By Luis V. Teodoro
As the visiting European Union (EU) parliamentarians were declaring that the human rights situation in the Philippines has “improved,” a 17-year-old male and two others had apparently been abducted in a Batangas town. Very few details were available as this column was being written, but it was only one of the many abductions that are still happening despite the change in administration last July, 2022.
It may not be another instance of State terrorism against a critic of government. But together with harassment, “red-tagging,” and other attacks, some abductions have involved political and social activists and their families as victims. These are still occurring despite the promise of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July that he would protect human rights. He made the same pledge in his September speech at the 77th United Nations General Assembly.
The media reported at least eight instances of harassment, threats, and human rights violations during the first two months of 2023. What makes them alarming is that some of the victims seem to have been targeted because of the involvement of their kin in those groups the previous regime had labeled “red” and “terrorist.”
As reported by some media organizations, those instances included the following:
Playwright and political activist Bonifacio Ilagan, who is also the lead convenor of the non-government organization Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law (CARMMA), received a death threat on his cell phone on the second day of the new year.
The caller claimed to be the “commander” of a police or military team that was only waiting for the approval of his superiors to kill Ilagan. The caller, said Ilagan, told him that his and similar State groups can easily kill “communists” with impunity.
Six days later, on Jan. 8, in an apparent case of harassment, while visiting her father, the daughter of a political prisoner was strip-searched and frisked in full view of jail guards in violation of their own guidelines for such searches.
Two labor rights advocates were abducted at Cebu City’s Pier 6 on Jan. 10. Forced into a car parked at the docking area, they were released later. Both victims said their abductors, who had introduced themselves as police officers, subjected them to days of psychological torture.
An activist and eight others, including a community journalist, were formally charged with rebellion before Branch 2 of the Cordillera Regional Trial Court. One a staff member of a Cordillera indigenous peoples (IP) network, was arrested on Jan. 30. She is the mother of the labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno’s international officer who was also arrested last year on the same charges.
Before the month ended, on Jan. 29, a former National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultant was arrested with his wife and a female companion. He was one of the peace consultants released in 2016 to participate in the peace talks between the Duterte regime and the NDFP.
On Jan. 30, the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) named a medical doctor a terrorist in its Resolution No. 35. A community activist who helped set up health centers in Mindanao, she was arrested February last year on alleged and patently absurd kidnapping and illegal detention charges.
A humanitarian mission of the human rights group Karapatan was threatened and harassed by military elements in the Bondoc Peninsula of Quezon Province on Feb. 1. The human rights group was assisting families in retrieving the bodies of alleged New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas who were killed in a supposed encounter with government troops.
The drivers of the mission vehicles were interrogated and all the names of their passengers taken. Two vehicles were also impounded for alleged violations of Land Transportation Office (LTO) regulations. At the LTO Office later, an LTO official and a police officer demanded that the drivers admit that they and their passengers are members of the NPA.
Five days later, on Feb. 6, a University of the Philippines (UP) professor was arrested inside her home in UP Diliman for her alleged failure to remit Social Security System (SSS) contributions for her former domestic helper. The professor said she was not aware of any case against her.
Her arrest was in violation of the UP-Department of National Defense (DND) agreement which prohibits the military from entering the campus without coordinating with UP authorities. The likely reason for her arrest is her supposedly being among those militants the government has labeled “red.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) had earlier compared the human rights situation during the Duterte regime with that in Marcos Jr.’s. HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said that “the reality is nothing has changed… only a change in tone and a greater effort in public relations.”
HRW noted the instances of “red-tagging” last year during the first months of the Marcos administration. It also recalled that in September, the former spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) even threatened in a social media post a Manila Regional Trial Court judge for dismissing the government petition to declare as terrorists the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA.
But apart from “red-tagging,” and attacks against freedom of expression, other human rights violations have continued under the Marcos administration — among them the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of dissenters, and the “drug war” killings that have been monitored by, among other groups, the UP Third World Studies Center (TWSC).
Given these circumstances, how then to account for the EU parliamentarians’ description of the Philippine human rights situation as “improved”? The answer can only be because the situation during the six years of the Duterte regime was so bad in comparison to the seven months of the Marcos II administration, the present can only seem better.
The extrajudicial killings (EJKs) during the present regime (according to the TWSC, 35 so far this year), for example, when compared with the number of EJKs during the Duterte era, which the Philippine National Police ((PNP) says numbered “only” 6,252, pale in comparison with that figure — and even more so when compared to the 27,000 to 30,000 individuals that human rights groups say were actually killed during the Duterte “war on drugs.” And, although the harassment, “red-tagging,” and killing of government critics, human rights defenders and activists are continuing, the numbers are, so far, similarly lower than those during the Duterte regime’s.
Also still to be established is whether the Marcos regime is replicating such Duterte era atrocities as encouraging the police to kill suspected drug pushers and addicts by offering them financial rewards, which made the “war on drugs,” according to Amnesty International (AI), a “deliberate and systematic” war against the poor — the deaths of whose breadwinners have driven the widowed and orphaned even deeper into penury.
As noted by the global coalition InvestigatePH, “the State forces that perpetrate violence are (also) obstructing investigations.” In its second report, the coalition pointed out that the tactics the Duterte regime had been using in its “drug war” were also being used, by 2021, to target human rights defenders and government critics.
As favorably as the current regime’s human rights record may seem compared to that of its predecessor’s, everyone should keep in mind that it is still only in its seventh month. That means it could yet equal, if not surpass, the Duterte record in the five years and five months left of its six-year term.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).