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21st Century Neoliberal Authoritarianism for Whom?

September 12, 2019

by Sonny Africa

(Statement for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Inquiry on “The Current Situation Impacting on the Work, Safety, and Security of Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines” delivered on September 11, 2019)

IBON Foundation was set up in 1978 and is in its 41st year of service to the Filipino people.

We are a small NGO. We don’t claim to have big ideas on our own but, rather, share the big ideas of social movements in the Philippines and across the planet for a just and humane society free of poverty and exploitation.

We are most of all a research and advocacy institution and have been doing this for over four decades now. We analyze issues, especially but not only socioeconomic issues. We share our analysis and ideas freely with the public: media, policymakers, students, academe, civil society and actually anyone who cares to ask.

But we share and work with people’s organizations most of all. We know ideas are nothing if not embraced and acted on by the country’s mass movement for change.

We have always been transparent about our bias for the majority of Filipinos who are persistently marginalized, and about our opposition to unjust and inequitable economic structures. We have likewise always been open about our belief in the capacity of people to change society and in the importance of organized movements to bring about a better future for all. Like so many others we are activists and, if the label matters, Leftist.

For nearly two decades now, we have also been providing textbooks and journals, holding seminars and forums, and networking with educators in hundreds of primary and secondary schools nationwide. For at least five years, we’ve worked particularly closely with Lumad community schools in Mindanao – providing not just teaching materials but also working with them to develop their curriculums and train their teachers.

We’ve been doing development work under six administrations already. Not without difficulty but at least freely and openly as would be expected under a democracy. However, things changed under this seventh Duterte administration.

Suddenly and systematically, we are now accused of channeling funds to so-called “Communist-terrorists,” of “[pulling] statistics out of thin air”, of submitting “fabricated reports” to the EU and UN, and of producing “radical literature” teaching armed struggle and rebellion. We do this, according to the government, because we are a “Communist front organization”. They even say our editors are “spouses of CPP-NPA personalities” in Mindanao.

Suddenly, there are arrest warrants on trumped-up murder charges for two long-standing members of our Board of Trustees. Staff have been approached to be recruited as intelligence assets. The presidential spokesperson and a PCOO undersecretary have called us out for false data. The AFP has done the same aside from repeatedly and insistently calling us a “Communist front organization” in its press releases, before mass media journalists, among our development partners abroad, within government policymaking circles, and in schools and universities. Wherever we work, they have been there and are there to vilify us.

We categorically deny that our funding has gone anywhere than to our programs for research, advocacy and education. We have asked the government to prove that we have been doing anything illegal but they refuse to show us their so-called evidence. But they apparently show others here and abroad.

We categorically state that our research and teaching materials are always based on evidence and facts at hand. We have asked the government to prove that we have been falsifying anything but all they do is declare that we do so, without any explanation. Because there is no counterargument to the truth.

The government’s attacks on IBON are tame compared to the violence they inflict on so many. But, of course, it’s not just about us. The attacks on IBON are just one component of the 21st century authoritarianism being pushed by the Duterte administration. If this is successful there will be far-reaching consequences.

For one, the attacks are evidently part of a systematic campaign by the Duterte clique to put down opposition to its rule and stay in power. The administration’s weak spots are the innumerable controversies from its grossly illiberal and corrupt governance, and the inherent discontent from economic backwardness.

The government knows that propaganda and disinformation can only go so far in covering these up, and that populist social measures will never offset the structural causes of poverty and misery and dissent.

Hence, it is also using much harsher measures to put down any and all viable political opposition. The administration established its authoritarian credentials with its vicious so-called ‘war on drugs’, martial law across Mindanao, and resurgent counterinsurgency operations in the Visayas and Luzon.

But it has also weaponized the law and used this against perceived political opponents in the legislature and judiciary, mass media and big business, and civil society. It is also upgrading this weapon in the name of social order with a slew of issuances and regulations against illegal drugs and so-called ‘Communist-terrorists’. There is also the national identification system, reinstatement of the death penalty, lowering the age of criminal responsibility, and amendments to the Human Security Act (HSA).

Pres. Duterte has so far appointed 73 military and police officials to civilian positions to facilitate all this. They are heads in 38 of the agencies where they are in, and already constitute one-fifth of the Cabinet or 11 out of 50 Cabinet and cabinet-level positions.

The Philippines was on the frontlines of global people power in 1986. Since 2016, we have joined the frontlines of global populist demagoguery and authoritarianism. The Duterte government portrays itself as pro-poor and anti-elite, and as a radical critic of oligarchs and foreign domination. It is of course none of these and instead represents the worst aspects of the ruling system.

Our greatest concern however lies to the horizon beyond the Duterte administration. One of the main goals of the increasingly militarized State is to defeat people organizing to assert their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. There is parochial political self-interest to this by the Duterte clique, but also a greater danger – a rightist counterattack by the system to protect the interests of the country’s dominant political and economic classes.

Nearing September 21, we are reminded of how the Marcos dictatorship decades ago ushered the country onto its neoliberal economic path resulting in the failed and failing economy of today. Inequality has worsened to unprecedented levels and the majority of the population is still very poor and deprived. Agriculture and Filipino industry have been hollowed out and self-serving foreign interests have intensified their control. The ecological disasters we face are devastating.

The Duterte government is out to put down the mainstream Left that is the most potent challenge to the unjust and oppressive status quo. Dismantling the forces pressing social change for the better will be catastrophic for Philippine society. We will see the hegemony of capital, the rights of the working classes demolished, increasing profits at the cost of greater poverty and exploitation, an economy shaped to further concentrate wealth and power, and environmental destruction.

As it is, we already see how the Duterte government is making so much headway in pressing the neoliberal economic program demanded by foreign and domestic elites. This is authoritarianism increasing their profits, income and wealth even more.

There is no doubt in our minds – the Duterte government is attacking us, activists, for our ideas. Unable to win with better ideas, they are battling us with their brawn. Calling us ‘Communists-terrorists’ is just their spurious justification to use as much violence as they want and to intimidate all who struggle for a better world. ###

Photo courtesy of GABRIELA | A National Alliance of Women