The supposed goals of a major Duterte administration program are peace and development. But we have seen neither peace nor development. Instead we were faced with more poverty and hunger, debt and joblessness, marginalization of resources, school woes, a faltering health system, and rising rights violations including jailing even peace advocates.
Politicians running for office are promising to address most of these issues. Here’s a question for them though: how far are they really willing to go for peace based on justice?
It is such an irony for a so-called democratic nation to have so many political prisoners – over 700 now and counting. The government appears too desperate to quell ideas and propositions for development other than its own. It obsesses on fabricated charges to make rights, environment, and peace advocates, scholars, activists and experts look like criminals and imprison them – in the case of the Philippines even harass, terror-tag, disappear, or execute them.
All the more disturbing is the detention of peace consultants to the peace negotiations between the Philippine government (GRP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) based on made-up cases – such as that of rights advocate Vicente Ladlad, peace teacher Rey Casambre, trade union organizers Adelberto Silva and Renante Gamara, peasant organizers Eduardo Sarmiento, Leopoldo Caloza, Loida Magpatoc and Rommel Salinas, actuarial scientist and unionist Ferdinand Castillo, church worker Cleofe Magtapon, former priest Francisco Fernandez, and peace panel staffers Alexander and Winona Birondo. The other peace consultants including Randy Malayao and mostly elderly like Randal Echanis, Agaton Topacio and Eugenia Magpantay, Antonio Cabanatan and Florenda Yap, Julius Giron, Rustico Tan, and Reynaldo Bocala, were murdered.
The arrests and killings escalated after the Duterte administration unilaterally terminated the peace negotiations in 2017. The talks were getting somewhere – free land reform was already on the table and a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms crafted by both the GRP and NDF panels was nearing completion. These would be monumental in addressing decades-long socioeconomic problems such as poverty among farmers and fisherfolk; the jobs crisis and the lack of our own light, medium and heavy industries; taxes and the budget working more for the elite rather than for the people and the economy; an ailing environment and rampant rights violations; elitism and neocolonialism.
Militaristic rampage escalated upon Executive Order 70. EO 70 or the whole of nation approach purportedly seeks to ensure peace and progress in communities. The EO also gave birth to the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict or NTF-ELCAC.
But other than announcements of fake surrenderees and dismantling rebel fronts, no peace talks resulting in reformed communities have materialized. Instead, the EO and NTF-ELCAC have so far failed to address the roots of armed conflict. They only unleashed and justified State violence against status quo critics and opponents. These put armed and civilian dissenters in one basket.
By doing so, activists, personalities, even celebrities, healthworkers, lawyers, church workers, journalists and other vocal citizens, and scores of innocents, schools and universities, even entire communities including indigenous ones and suspected rebel hotbeds, are victimized by a wide array of rights violations. These include harassment, incrimination, surveillance, abduction, killings, banning of progressive materials, closing of alternative schools, indiscriminate firing, strafing and bombing, and forced evacuations, surpassing Marcosian Martial Law proportions with impunity.
NTF-ELCAC officials spat even more red- and terror- tagging poison uncontrollably since the inception of the Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL), casting what some have termed to be death sentences on development workers and organizations, and even stretching that into freezing their assets by virtue of the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA).
What say the candidates?
The recent consecutive dismissals of trumped-up cases against some of the victims have exposed that NTF-ELCAC-backed charges are baseless. Yet, the prevalence of institutions such as the NTF-ELCAC and mandates and policies such as EO 70, the ATL and even AMLA continues to shrink civic spaces and endanger change seekers.
Will next year’s elections see a shift in governance that will re-enable the peace dialogue to continue? Will new leaders put a stop to the mad labeling and persecution of concerned citizens who don’t see eye to eye with the ruling administration?
More specifically, where do the 2022 polls candidates stand on the peace question? Who will be bold enough to recall EO 70, abolish the NTF-ELCAC, repeal the ATL, and make sure that the AMLA is not abused and used against dissente?
Who will promptly resume the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations and honor all signed bilateral agreements between the two parties such as the Hague Joint Declaration, the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), which are the results and proof of mutually accepted principles and concrete plans of action towards addressing the roots of armed conflict?
In the long run, who will be brave enough to challenge and reverse the elitist and pro-foreign policies that have entrenched inequality, backwardness, and underdevelopment in the Philippine economy?
Who will truly not only allow freedom of speech and assembly by citizens lobbying for alternatives, but actually engage in full discourse to really put the public at the heart of decision-making?
True, it is unscientific to expect that the 2022 elections will yield all the change that the people and the nation need. Dominated by billionaires and millionaires, for the longest time Philippine elections have been undemocratic. Philippine elections have produced lawmakers and officials whose policies and governance caused and perpetuated hardships for Filipinos rather than solve them. Still always there is space for change. Its seekers – especially the aggrieved millions of citizens deprived of economic, social, cultural, civic and political rights and yearning for a better future for all – are in the best position fighting for it.