Duterte turns death squads on political activists

Photo by Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images: One of Deterte's death squad victims lies dead in the street

By Nick Aspinwall (FP 10 June 2019). The author writes about the murderous policy of the President of the Philippines, using murder as a means for taking out those he sees as political problems. The style began on a claim of the need to clean the streets of drug dealers and users, but soon spread much more widely than this. The Australian government continues to train and aid the armed forces of the Philippines.

Early in the morning of March 30, Philippine security forces set out to execute dozens of search warrants in the remote towns of Canlaon, Manjuyod, and Santa Catalina on the country’s southern Negros Island. Within hours, the operation had left 14 farmers dead. The Philippine National Police says the “Negros 14,” as they are now known, were communist rebels killed after refusing arrest and firing at police officers. Filipino and international rights groups refute this claim. A fact-finding report by a Philippines rights coalition, based on witness interviews, says that police forced family members to stand outside of their homes before entering and killing their targets, planting firearms as they departed in order to claim they faced armed foes.

Photo by Philistar/KI Rosales: The gun toting president of the Philippines

The chilling report conjures images of the Philippine drug war, known as Oplan Tokhang— “tokhang” translates to “knock and plead.” Drug war tactics, which the country’s human rights commission says could be responsible for as many as 27,000 extrajudicial killings, have become the foundation of President Rodrigo Duterte’s developing counterinsurgency strategy—and rights groups allege its range of targets is growing to include an expanding list of those whom Duterte and his allies consider their enemies.

“There’s this morphing, this fusing of tactics that is very scary,” said Carlos Conde, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “This is just the beginning. I think this is the logical morphing of the drug war.”

Duterte, who insists a supposed communist plot called “Red October” threatens his presidency, recently threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus for his critics and unveiled an opposition “matrix” containing supposed links between political opponents, journalists, activists, and communist leaders. Security forces, said Conde, are “no longer making any distinction as to who to target as long as the directive is clear. So they can use the methods of the drug war [to] go after these people.”

Officially, the Negros Island operation targeted communist insurgents — harking back to the origins of death squads in the Philippines during the Cold War. Days after the killings, the regional police chief Debold Sinas said the deceased “really fought. … They were not ready to surrender, because they were hardcore rebels.”

Eyewitnesses directly dispute this, according to the fact-finding report. Franklin Lariosa, a farmer living near Santa Catalina, was allegedly shot three times by policemen as he sat on a bench next to his 4-year-old son. Police then ordered everyone in the house to leave before announcing they had found two .38 revolvers under a pile of dirty laundry, the report says.

In Manjuyod, 20 masked men allegedly entered the home of Valentin Acabal, a de facto village leader, and dragged his wife and three children into the kitchen, where they heard the words “Just do it already!” come from upstairs, followed by three gunshots. Two hours later, police claimed they found a gun while searching the home; Acabal’s family discovered after the search that 37,000 pesos (about $710) were missing.

The presidential palace has maintained these operations were “legitimate” and dismissed reports contradicting its account as “leftist propaganda.” But the world is sceptical. On June 7, a group of United Nations human rights experts called for a probe into what it called a “staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings in the context of the so-called war on drugs, as well as killings of human rights defenders.” Philippines rights groups said they welcome a U.N. probe, while the presidential palace rejected it as “intellectually challenged” and an “outrageous interference” in the country’s sovereignty.

When I visited Negros shortly after the March 30 killings, I encountered an island shaken by fear and distrust, blanketed by a sense that recent attacks bode for a darker future. The Negros killings, and a previous state-run operation in December 2018 in which six farmers were killed, were carried out as part of Oplan Sauron. Named for the Lord of the Rings villain, Oplan Sauron is part of a recently mandated increase in militarization and counterinsurgency operations on the island that share disturbing characteristics with the drug war: killing without due process, planting of evidence, and a growing climate of apparent impunity.

Negros is the hub of the country’s sugar production and a longtime hotspot for labour activism. The island is split longitudinally into two provinces, both governed politically and socially by the island’s sugar haciendas, or plantations. Farmers on the haciendas regularly make between 50 and 70 pesos (96 cents to $1.35) per day, according to Rolando Rillo, the chairperson of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW).

The NFSW is an institution on the island. Established in 1979, it now has around 11,000 members in Negros. Its history of agitating for land reform, and against the labour practices of powerful plantation owners, makes it a thorn in the side of Philippine authorities, who have accused it of being a “legal front” for the New People’s Army (NPA), a communist guerrilla outfit.

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