Weaponizing the virus and the law – Duterte’s state terrorism

For nearly two months of being cooped up inside our houses due to a nationwide lockdown, the only political interactions we had was through online.

Suara Bangsamoro and its network organizations have conducted online forums discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic was used by the Philippine government as a weapon against the people.

The COVID-19 pandemic is every tyrant’s dream, to finally have a justification to implement the most repressive measures against its people, purportedly to contain the new and still incurable virus.

According to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, governments committed some of the worst human rights violations including arbitrary detention of reported violators of lockdown; censorship to stifle criticism against the slow response and ineptness of the government; harassment and intimidation of activists and professionals who campaign for the right to information and freedom of speech; mass surveillance and violation of people’s right to privacy and discrimination.

Human rights experts and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights cautioned governments to avoid overreach of security measures like securing emergency powers in their response to the coronavirus outbreak. But governments continue to use fascist measures against the people.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte started with appointing military generals on the national task force to fight COVID-19. His “shoot them dead” orders led to cases of police officers shooting and killing suspected violators of lockdown. Residents who were accused of violating curfews, lockdown measures, and simply forgetting to wear face masks were subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, and even torture.

What was worrisome in the first two months in dealing with the pandemic was how President Duterte slowly equated the COVID-19 virus to the communist movement in the Philippines. He said that the armed communist movement was a nuisance and accused them of preventing the delivery of relief to affected rural communities. The “legal fronts,” on the other hand, bore the brunt as the National Task Force to End Local Communist Activities (NTF-ELCAC) red-tagged all progressive people’s organizations, including Suara Bangsamoro, in their Facebook page.

During the first month of the national lockdown, leaders of people’s organizations and human rights defenders were either red-tagged, killed, and illegally arrested. While unilateral ceasefires from the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) were in place, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched military airstrikes and ground operations, resulting in massive displacement of communities, mostly Moro and Lumad communities.

According to the human rights group Karapatan and Barug Katungod Mindanao, the AFP launched airstrikes in Mabini, Davao de Oro on the day that the government announced its unilateral ceasefire. On March 27, fighter jets and attack helicopters were used to bomb Lumad communities in Bukidnon. On May 12, two fighter planes dropped four bombs in Diatagon, Lianga, Surigao del Sur. The military threw leaflets from helicopters in rural communities. The leaflets contained statements that red-tagged their organizations and messages to “return to the fold, lest they get infected with COVID-19.”” These were addressed to the people of the community as if they are rebels.

In Moro areas, military airstrikes and mortar shelling were done in the provinces of Maguindanao and Sulu, supposedly to flush out “terrorist” organizations such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Throughout the fasting month of Ramadan, military operations in the municipality of Datu Saudi Ampatuan in Maguindanao resulted in more than 6,000 evacuees.

On May 24, the day that we celebrated the Eid’l Fitr inside our homes, two girls in the province of Maguindanao, were killed due to mortar shelling coming from a nearby military camp in Bgy. Elian, Datu Saudi Ampatuan. Aslamiya and Asnaida Tambak suffered wounds from shrapnels of at least four mortar bombs that hit the community of Amai Zailon, Bgy Kitango. Their mother and younger brother were among those fourteen relatives who were wounded and rushed to the regional hospital.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippine government, along with other ASEAN countries, has been stocking up on military arsenal by buying new equipment. An article in the Manila Times by Armado S. Tolentino Jr. described how the ten member countries went into military procurement and weapons development programs while the rest of the population was battling COVID-19.

According to the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), the US State Department announced its two arms sales to President Duterte totaling to US$2 billion. The arms sales include 12 attack helicopters, hundreds of missiles and warheads, guidance and detection systems, machine guns, and over 80,000 rounds of ammunition – to be used for counter-terrorism.

The US-RP US$2 billion arms deal angers not only human rights organizations and peace advocates, but, most of all, your Moro brothers and sisters and the rest of the people of Mindanao because we know that this will again be used against us, destroy our communities, and result in more human rights violations.

To cap it all, at the tail end of the enhanced community quarantine, President Duterte certified as urgent the passing of Senate Bill 1083 and House Bill 6875 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which is an amendment to the Human Security Act of 2007.

Armed with the virus, the arms sale, and the law, President Rodrigo Duterte’s state terrorism is on the go.

(Written by Amirah Ali Lidasan of Sandugo – Movement of Moro and Indigenous Peoples for Self-Determination and Suara Bangsamoro, Moro mass organization that aims to fight for right to self-determination, active member of ILPS Commission 10. Originally posted in Davao Today.)

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