Farmers, indigenous peoples and teachers have been tagged as terrorists and subjected to various forms of attack since Duterte assumed office. The Anti-Terror Bill, if enacted into law, would only escalate what they describe as “state terror” and would target ordinary citizens for merely exercising their constitutional rights.
By MENCHANI TILENDO
MANILA — The Philippines is on its way to having a law that rights defenders say would infringe on civil and political rights. The draft Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 was just railroaded both in Congress and Senate and President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to sign this bill into a law despite the more urgent solutions needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Critics pointed out that the vague and overboard definition of ‘terrorism’ in this bill poses great threats not just to human rights defenders and activists, but also to ordinary citizens who could be merely exercising their constitutional rights. Under the bill, any individual or group could be held guilty of ‘terrorism’ and be faced with lifetime imprisonment if they are “engaging in acts intended to death or serious bodily injury to any person” in order to “create an atmosphere and spread a message of fear.”
Although the bill exempts advocacy, work stoppages, and humanitarian action from the definition of ‘terrorism’, the Anti-Terrorism Council’s interpretation of what constitutes terrorist act undermines these safeguards.
In a report by the United Nations Human Rights office on Thursday, long-standing concerns about state-backed and vigilante violence are said to have worsened in the Philippines under the Duterte administration. Since this government has institutionalized the “drug war” and crackdown against rights defenders, it has drawn wide domestic and international condemnation.
Even at a time of a dreadful pandemic, government authorities, including military and police forces, have continued to exercise ‘abuse of power’ over ordinary citizens, humanitarian groups, and critics labeled as ‘quarantine violators’. Thus, the railroading of the Anti-Terrorism Bill amid this crisis has sparked protests from various groups and sectors.
Antonio Flores, 72, was one of the thousands-strong protesters who marched along UP Diliman’s University Avenue Thursday to call for the junking of the Anti-Terrorism Bill. He is the current national chairman Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA), and has been an active member of this organization since 1983.
“We decided to join the protest because the government claims that farmers like us could be one of those ‘terrorists’. In fact, we are actually food frontliners who are victims of Duterte’s anti-people policies,” Flores said.
According to UMA, 257 farmers and farm workers have been killed under the Duterte administration.
“We want to register that our rage is not only justified, it is also constitutional. We want to prove that we are fighting under a legal organization, and we are not terrorists,” Flores added.
If the bill finally becomes a law, Flores said that this would have grave implications on their decades-long struggle for genuine agrarian reform. They could be tagged as “land-grabbers” or considered as “inciting terror” for fighting for their rights.
Worsening state-sponsored attacks
Government officials and the president’s allies have been vocal on attempts to malign public outcry by claiming that those who are not ‘terrorists’ should not be afraid of the passage of the bill. This insensitive and oversimplified remark is the same old tune played by the masterminds of Oplan Tokhang, “If you’re not an addict, then you shouldn’t be afraid of the drug war.” The recent UN report pointed out that the so-called campaign against illegal drugs claimed thousands of innocent lives using the worn-out excuse that the victims allegedly fought back.
Like Flores, Lumad volunteer teacher Beverly Gofredo, 20, also fears that the already-existing military threats on their communities will intensify if the Anti-Terrorism Bill is enacted.
“Even before this bill was railroaded, Lumad communities have been consistent targets of military offensives, red-tagging, and intimidation,” Gofredo said.
She said that just last May 22, one of the largest Lumad schools in Mindanao, the Community Technical College of Southeastern Mindanao (CTCSM), received a closure order from the Department of Education.
Lumad schools have always been facing threats of closure not because of compliance issues but because the government has been accusing them of teaching and learning rebellion.
“If they could attack us like this even without the bill, then how much more when it finally becomes a law? All of our schools will be closed down and military groups could easily produce fake ‘NPA surrenderees’ among our ranks,” Gofredo added.
Even teachers and educators who merely exercise academic freedom are not spared from terrorist-tagging. Lakan Umali, 24, is a UP Mindanao Creative Writing professor who also showed solidarity in the #JunkTerrorBill protests.
“The government claims that we are using subversive materials for teaching, and this thinking is against the very principle of academic freedom. Once the Anti-Terrorism Bill is passed into law, the lessons that we teach will definitely be restricted. This is a manifestation of stronger state terror,” Umali said.
More reasons to dissent
Flores, Gofredo and Umali were among the thousand protesters who went out of their homes to register their opposition to the proposed measure.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of human rights alliance Karapatan, said that the Thursday protest proves that the Filipino people “will not cower in fear in the face of rising dictatorship.”