Anti Terrorism Bill in Philippines and Shrinking Spaces for Democracy

philippines terror bill

The Corona Pandemic and subsequent lockdown in Philippines has been used by the President Duterte to push for passage of Anti Terrorism Bill, an amendment to the Human Security Act 2007. The Bill, approved by the Senate on February 26 and by the House of Representative on June 3, is now waiting for approval from the President. The Bill has been criticized by Leni Robredo, country’s Vice-President, civil society members, national human rights commission, UN office of Human Rights Commission and many others. The Bill provides overarching definition of terrorists, terror activities, bestows overarching surveillance power, arrest without warrant, detention, long incarceration without judicial appeal, and takes away the power of judicial proceedings and hands it to the executive. It has raised widespread fears amongst the opposition parties, media, rights activists and raised concerns of its arbitrary use and abuse.

The passage of the Bill comes in the backdrop of rising attack on the media and recent arbitrary shutdown of the ABS-CBN, country’s largest and widest-reaching network by National Telecommunications Commission and conviction of Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa and their former staffer Reynaldo Santos Jr over cyber libel charges, for an article written in 2012. There are seven other charges pending over Maria Ressa and possibility of their trial under the new Anti Terrorism Law can’t be ruled out.

Activism is not Terrorism

“Activism is not Terrorism”, that’s the call given by the civil society opposing this law. Defying the “Community Quarantine” in order due to Covid pandemic, thousands of students, activists, and civil society groups took to streets opposing this draconian law. The community quarantine or lockdown measures started in mid March, amidst widespread confusion, and continues even now with the unlock phase starting from June 1. However, the cases have only continued to rise with 23,000 active cases and 1200 deaths. With the quarantine and shutting down of the public transport in Metro Manila and other cities, citizens and workers were stranded and unable to reach to their places of work or homes. The complete unpreparedness to provision for health crisis and unfolding economic crisis has only meant that millions of the Filipinos continue to face lack of food and work, turning it in to a humanitarian crisis.

However, the government has used this time to bring the Anti Terrorism Bill, in a clear attempt to intimidate the civil society and curb any resistance. The fragmented political opposition have been critical of it and blamed it as an attempt to divert attention from the ongoing crisis and prepare for the next stage of wars and campaigns which has been the hallmark of President Duterte’s term. The government’s response to the critiques of the Bill has been that only those who support terrorism and support terrorist are fearing this and others have nothing to worry.

War on Drugs and Continued Popularity

The term of the President Duterte has been fraught with controversies around his stated war on drug campaigns, giving free hand to security forces leading to an estimated 30,000 deaths, many not involved in drug trafficking, the worst affected have been the poor and those on the margins. The UN Human Rights Office estimates that between 2015 and 2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists have been killed in relation to their work. The phenomenon of “red-tagging” – labelling individuals or groups (including human rights defenders and NGOs) as communists or terrorists – has posed a serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression. The report notes how in some cases those who have been red-tagged were subsequently killed. Death threats or sexually-charged comments in private messages or on social media is extremely common for dissenting voices.

President Duterte remains highly popular as witnessed in last year’s election for Senate where all the seats were won by his coalition Hugpong ng Pagbabago. He has faced international rebuke and condemnation for excesses committed during the war on drugsm but has shown least regard for it. In response to  a case filed against the President for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court, Philippines has formally withdrawn from it. In past, former President’s after demitting office in Philippines have often faced jail terms and been put on trial for their action and perhaps that’s why, systematically, the effort has been to undermine institutions and attempts made to change the Constitution – introduce a federal system instead of the current Presidential style of government. Currently, there is a limitation of single term of 6 years for the President, but most likely his daughter, Sara Duterte, Governor of Davao, will be a front runner for the office. Something, which might shield him from further investigation post office.

Vilification of Philippines Civil Society

Philipines has a big and influential civil society, with deep roots in democratic traditions. It has a long history of guerrilla insurgency and the peasants movement against the exploitation of the oligarchy in 1960s; birth of democratic and rights organisations following the 1972 Martial Law and Marcos dictatorship; rise of constitutionalism following people power revolution in 1986 and Constitution of 1987; and 90s onwards evolution of rights based and issue specific NGOs. In addition, there is a vibrant climate justice movement, women’s movement, citizenship initiatives, farmers and peasants organisations, trade unions and so on. A 10 million strong diaspora is spread all over the world and has a huge influence over the society and politics both in the country. In the current situation, this diaspora has played an active political role and hence the attempt to change the citizenship laws too, under the garb of nationalism.

The nationalistic jingoism promoted by current regime has ensured that the society remains divided, touching the daily fabric of the politics too. President Duterte remains a divisive figure in Philippines as PM Modi in India, both having built an image of the strongmen and their brand of popular politics. His authoritarian tendencies has a complete grip but at the same time also has a ‘democratic’ acceptance, something born out of the disgust from the past regimes, which were marred in the corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

The vilification, arrest and detention of the opposition leader, current Senator, and former Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission and Justice Minister Leila de Lima on charges of collaborating with the drug mafia has not only been far fetched but also showcases the gross abuse of power. She remains extremely popular, continues to participate in Senate proceedings from the jail, writing and influencing opinions but has remained in jail for nearly three years now. False charges of being drug mafia, based on testimony of drug traffickers, she acted on during her term as Justice Minister, and corrupt police officials have not stood judicial scrutiny, but still Courts have failed to provide relief. She has now been denied visitation rights for more than a month on account of ongoing quarantine measures.

Need for Unified Struggle

The challenges ahead for Filipino civil society are many but they remain hopeful for a new politics to emerge from their struggles. One of the foremost thinkers and former member of parliament Walden Bello, however, says Duterte’s regime shouldn’t be called ‘popular’ but it should be termed as counter revolutionary and something which is different from the regimes like those of Victor Orban in Austria or other such strongmen in the North. He says that the situation demands aggressive defense of human rights, due process, and democratic rights that are under assault. But one cannot just be defensive, there must be an alternative to counter the seductive simplistic and dangerous visions of the far right. The opposition leader and jailed Senator Leila de Lima says that the liberal democracy has failed to live up to its promises for the masses and that disillusionment has given rise to these strongmen but unfortunately, any credible alternative is yet to be born and until then our efforts must continue to find an antidote to these dangerous people. She further cautions that the civil society will be making a big mistake if their continuance in power is reduced to the fact that people are manipulated, brainwashed or terrorized. Perhaps, there lies the answer for the way ahead to fight this rising authoritarianism in Philippines.

Madhuresh Kumar is with National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and Resistance Studies Fellow, University of Massachusetts Amherst. [email protected]



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