Less than 48 hours after President Rodrigo Duterte issued a direct order for the police and military to “forget about human rights” and just go ahead and “kill” armed communist insurgents, simultaneous pre-dawn joint operations were conducted on March 7 in Calabarzon, leaving nine activists dead and six arrested.
Among those killed were Bayan Cavite coordinator and labor leader Manny Asuncion and fishing rights activists Ariel and Chai Evangelista, who were shot inside their own home as the police and military executed search warrants issued wholesale by two Manila courts.
The brazen attacks against activists tagged as members or sympathizers of outlawed communist groups drew universal condemnation, with the United Nations saying on Tuesday that it was “appalled” by what appears to be the “arbitrary killing” of the nine activists.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has reason to be jolted. Just last Dec. 30, nine Tumandok indigenous peoples’ rights activists were killed in a similar fashion when the police and military swooped down on their communities in Iloilo and Capiz and executed warrants in search of alleged firearms and explosives.
That the activists in both operations ended up dead was because, according to the police, they “fought back” while resisting arrest or “nanlaban”—the same line invoked to justify the thousands of killings that have occurred in the name of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs since 2016.
Village chief Julie Catamin, a witness in the Tumandok killings, was said to have been ready to contradict the claim of the police and testify that evidence had been planted during the raids. But before he could do so, he was gunned down on Feb. 28.
Human rights lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen, who was representing some of the Tumandok victims, narrowly escaped a similar fate on March 3 when unidentified men repeatedly stabbed him with a screwdriver. He is now recuperating in a hospital, but he lost all of his case files to the assailants, in what was clearly a continuation of attempts to sow fear and intimidation among activist groups.
Mr. Duterte’s words to the military and the police in a speech in Cagayan de Oro last Friday were direct and unequivocal: If they find themselves in an armed encounter with the communist rebels, they should just “kill them.” “Make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive,” he commanded. “Forget about human rights. That’s my order.”
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. backed up that order. In a televised briefing, he said that defeating armed rebels, rather than the protection of human rights, was the correct concern: “Sa talumpati ng ating Pangulo, nabanggit niya na ubusin na lahat ang NPA (New People’s Army) at ’wag tayo mag-alala sa human rights. Tama naman ’yon.”
Police and military operatives did as they were told — and proceeded to target even non-combatants. Former vice president and human rights lawyer Jejomar Binay pointed out the singular heinousness of that action in a March 9 tweet: “Activists are not armed combatants. There is a very big difference. And when officials encourage, condone, and even defend the killing of unarmed civilians, there is a clear breakdown in civil governance. We have become a lawless State.”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, condemned the latest bloodshed along the same lines: “The fundamental problem is this campaign no longer makes any distinction between armed rebels and noncombatant activists, labor leaders, and rights defenders. It is not a coincidence that these deadly raids happened two days after President Duterte ordered police and military to ‘kill all’ communists and ‘don’t mind human rights.’”
Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Debold Sinas has predictably defended the operations as “legitimate,” because these were supposedly covered by search warrants. But in an indication of how such instruments of law are perverted to murderous ends, the search warrant meant for Asuncion’s home in Rosario, Cavite, where the police claimed they recovered firearms and ammunition, led to his being shot dead by cops in another part of the province — in a workers’ office in Dasmariñas, Cavite.
At about the same time that the massacre was mercilessly transpiring in Calabarzon, Sinas and fellow police officials were shown in pictures attending Mass and deep in prayer at the Manila Cathedral. To them, and to the administration responsible for the unending bloodbath rampaging across the country and brutalizing its most vulnerable citizens, should have been directed the thunderbolt words of El Salvador archbishop Oscar Romero a day before he was assassinated in 1980 as he denounced the violence in his own country: “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to Heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
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