Filipino and American Activists Combat the Duterte Regime

It’s no exaggeration to say that President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a reign of terror in the Philippines. While many Americans tend to ignore how their government funnels money to Duterte’s burgeoning dictatorship, Filipino and American activists are steadfastly working to stop the killing and end the Duterte government’s march towards authoritarianism. Two prominent groups in this struggle are the Malaya Movement and the US chapter of the International Coalition For Human Rights In The Philippines (ICHRP), which work together and with activists in the Philippines through street protests, lobbying, and educational efforts.

Both organizations have made important inroads tackling abuse in the country and sharing the Duterte government’s human rights violations with the world. This movement’s wide appeal and broad ideological coalition range from far-leftists to those simply concerned with human rights.

While these international coalitions work to topple a modern dictator, the United States and the Philippines have a long and complicated history of occupation, devastation, and cooperation. The US took possession of the island nation in the aftermath of the Spanish American War in 1898, and American forces committed an array of atrocities during the ensuing Philippine-American War.

The Philippines’ transition towards full sovereignty in the 1930s was interrupted by the Japanese occupation during World War II, when Americans and Filipinos fought together against their common foe. In 1946, the Philippines achieved full independence. The US later supported Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial regime, which was then overthrown by the People Power Revolution in 1986.

In 2016, the profane, misogynistic, and violent Rodrigo Duterte was elected president and began a brutal “War on Drugs,” which is piling up bodies at a horrifying rate. Estimates vary, but the death toll is likely in the tens of thousands. Many more people have been thrown into hugely overcrowded jails. “The recurring conversation is that you can be killed in the drug war just because someone pointed a finger,” said the Malaya Movement representative Audine Tayag. “Some of it boils down to personal feuds, and also for the political prisoners these are trumped-up charges. These political prisoners have drug charges on them.”

In addition to the drug war, suppression of the free press has been a feature of the Duterte regime. Tayag said her organization supports media freedom and is critical of the regime’s targeting of journalists, as well as its use of online trolls to spread propaganda. Some US-based activists have been given an up-close view of drug war violence and the crackdown on critical media.

In the summer of 2018, filmmaker Eric Tandoc and his wife Hiyasmin Saturay were filming a labor strike at the NutriAsia plant in Meycauayan City for the outlet Altermidya. Tandoc — who belongs to an ICHRP-aligned organization — was beaten after attempting to film journalists and demonstrators who were being roughed up by police-backed security guards. He suffered a fractured rib, a black eye, and was placed under arrest along with his wife. When in jail with other demonstrators, Tandoc claimed that the local police chief brought in an unknown man who claimed that he was with Tandoc and Saturay, and carried drugs and a gun. Tandoc said the man had been beaten into a confession and later recanted his statement which allowed them to go free. Tandoc and his wife only received one of their cameras back, and some of their possessions were never returned.

“We saw firsthand how the police can just plant evidence, and fabricate cases, and use the supposed drug war to attack not just poor people in the urban poor areas, but also use it to attack people who are fighting for worker’s rights or defending human rights,“ Tandoc said.

Violence also occurs under the pretext of fighting radical Islamic terrorism and the long-running communist insurgency. The US has supported the Philippines in its fight against radical Islamic terrorists for years (even before Duterte) under the umbrella of "The War on Terror." The entire island of Mindanao was placed under martial law in 2017 after an attack by Islamic extremists, who took control of the city of Marawi. Martial law remains in place, though ICHRP-US’ Joy Prim said that the ISIS attack only affected one city. Prim visited Mindanao in 2017.

“What I witnessed and heard from the indigenous communities ... was that while the Maute group, which was the so-called ISIS group, had reigned terror in the community there was not a terrorism problem in the country; that [the terror threat] was being blown up and out of proportion,” Prim, head of the solidarity missions working group, said.

A large part of the Malaya Movement and ICHRP’s activism is centered around stopping the flow of large sums of money from the United States to the Duterte government’s forces.

A government report on Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines shows that the US gave the Philippines’ Armed Forces “109 used cargo and logistics trucks and 2,253 M60 machine guns.” The report also details foreign military sales such as “a $22 million case for a wide range of Philippine National Police enhancements” including intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance. The report estimated that over $108 million will be given to the operation in fiscal year 2019.

An announcement from the US Embassy in the Philippines said that the United States would “contribute $26.5 million (Php1.418 billion) over the next two years to boost counterterrorism support for Philippine law enforcement agencies.”

While the US government has taken some steps to curb its stream of capital, Prim said that ICHRP is calling on Congress to hold hearings on the allocation of US taxpayer money in the country. Both ICHRP and the Malaya Movement want the United States to cut all aid to the Philippines’ military and police forces. Several members of Congress have criticized the Philippine government through House Resolution 233, which condemns the regime’s detention of Senator Leila De Lima on shoddy drug trafficking charges and demands her release.

The Mayala Movement is also working to solidify human rights standards for those receiving funds from US programs, including the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program. Tayag said her organization staged a protest regarding this issue at the Hart Senate Building in Washington, DC, where activists demanded an end to the funding of Duterte’s regime. Early in April, the Malaya Movement hosted a well-attended summit in Washington, DC and followed with additional lobbying.

Music has even played a role in the movement’s educational efforts with ICHRP, which produced the Rock the Mic for Human Rights in the Philippines: Stop the Killings compilation album. The album helps fund both ICHRP and the Malaya Movement’s activism, with producer Menchie Caliboso playing a significant role in the album’s creation. She was adamant that their work is about artistic expression and informing the public.

“No one should die because they were accused of doing drugs,” Caliboso told The North Star. “No one should die for speaking their opinion about a president who doesn’t really have the people’s best interests in mind.”

Yet the Duterte government’s violence continues seemingly undiminished. However, both Tayag and Prim said their groups’ membership is growing, and their resistance continues with equal vigor. They have taken action in the streets, on Capitol Hill, and in cyberspace. Their efforts to stop the flow of American money to the Philippines’ security forces and educate the public continue. There is no doubt that as the Duterte regime continues its tyrannical reign, the Malaya Movement and the ICHRP will stand firm on their commitment to justice in the Philippines.

About the Author

Mathew Foresta is a writer, photographer, and activist. His work has appeared in Vice, San Diego CityBeat, and OC Weekly amongst others. Follow him on Twitter @ForestaWriter