solidarity Movement for the Philippines!

Brandon’s Return to the Bay Area

This past week, just days before arrests of 57 activists in Negros, multiple police and military raids of Bayan and Gabriela offices in Manila, and the disappearance of a human rights worker, Honey Mae Suazo — family, friends, activists and city officials welcomed Brandon Lee home to the Bay Area. Brandon is the first United States citizen to be caught in the cross hairs of an extra-judicial assassination attempt by the regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

The protection and safe return of Brandon — the fundraising of thousands, community vigils, passing resolutions, and lobbying for Brandon — are evidence of the impact of Brandon’s life dedicated to community and justice. But even more so, the response to Brandon’s shooting is evidence of a mass movement — of international scale — amidst a worsening human rights crisis in the Philippines.

Brandon Lee’s Solidarity

ICHRP-US is one of the organizations contributing to the mass movement for peace & justice in the Philippines; as a solidarity formation, we uphold Brandon’s life and example as a model to us. 

Before moving to the Philippines, where Brandon married his wife, raised his young daughter and established permanent residence, Brandon was an active member of the League of Filipino Students at San Francisco State University.  Brandon, a Chinese-American, born and raised in San Francisco, was always deeply integrated in the Filipino community. As many know now, Brandon dedicated his life to fight for indigenous and land rights as a community activist and paralegal and published facts and stories of people’s struggle as a journalist under a fascist regime. Even in the face of surveillance and harassment from state forces, Brandon did not waver in his cause. 

Like Brandon, many people of faith and activists from outside the Philippines have taken up the call to organize and live in genuine solidarity with the oppressed people under the Duterte regime. Along with Brandon, Sister Patricia Fox, Adam Shaw, Tawanda Chandiwana, and Miracle Osma are some of the most recent who faced persecution, including deportation, under Duterte. Many solidarity activists before these, like Father Pops and WIlliam Geertman, were killed while struggling for people’s rights and self-determination in the Philippines. 

Whether it was Martial Law of the Marcos era, the hundreds of enforced disappearances of the Arroyo Regime, the negligence of the Noynoy Regime during natural disasters, or the ever-worsening human rights crisis of the Duterte Regime under which 30,000 poor people have been slaughtered in the name of the war on drugs, the human rights situation and people’s movement in the Philippines has moved many to take action around the world.  Brandon continues that legacy of international solidarity and we call on people in the United States to follow Brandon’s lead. 

U.S. Support of the Duterte Regime

In 2018, the US gave at least $195 million in military aid to the state forces responsible for the shooting of Brandon. In addition, 5 million rounds of ammunition was given to the Armed Forces of the Philippines by the US government.  The bullets that remain in Brandon, a US citizen, and the many bullets used to enforce Duterte’s tyranny, are very likely to have been provided by US taxpayer money. Despite the overwhelming proof of grave human rights violations by the Duterte Regime, the US government continues to violate the Leahy Law which prohibits the US government from using funds to assist foreign security forces that commit torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance

While the United States has yet to take decisive action in response to Duterte’s crimes, the situation in the Philippines worsens. Duterte imposes de-facto martial law across the country through widespread killings, surveillance, and the raids.

As Brandon’s mother, Louise Lee, reflected on the human rights situation:

“My son, who like many innocent people in the Philippines, was senselessly shot for speaking out for those who have no voice, for those who are marginalized, and for those who are being taken advantage of.

Let’s not permit this failed assassination attempt on my son’s life be in vain.

Unlike Brandon, there are tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines who remain unknown because they do not receive the same international attention as Brandon. My son would say, his fight for justice is for them too.”

Brandon fights because the Filipino people are fighting back: lawyers pursue justice for trade unionists jailed with trumped up charges, activists rally in the streets, indigenous people defend the environment, farmers create collective cooperatives to ensure enough food in crisis, and some even choose to take up arms to defend threatened communities. ICHRP-US calls community members and organizations to join with the Filipino people: Fight like Brandon Lee! Advance the solidarity movement for the Philippines! End U.S. Support of the Duterte regime!

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Stop the attacks! Defend Negros against Duterte’s Killing Spree!

In the last two weeks, over 21 civilians have been assassinated on the island of Negros. Arthur and Aldane Bayawa were brothers, one a school principal and another an official in the Department of Education. Marlon Ocampo was at home with his one year old son when their house was strafed by bullets, killing them both. Ramon “Bobby” Jalandoni and Ernesto Posadas were both local government officials. Attorney Anthony Trinidad, who represented political prisoners, was already on a hit list. He was ambushed on his way home from court by a pair of gunmen on a motorcycle. These are just glimpses into some of the lives taken away from us.

What most of the victims had in common is that they were known to be critical of the government, and that their killings were committed brazenly and in public, by people who do not act like they are scared to be caught. Testimony from eyewitnesses, including family members, linked the killings to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP). 

Negros has already become infamous for government-linked killings within the last year, notably because of the “Negros 14”, who were peasants killed by the police, and the “Sagay 9” massacre of sugar worker families. As of August 1st this year, 87 people from Negros, mostly farmers, have been killed under President Duterte’s regime. His explanation of this latest spate of killings has been to blame such “lawless violence” on the New People’s Army (NPA), despite the fact that he has also accused many of the victims of being NPA. In retaliation, he also promised to “replicate the atrocious acts”, especially with regard to the NPA’s alleged killing of 4 policemen. 

However these killings must be seen within the context of Duterte’s militarization of government bureaucracy, where more and more of his direct appointees are current or former military and police. Under Duterte’s Oplan Kapanatagan, the military and police are working together to practice a “whole-of-nation” counterinsurgency strategy, as outlined by Executive Order 70. 

Oplan Kapanatagan seeks to remove the distinction between police-style operations against ordinary criminals and organized crime, with military-style counterinsurgency operations. This strategy, which was crafted by the US Army and was also adopted by Duterte’s predecessor, former President Noynoy Aquino, gradually takes away democratic civilian rule and checks-and-balances. It employs politically-justified killings of indigenous people, unionists, and farmers advocating land reform, accusing those murdered as communist rebels or their sympathizers. In addition, it implements a total war strategy that does nothing to address the roots of the armed conflict in landlessness, joblessness and government corruption and impunity. Often, the same methods of extrajudicial killings have been used as those in Duterte’s infamous Oplan Tokhang “drug war”.

Additionally, Duterte’s Memorandum Order 32 specifically names Negros alongside Samar and Bicol as in a “state of lawless violence”, directing additional and more aggressive deployments of AFP and PNP forces. While Oplan Kapanatagan is a country-wide strategy, its local manifestation in Negros known as Oplan Sauron was developed in late 2018 as the military and police response to Duterte’s M.O. 32 order. Nadja de Vera, convener of the group Defend Negros, said the order “was just issued to legalize the killings” that were already happening. 

With these orders and military operations, Duterte has imposed a state of de facto martial law in Negros and other rural areas, using the 50-year-old communist-led insurgency as an excuse after rejecting the call for peace talks. However, even de facto martial law is not enough for Duterte. In response to the violence, which even pro-Duterte newspapers have speculated is the responsibility of the government, Duterte has opened a discussion of extending martial law beyond Mindanao and other “drastic measures,” in his own words. 

The killings in Negros come right after Duterte and Trump administration officials met in Manila to discuss topics including greater security cooperation. The US ambassador tweeted that they met to “explore ways to deepen our military partnership”, while US-trained and educated Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana spoke about strengthening the Mutual Defense Treaty, one agreement that has long made the Philippines a major outpost of the U.S. military. As part of this relationship, the U.S. military has 280 operations planned in the Philippines in 2019, more than any other country which falls under the responsibility of the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command. 

The recent meetings between Trump’s State Department officials and the Philippine defense officials act to embolden, not curb Duterte’s fascism, and underscore the importance of ramping up the campaign to expose and end US support of Duterte’s regime. In 2018, the Philippines received at least 193.5 million dollars in direct military aid alone, with no sign of being reduced by Congress in 2019. Without restrictions or reductions, Duterte’s death squads operating with impunity becomes a moral issue not only for Filipinos, but for all of us.

#StopTheAttacks!

#DefendNegros

#EndUSAidPH