The Philippines’ anti-terror bill is poised to cause more terror

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Recently passed by Congress, the bill is set to be signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte. If this happens, the bill will not only suppress the fundamental rights and freedoms of Filipinos, it will also terrorise the same conflict-affected communities it seeks to protect, as it undoes decades of peacebuilding work.
Despite protests against the bill and mounting calls to provide more time for deliberations, Congress has quietly fast-tracked its passage while the rest of the country braced for the impact of COVID-19. The bill will allow for a lengthened period of warrantless detention and expanded surveillance of those law enforcement deems suspicious. It will also remove stiff penalties for wrongful detention.
Most importantly, the bill carries a vague definition of “terrorism” that offers little distinction between organisations that commit acts of terror and revolutionary armed movements, which is important for those doing mediation among warring parties. The bill will provide law enforcers with broad powers to determine what constitutes a “terrorist”, shifting the burden of proof to suspected individuals and organisations. This is not only a threat to dissent and democracy, but also to peace.
For more than half a century, the Philippine government has been trying to quell secessionist and communist armed movements in the country.
Bangsamoro, an autonomous region in the south of the Philippines, is currently in transition after decades of fighting between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. While much remains to be done, significant strides have been taken, with a transitional regional government installed last year and the decommissioning of combatants and arms under way. These gains have been made possible primarily by the peace talks and reconciliation processes.
The ill-advised and shortsighted fear of the ISIL (ISIS) armed group taking root in Mindanao, and the increased framing of the communist armed movements as “terrorist”, distract the government from seeing the gains of dialogue and peacebuilding.
The threat of terrorism is real, but it is not the main threat to peace.
In fact, militaristic approaches to counterterrorism have caused the most suffering and displacements, prompted breakdowns in ongoing peace processes, and given birth to more aggressive splinter groups like the Abu Sayyaf, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Maute Group.
Insensitivity to the local context and the peace process in prioritising fighting terrorists in Mamasapano in 2015 and Marawi in 2017 delayed the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and undermined reconciliation across communities in the country. These should not be forgotten, and should not be repeated.
Due to a long history of discrimination, the Moro and Muslim minorities in the Philippines are often most affected not only by terrorist attacks but by harassment and warrantless arrests packaged as “counterterrorism”.
This profiling of Muslims as violent “terrorists” continues to this day. In January, it was discovered that the Manila Police District was collating information about Muslim youth and students in the National Capital Region for its “preventing violent extremism” initiatives.
Two months before, in November 2019, the police barged into the office of a long-established Mindanao-based peacebuilding organisation, without a warrant, checked the living quarters, and inspected the bags of young Moros from Marawi who were attending a psychosocial support training.
Being a woman while being both Moro and Muslim adds another layer of vulnerability, especially with the heightened visibility that comes with wearing a headscarf. Women widowed by war and children orphaned by conflict are also disproportionately affected by counterterrorism that narrowly sees them as vulnerable to being recruited into terrorism, instead of partners who can inform policies for change.
This bill will undermine efforts at reconciliation, as it will make it easier to target Muslims and open old wounds anew.
The military generals clearly see the impending anti-terrorism bill as a way to “end” the world’s oldest existing communist insurgency. But the bill is more likely to reignite war and bring further insecurity.
Following the termination of the peace negotiations between the government, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines in 2017, the government has since branded the CPP-NPA as “terrorist” and filed a petition seeking to declare them terrorist organisations under the Human Security Act, the current counterterrorism law. Following delayed progress through the courts, the government has taken a new tack: change the law directly. Thus, the Anti Terror Bill.
The argument about whether the CPP-NPA is a terrorist organisation or a revolutionary movement is fraught with a lot of biases, and a long, violent history between the communist armed movement and the military. What is clear is that the impending declaration of the CPP-NPA as terrorist organisations will impede any future peace talks, and escalate violence and displacement in communities.
As lessons have not been learned, the military should be reminded that the CPP-NPA was at its strongest under the martial law regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It is not activism thmunities towards violence. Rather, it is crackdowns on nonviolent civic action that will push communities to lose trust in government and take alternative routes for affecting change.
Yet as I write this, trust in the government is also under threat. What is left of our democracy is under threat. Peace is under threat.
It is our collective duty to end violence against civilian communities. For this same reason, we cannot take shortcuts to peace.
This rushed and unrestrained anti-terror bill will cause terror – and it will come from the state.