Why Human Rights Advocates Won’t Stop Fighting for Freedom in the Philippines

Why Human Rights Advocates Won’t Stop Fighting for Freedom in the Philippines

Why Human Rights Advocates Won’t Stop Fighting for Freedom in the Philippines

Tyrants can be overthrown by the people.

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On June 1, 1981, two Filipino-American union leaders from the Local 37 branch of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, were murdered in their union office in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

Following a visit to family in the Philippines earlier in 1981 that included a meeting with labor leaders from the underground May First Labor Movement, Domingo and Viernes introduced a resolution to the ILWU National Convention to send a team to investigate trade union repression and other human rights abuses in the Philippines, where then–Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. had declared martial law. The convention swiftly adopted their resolution, but the move cost them their lives several months later. News reporting later linked their murders to Marcos Sr., who reportedly ordered the hit and orchestrated the cover-up.

What happened to Domingo and Viernes showed that a dictatorship miles away in the Philippines can harass, intimidate, and even eliminate its critics in the United States.

Today, history seems to be repeating itself.

The Marcos family is back in Malacanang, 36 years after Marcos Sr.’s ousting by popular uprising and mass rage over martial law. The family relied heavily on systematic historical revisionism to erase the memory of martial law atrocities.

Immediately upon declaration of victory, the son of the late dictator appointed the main architect and enforcer of martial law, Juan Ponce Enrile, to his cabinet. Red-tagging, targeting, and silencing of critics of the state will likely become more commonplace both in the Philippines and beyond.

Just this past June, weeks before the scheduled inauguration of the late dictator’s son Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a group of 500 Filipino-Americans in New York City chanted “Never again to martial law!” while promoting the passage of the Philippine Human Rights Act (PHRA) in Congress during the 124th annual Philippine Independence Day Parade. The PHRA, which currently has 33 co-sponsors, would limit US security assistance to the Philippines until the country takes certain actions, including “(1) investigating and successfully prosecuting members of its military and police forces who have violated human rights, (2) withdrawing the military from domestic policing activities, and (3) establishing that it effectively protects the rights of journalists and civil society activists.”

But along the parade route, another group–Filipinos-Americans Against Communist Terrorists (FACT)—tagged the PHRA as a front for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its armed wing the New Peoples Army (NPA), and its political wing the National Democratic Front (NDF) of the Philippines. The US State Department lists CPP and NPA as foreign terrorist organizations.

For organizers in the Philippines, Red-tagging is often a precursor to being disappeared or assassinated. This is what happened to Brandon Lee, an American living in the Philippines who supported Indigenous rights struggles in the Cordillera region. Lee was subject to relentless Red-tagging for years until he survived a failed assassination attempt in 2019 that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

During the 2022 Philippine general elections, authorities Red-tagged Chicago labor leader Joe Iosbaker, who was in Manila as part of an international mission to observe the electoral process. Days before the election, Philippine police hung several banners near his hotel that accused him of interfering in the affairs of the Philippines, and called him a “Communist Terrorist Ally.” Iosbaker, who participated in election observations missions in many other countries including the Philippines in the past, said he has not faced this level of intimidation during any other election.

Despite the Red-tagging, a new generation of Filipinos in the US and their supporters continue to organize and broaden the growing movement to oppose and reject the new regime of Marcos Jr.

Early on in his electoral candidacy, Marcos Jr. pledged to beef up the budget for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, a hyper-aggressive Philippine government unit established to intensify the government’s counterinsurgency campaign against the ongoing armed rebellion of the CPP-NPA-NDF in the countryside–something Marcos Sr. and every other Philippine president has failed to do. The new regime is already committed to bolstering the budget for the task force by nearly 11 billion Philippine pesos (or approximately $200 million USD).

While supposedly going after armed insurgents in the countryside, the task force has also rabidly bad-mouthed the most vocal government critics and human rights advocates overseas, including Filipino-American lawyer and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis. It has also praised and encouraged the efforts of groups such as FACT and others that actively Red-tag government critics overseas.

But this does not mean overseas supporters of the fight for freedom, justice, and true democracy in the Philippines will abandon ship. On June 30, the day of Marcos Jr.’s inauguration in Manila, Filipino-Americans across the United States protested.

And despite the attacks they faced, Iosbaker, Lee, and other Red-tagged community leaders all remain active in the fight for democracy in the Philippines. They are undeterred by the threats and intimidation because they see increased use of Red-tagging for what it really is: a sign of the regime’s fear of being exposed and overthrown by the people who have had enough of its lies, violence, and repression.

Hard times are ahead for critics of the Marcos dynasty, in the Philippines and in America. But as we prepare for another battle for the country’s future, we remember a lesson from Domingo and Viernes: You can kill its leaders, but you cannot kill the movement. Greater repression breeds greater resistance, and tyrants can be overthrown by the people.

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