Development workers face more dangers under Duterte

Estrella Catarata, a convenor of NGO ASCENT, condemns the harassment against development workers in a forum, July 16 at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

“The role of development workers is to help address the needs of the poor and marginalized sectors of our society, especially those living in rural areas since they are largely unable to access government services.”

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MANILA – – “If you go inside the school [operated by] CLANS, we will kill you.”

This was just one of the threats received by students, parents and teachers of Center for Lumad Advocacy, Networking and Services (CLANS) from state security forces, Mercedes Arleen Alonzo, former executive director of CLANS said.

Out of the 55 CLANS schools, only 14 opened this June because of the attacks on their schools. “Many of our teachers were harassed, illegally arrested, and threatened to be killed. They were thus forced into hiding in order to save their lives,” Alonzo said in a forum organized by Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network (ASCENT), July 16 at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

One of their teachers, Jolita Tolina, was arrested on February 7 for trumped-up murder charges. Alonzo said the military claims that Tolina is a New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla who participated in one of the encounters. At the time of the alleged incident, Alonzo said, Tolina was attending their training in North Cotabato.

Under the Duterte administration, more and more development workers who provide services to far-flung communities are becoming targets of human rights violations.

The teachers and volunteers of another NGO, Mindanao Inter-Faith Services Foundation (MISFI) are experiencing the same plight.

Fritzie Junance M. Magbanua, MISFI advocacy officer, said some of their teachers and volunteers were forced by the military to surrender as NPA “rebel returnees.” One of them was Jocelyn Zamora, teacher in charge of one of their schools. Zamora was fetched by soldiers from her home and ordered to go to the municipal hall in Trento, Agusan del Sur. She was forced to read a script admitting that she was an NPA fighter.

Also forced to surrender as “rebel returnees” were: Gerry Cayuga, MISFI federation president; Lito Gandianon, chairperson of a local organization; and Dante Manguyod, community facilitator.

Magbanua recalled that when they requested for a courtesy call with Talaingod Mayor Basilio Libayao, they were branded as persona non grata and were not allowed to go inside the local government’s office.

The Department of Education’s (DepEd) is not at all helping. Alonzo said the DepEd has been sitting on their applications for permit to operate. “The government should treat us as friends, as helpers in delivering education to places that they have yet to reach,” Alonzo said.

A fact-finding mission conducted by the Save Our Schools Network documented 225 cases of attacks, which affected 64 schools, 4,578 students, 189 teachers, and 202 members of the Parent-Teacher Community Associations (PCTA) in Region 12 alone from July 2016 to July 2018.

Estrella Catarata, a convenor of ASCENT, said, “The role of development workers is to help address the needs of the poor and marginalized sectors of our society, especially those living in rural areas since they are largely unable to access government services. But instead of supporting them, the government, through its state security forces, is demonizing their work and tagging them as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) or the New People’s Army (NPA).”

ASCENT’s own senior consultant, Benito Quilloy, and project staff, Rita Espinoza, were illegally arrested by elements of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on October 19, 2017 in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental. They were slapped with trumped-up charges of robbery, arson, illegal possession of firearms, and attempted murder. The two are detained at the Bayugan Municipal Police Station in Agusan del Sur.

Quilloy and Espinoza were in Negros for a two-day consultation with the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW). They conducted workshops and planned for campaign activities on the demand of sugar workers for a 50-percent wage increase.

Church workers are also not spared from the harassment and threats. Sr. Patricia Fox, a missionary nun working with peasants, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups was ordered to be deported by the Bureau of Immigration (BI).

Moreover, on July 5, thirteen development workers and church development volunteers of the Iglesia Filipina Indipendiente (IFI) were arrested by policemen in General Santos City while they were conducting a project assessment for the turnover of the IFI-Visayas Mindanao Regional Office for Development (IFI-VIMROD) to the Diocese of Libertad.

Two of those arrested were charged with murder, frustrated murder and attempted murder while the others were charged with obstruction of justice. Nine of them have been released after posting bail amounting to P36,000 ($675) each.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, who was among the first to respond to the incident, said that intelligence operatives of the military were forcing two of those arrested to identify themselves as Francis Madria and Maria Limbaga. The names, he said, are included in the Department of Justice’s petition to declare alleged leaders and members of CPP and NPA as terrorists.

On July 18, another development worker, April Rose Avila, endured surveillance and harassment from military intelligence agents.

Avila, administrative staff of the Disaster Response Center (DIRECT), a non-government organization (NGO) for community-based disaster management (CBDM) that operates in SOCCKSARGEN, was accosted by a man named Jerson Gallego, who introduced himself as a soldier.

Gallego, along with a certain Rex Gonzales, informed Avila that DIRECT has been under surveillance and showed her his mobile phone with photos of DIRECT’s volunteers and staff members, members of her family, and the map of the Citizens’ Disaster Response Network (CDRN).

According to DIRECT, Gallego said that he knows Avila’s identity and relatives and also showed her pictures of children, siblings, and family members of alleged relatives of NPA members and another photo of Lorna Mora, secretary general of NAKASA (Nagkahiusang Kababayenhan sa Sarangani or United Women in Sarangani). He maliciously asked her about DIRECT’s connection with CDRN, the Mindanao Inter-Faith Services Foundation, Inc. (MISFI), and with Mora.

“They want to create a chilling effect, to frighten development workers,” Zarate said. “Their fears have been dissipated; the only thing left is to resist.”

As MISFI’s Magbanua said, “Resistance has been our lifeline.” (

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