MANILA – As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enters his third year in office, his administration has earned the ignominious distinction of ushering in the country’s ranking as the deadliest country for environmental and lands rights defenders in Asia.
It’s just the latest indicator of Manila’s careless, if often hostile, attitude toward the rural poor and indigenous communities of the Philippines. Rather than ensuring the rights of vulnerable populations, Manila has defended the investments of North American and European multinational corporations involved in mining and large-scale agriculture.
For rural communities, it’s been a process resulting in squalor, pollution, the loss of ancestral heritage, and the targeted assassination of outspoken figures and leaders within their communities.
According to western NGO Global Witness, which tracks rights abuses connected to natural resource exploitation and land conflicts, the country has witnessed the death of 48 ecological and land rights defenders in 2017.
The rise in deaths coincides with the Duterte administration’s cancellation of peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines and their armed struggle wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), who were represented by the country’s leftist umbrella group, the National Democratic Front (NDFP). Duterte has designated the CPP-NPA-NDF as “terrorist” while also tagging members of legal, unarmed and often unassociated social movements as equally guilty of terror.
Earlier this year, the government submitted a list of 600 people to a Manila court, requesting they be designated as terrorists. The list included United Nations special rapporteurs, indigenous leaders, and human rights defenders who would be considered guilty of “terrorism” according to the Human Security Act of 2007. The terror-tagging allows the government to seize the properties and bank accounts of those listed or arrest them at any time.
Joan Carling, a UN adviser on indigenous rights who was on the list, told Reuters:
The priority is business; this administration does not care about people … There is not even an acknowledgement by the government of the increasingly dangerous climate for defenders. We fear the situation will only get worse.”
In the meantime, the Filipino military has sought to use the alleged threat of the NPA, who have waged a 50-year-long communist insurgency against Manila, as a pretext to apply its counterinsurgency program Oplan Kapayapaan (Operational Plan Peace) to locals who reside in land desired by profit-seeking foreign interests.
This has entailed the eviction and displacement of hundreds of families, as well as paramilitary harassment, indiscriminate massacres and aerial bombardments, checkpoints and arbitrary detentions, food blockades on local refugees, and even threats by Duterte himself to bomb children’s schools in Lumad indigenous communities due to their perceived pro-communist sympathies.
Last year’s escalation by Duterte of the state’s decades-long anti-communist campaign has correlated with a dramatic rise in deaths across primarily indigenous rural communities — a process described as “systematic” by Global Witness.
The NGO notes:
Duterte’s military campaign against the NPA and its sympathizers has allegedly claimed the lives of many innocent civilians, disproportionately affecting indigenous communities in Mindanao. Reports by the UN and local organizations say the military have killed human rights defenders in Mindanao. The army denies the claims and says it only kills NPA rebels, but the sheer number of deaths of community and indigenous leaders involved in land disputes suggests that the army might be systematically targeting land and environmental defenders.”
Karapatan, the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, has been a leading voice resisting state violence against poor communities and social movements since its founding in 1995. Unlike foreign-funded human rights organizations like Global Witness and Amnesty International, Karapatan isn’t funded by foreign philanthropists or foundations in Europe or the U.S. Instead, the human rights-monitoring group relies on resources and labor provided by a dedicated local base of advocates, volunteers, and mass movement organizers who owe their allegiance only to the people of the Philippines.
The group closely monitors the violent acts directed at poor communities, compiling detailed reports and advocating for those who are victimized or threatened by the state and non-state accomplices.
Cristina Palabay is a leading mass movement organizer and general secretary of Karapatan. She has received numerous, no doubt resulting from Karapatan’s successes exposing Manila’s crimes and Palabay’s own sharply-worded, straightforward denunciations of what she has called the “fascist” nature of the government, especially under Duterte.
Palabay told MintPress News that the war on poor Filipinos is just as much a product of Washington’s needs as it is a result of the “anti-people” policies of the Philippine president.
The U.S. government has always been complicit in extrajudicial killings of activists and ordinary folks in the Philippines as evidenced by its continuing political and military support for Duterte, including the funding of his counterinsurgency program and anti-narcotics campaign.
This positioning of the U.S. government is inspired by U.S. multinational and big business interests in the Philippines and in Asia.”
These multinational corporations include major firms like Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP, Anglo-Swiss Glencore (formerly XStrata), U.S. oil giant Chevron, the Nebraska-based conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, and U.S. agricultural behemoths Del Monte and DOLE.
Tip of the iceberg, locals claim
Local advocates’ estimates of the death toll suffered by rights defenders sharply differ from those of the foreign NGOs, judging by the data released by Karapatan.
The group has tallied the number of land and environment defenders killed at 63 – 15 double the number of those killed in the prior year. The number counts as just a share of the total amount of people killed under the government’s counterinsurgency program, which has struck agrarian regions and urban zones alike.
“In line with its counterinsurgency program, the Duterte regime kills 2 per week and arrests 20 individuals in the same period – many of the victims are farmers and indigenous peoples,” Palabay said in a recent statement.
The group has recorded 169 cases of extra-judicial killings under Duterte during his first two years in office, a major uptick from the 103 deaths reported under the rule of Benigno Aquino, the previous president. The number doesn’t include those killed in Duterte’s war on drugs and is mainly comprised of human rights activists, environmental defenders, union leaders and the urban poor, according to Palabay.
Most of the deaths were recorded in Mindanao, the largest island in the country and a lucrative source of mineral reserves. State violence against civilian communities dramatically escalated after last May’s imposition of martial law, which accompanied the military’s kickoff of the brutal five-month siege on Marawi City, a U.S.-backed campaign to eliminate the presence of local Islamists who hoped, without success, to affiliate with the ISIS “caliphate.”
Martial law enhanced the authority of state security forces and their paramilitary allies, granting them a de facto blank check to control and abuse locals as they saw fit — a clear upgrade of their mandate under the anti-NPA Oplan Kapayapaan.
Duterte’s subsequent cancellation of peace talks with the communists — accompanied by furious tirades against the “terrorist” NPA — gave a green-light to those in the military seeking solutions in attacks on the NPA and their alleged “sympathizers” — real or perceived — in the mountain ranges of the Cordillera or canopies of Mindanao.
Global Witness summed up last year’s bloodshed as the product of several combined factors: “a president who is brazenly anti-human rights, the militarization of communities, and the failure of government bodies to provide protection for at-risk activists.”
But for Palabay, it’s not just a failure to protect threatened activist. She explained to MPN that the state’s methods follow a template of deliberate attack — often used in countries like Colombia, Mexico and other locales — meant to subdue locals through suppression and brutality that can expedite the extraction of wealth from their lands:
The patterns and the policies behind the killings of land and environmental defenders in the Philippines all indicate a seeming similarity with those modus operandi employed by the U.S. military in Latin America. It includes the use of anti-terror rhetoric along with campaigns to criminalize and legitimize the killings and other rights violations against defenders.
[We also see] the creation of paramilitary groups as auxiliary forces of the military and as investment defense forces, as well as the use of the ‘soft approach’ or civil-military operations [meant] to deceive communities.”
For Karapatan, the bloodshed is a small taste of the overriding goal of the “U.S.-Duterte Regime”: to transform the country into a dictatorial police state where basic rights are discarded and natural wealth is exploited.
While the stockholders in North American and European multinationals stand to reap massive profits, the Philippine people are being set on a course of continued violence and increased displacement, impoverization, and ruin.
Yet Palabay still sees hope in the popular movements across the Philippines, whose combative spirit hasn’t waned despite the state terror applied by Manila.
Palabay told MintPress:
The people’s movement in the Philippines, particularly the progressives, have a long history of resistance [and] It continues to this day.
We are building the united front against Duterte, and strengthening the organized resistance of the people at the grassroots.”
Regardless of any new records in bloodshed achieved — or exceeded — by Manila, Filipino movement organizers, activists and militants are confident that they can resist, survive, and emerge victorious from the state terror enforced, for the time being, by President Duterte and his backers in foreign capitals.
But until the people’s movements of the Philippines can hold their abusers and exploiters accountable, they plan to continue struggling — in full recognition of the losses and sacrifices encountered in their fight for justice and dignity.
Top Photo | A masked protester stands next to a banner depicting thousands of victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s extra-judicial killings during a rally to coincide with his third State of the Nation Address, July 23, 2018, in Quezon City, Philippines. Bullit Marquez | AP
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.