Activists in the Philippines are under siege. The country is now the most dangerous place for environmental activists, with 30 killed in 2018 – more than anywhere else in the world. And environmental defenders aren’t the only ones being targeted. Under Duterte’s presidency, the Philippine government has been targeting activists through propaganda, crackdowns, and violence.
Broadly defined as the use of direct and public action towards social change, activism has a long, storied history in the Philippines. From exposing abuses of the Spanish colonial regime in the 19th century, to Filipina women winning the right to vote in the 1930s, to student resistance against Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship in the 1970s, activism has been integral in shaping Philippine society and in the development of the Filipino nation.
Enter the Duterte administration. Activism’s significance as a legitimate and effective political avenue poses a threat to Duterte’s more controversial policies – especially those which could unite opposition groups against him. These include his administration’s deadly “War on Drugs” as well as the weak response to Chinese militarization and encroachment in the West Philippine Sea.
Government agencies have claimed that activism (particularly student activism) is “part and parcel of democratic politics” and that it is only trying to target groups allegedly recruiting for the communist rebellion.
Experiences of activists all over the country tell a different story. The danger to them is a danger for Philippine democracy.
Red-Tagging and Demonizing
Attacks on activists have been escalating dangerously in the 3 years since Duterte was elected. Activists in the Philippines have been demonized before, however, and the strategies being employed today are not new.
Many of the threats to activists come in the form of “red-tagging” or “red-baiting,” a propaganda tactic wherein an individual, group, or organization are labeled/accused – without any evidence or basis – as communists or terrorists and thus enemies of the state.
Red-tagging has parallels to the period of “McCarthyism” in the United States during the 1950s when anti-communist suspicions were at their height, and politicians were using them as a convenient way to attack opponents.
The Philippines had its own “Red Scare” around the same time, where a House Committee on Un-Filipino Activities (CUFA, later CAFA) was created to investigate “communist” activity in the country. This came to a head in 1961 when CAFA attempted to persecute professors from the University of the Philippines (UP) for suspected leftist publications. In response, student activists demonstrated in the name of academic freedom, and they succeeded in halting the so-called “CAFA witch-hunt.”
Today, a communist insurgency still rages in the country, waged by the New Peoples’ Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Part of the Philippines (CPP). The persistence of this rebellion – now the longest-running (ongoing) in Asia – is being used by the Philippine government to justify its red-tagging of activists and critics.
Though supposedly open to peace talks at the beginning of his term, Duterte has since declared the NPA a terrorist organization and has begun to wage an all-out war against them. This escalation of hostilities has led to intensified red-tagging of activist and opposition groups.
While the government can go after supposed rebel “front” organizations and recruiters as it claims to be doing, the red-tagging tactics they have been employing are doing more harm to legitimate activists than they are to the communist rebellion.
Let’s focus on one of the sectors affected by red-tagging: the academe. In 2018, the Philippine military revealed a list of schools which they claimed had become recruitment beds for communist rebels. The list included many of the country’s top universities and colleges (and one college that doesn’t even exist).
Student activists concentrated in the country’s universities, as well as many professors, are vocal critics of Duterte’s policies, and the military’s blanket accusation of entire educational institutions has put them all at risk of being equated to communists and terrorists. Many of these institutions have responded negatively to the military because the claims were unsubstantiated; some even saw it as a threat to the academic freedom of the universities.
Unfortunately, the government has only escalated its attempt to threaten the academe – both students and faculty – through Senate Committee Report No. 10, which seeks to enforce on schools increased police and military presence on campuses and reviews/investigations on curricula and faculty. Again, these universities are protesting it as an attack on academic freedom and legitimate dissent.
Attacks to student activists have also included propaganda posters on the entrance of the Philippine military headquarters discouraging students from protesting or becoming activists, and threatening text messages received by activists.
Beyond the academe, other activists targeted include those from human rights groups, journalists, lawyers, and indigenous peoples. On the island of Negros in the Central Philippines, a joint police and military campaign against the communist rebels has led to the killings of farmers who had been red-tagged, as well as the arrest of more than 40 activists (though most have since been released).
Other notable groups that have been caught in the attacks on activists include the NCCP – a fellowship of non-Catholic Christian denominations – and Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization that does community work in impoverished areas in the Philippines.
Demonizing activism doesn’t only delegitimize the causes and calls of activists. It discourages organizing towards social change – diminishing the public’s direct engagement in democratic practice and thus reducing the power of the people.
Beyond an attack on rights to organize and protest, peoples’ very lives are now under threat. Activists have already been arrested and killed under Duterte. If this campaign goes unopposed, the Philippine government won’t stop at activists. Anyone who expresses dissent will be at risk.
Activism is Democracy
Every election period, politicians, media, and civil society will make a case for “exercising your right to vote,” for “voting wisely,” because the shaping of the country for the succeeding years will depend upon that vote. But what if the candidates we support are not elected? What can we do then?
This was the reality faced by the opposition candidates and their supporters during the 2019 Midterm Elections in the Philippines, where the pro-Duterte coalition came to dominate the Senate.
This is where we can see the value of activism – as a form of “direct” democracy. Voting should only be the beginning of any citizen’s democratic participation. Activism in all its forms allows people to participate in the shaping of the country between elections. This is especially important in “oligarchic” democracies like the Philippines, where an entrenched wealthy political elite dominates competition in elections. Here, there is a much greater need for organized action to pressure government.
But what can activists in the Philippines do in the face of attacks by the Duterte administration?
International studies professor Erica Chenoweth wrote about how nonviolent protest movements can be effective. Among her points, I believe the most relevant to Filipino activists are the following: (1) number and diversity, (2) flexible and innovative techniques, and (3) planning and staying on the offensive.
There is need still for activists in the country to shake up their tactics, to become more open and inclusive. Because street demonstrations and usual forms of civil disobedience as forms of protest have been heavily demonized, more people are becoming non-receptive, even hostile to these.
While they are still necessary and powerful, there is a need to diversify methods to convince a wider public. Activists should also make efforts for their community-building, education, lobbying, etc. to be more visible in the public eye. Effective use of social media platforms will be key.
Most activist groups in the Philippines focus their organizing and mobilizing among the peasants, workers, and indigenous groups – generally the most oppressed/marginalized sectors who require more attention and assistance from their fellow citizens. Student activism is also strong. While these serve as the bulwarks of activism in the country, other sectors need to be organized and mobilized as well – the middle class, young professionals, small businesses – to prevent their indifference or apathy to national and local struggles.
Solidarity and community among sectors and classes is needed to create solid foundations for wider movements that can better resist government threats. The practice of “democracy” demands the participation of the people beyond elections. Democracy requires activism.
There is much work to be done for activism in the Philippines, but it will be necessary if activists are to survive Duterte’s attacks against them. They must survive for the sake of Philippine democracy.