July 18 began as a typical day in a provincial community in Brgy. Guinhawa, Taysan, Batangas, south of Manila. It was morning and nine-year-old Kyllene Casao was tending to the goats her family owned near their home.
Then, soldiers walked into the community and began a frightening line of questioning directed at the little girl and her 14-year-old brother and their father. The soldiers accused them of being supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which the government sees as domestic terrorists.
Alarmed, Kyllene’s father told his children to leave. Panicked, Kyllene ran. The soldiers fired two shots, one of which hit Kyllene directly in the head. It was barely noon. Kyllene’s father was soon seen carrying a carton box containing her body to the Taysan Rural Health Center, where she was declared dead on arrival.
The soldiers involved in Kyllene’s killing were confirmed to belong to the 59th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. After reports broke out about her violent killing, the Battalion released a statement saying there was an encounter between them and members of NPA. Kyllene, battalion commander Col. Ernesto Teneza Jr. alleged, was a casualty. The encounter, the soldiers said, took place at 1:10 PM.
Human rights groups in the region were quick to conduct a fact-finding mission and they discovered a military encounter did happen, but it was in Sitio Amatong, not in Sitio Centro. It was five kilometers away where Kyllene was killed.
Groups advocating farmers’ human rights expressed outrage over the incident and demanded that the 59th be accountable for what happened to Kyllene. The Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women said that the army unit was also responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and rape of another young peasant girl in 2020. She was abducted and illegally detained from July to August that year.
Kidnapped, tortured and raped
Belle (not her real name) was returning home with a younger sibling after going to a store when she was forcibly taken by men in a van. The men blindfolded and gagged her and bound her hands. She was taken to a military camp, where she was interrogated by soldiers. They wanted her to say that her mother was a member of the NPA.
Belle’s mother is a coconut farmer and an active member of Coco Levy Fund Ibalik sa Amin (CLAIM), an organization working to unite coconut farmers in Quezon and lobby against unfair coconut product prices.
“We join Kyllene’s family in their calls for justice even as we grieve with them,” said the group’s national chairperson Zenaida Soriano. “Young peasant girls are the most vulnerable victims of military violence and suffer the worst violations like rape, torture, and murder. The 59th and Armed Forces of Philippine (AFP) must immediately be held accountable for their unspeakable violence against peasant women and children.”
Amihan also decried how members of the military continued to harass Kyllen’s family. In fact, according to reports from Mothers and Children for the Protection of Human Rights, Kyllene’s father is currently being held hostage in their own home by the military. Members of the 59th also harassed family members and human rights volunteers during Kyllene’s wake.
“We demand justice for Kyllene and Belle, and an end to militarization! We reiterate our call for the pull-out of the military troops in peasant communities. As long as military presence persists in rural communities, similar cases of violence against more peasant girls will continue,” Soriano said.
The groups of Karapatan in the Southern Tagalog Region and Tanggol (Defend) Batangas have already attended a dialogue with Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas at the Provincial Capital in Batangas City.
The groups submitted a letter to the provincial government of Batangas, demanding that it utilizes various platforms, including an independent investigation on the human rights situation, and to give aid to the families and communities affected.
More extrajudicial killings
A week after Kyllene’s cold-blooded killing, soldiers killed 52-year-old Maximinio Digno, a farmer with mental disabilities. The farmer was also accused of being a member of NPA and was executed on the spot.
On a related issue, human rights activists in Negros Oriental in the Visayas Region demanded justice for the killings of Christina Jacolbe, her 16-year-old daughter Everly Kee Jacolbe and Rodan Montero by elements of 62nd Infantry Battalion in Sitio Banderahan, Brgy. Trinidad, Guihulngan City on July 26, 2022. Jacolbe was a former daycare worker and a target of red-tagging by state forces.
The Kabataan para sa Karapatan, a Negros-based human rights group, said that the AFP planted firearms on the victims to fabricate an encounter but local residents disproved military forces’ claims that a 10-minute firefight took place.
The increasing number of human rights abuses in the provinces is prompting stronger calls for the removal of the military troops in peasant communities.
“As long as military presence persists in rural communities, similar cases of violence against farmers and their families will continue,” Soriano said.
Silence on human rights
By all accounts, the killing of civilians, as well as other human rights violations by state forces, appeared to have resumed after the 2022 elections. Three months after the new government came to power under the son of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, human rights advocates and civil rights watchdog groups have sounded the alarm.
According to groups like Karapatan and Kapatid, it was already telling that Pres. Marcos Jr. did not even mention human rights once during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 25.
“When there’s an eerie silence on these issues, we surmise that there are no significant shifts in the draconian policies of the previous administration. The impact is a more threatening environment that encourages further closing of democratic spaces,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of rights group Karapatan.
The group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also weighed in on the issue.
“Pres. Marcos has a golden opportunity to get the Philippines on the right track by setting out clear priorities and policies to improve human rights in the country,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia.
“After six years of Duterte’s disastrous drug war that killed thousands of people, Marcos needs to make a clean break by showing he is serious about accountability for past human rights violations as well as preventing abuses in the future.”
Given that Rodrigo Duterte has such a blood-soaked human rights record so much so that the International Criminal Court (ICC) wanted to bring him to trial, Pres. Marcos’s silence on the issue of human rights is being seen as a red flag by advocates.
Abductions and illegal arrests
Late last month, relatives of abducted community organizers and human rights defenders went to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to appeal for help for their missing relatives.
Two of the abducted civilians are labor organizers, Elizabeth ‘Loi’ Magbanua and Alipio ‘Ador’ Juat. They have been missing since May 3. Another two, Elgene Mungcal and Ma. Elena Cortez Pampoza, are grassroots campaigners for progressive party-list groups Gabriela Women’s Partylist and Ma. Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) respectively, who are missing since July 3.
Magbanua and Juat were last seen at Brgy. Punturin, Valenzuela City after attending a community meeting. Juat’s daughter said that her father was able to contact her around the third week of May. He told her he and Magbanua were taken by men from the Philippine Navy, but they were separated afterward. He said he has since been detained in the military camp in Quezon City, at Camp Aguinaldo.
As for Mungcal and Pampoza, both are agrarian reform advocates who closely worked with farmers. They were last seen in a supermarket in Moncada, Tarlac, two hours from Manila. Pampoza’s children said their mother’s Viber account was active until July 5, and she never responded to any of their messages.
Earlier, the families, women’s group Gabriela and the labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) held a dialogue with CHR officers to ask for an immediate investigation and for assistance in looking for the victims whom they believed had been held captive by the state enforcers.
Needless to say, the families of all abducted civilians feared for the worse and up to the time of publication of this story, they cannot confirm whether they were still alive or dead.
The secretary-general of Gabriela Joms Salvador pointed out that the incidents of extrajudicial arrests and detention resumed almost immediately after the May presidential elections.
“What hope is there that the human rights situation in the Philippines will improve when so early into the new administration, woman’s rights activists, labor unionists, and community organizers have become desaparecidos – victims of enforced disappearance? They are people who tirelessly work for the democratic rights of the poor, campaigning for better jobs, food security, and social justice. They have done nothing illegal,” Salvador said.
Salvador added that the government is maximizing the implementation of repressive laws and institutions such as the Anti-Terrorism Act, and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
“We have every reason to fear that the climate of repression and suppression will worsen under Marcos Jr,” she said.
The harassment of environmental activists has also resumed under the new regime. After two months in illegal detention, environmental defender Vertudez “Daisy” Macapanpan was released from the Lucena City District Jail August 10. She was granted temporary liberty through bail by the Infanta RTC Branch 65 for the crime of rebellion.
Vertudez, 69, was illegally arrested June 11 in her hometown, Pakil, Laguna, despite the warrant was not in her name. Before her arrest, she was active in the campaign against the construction of the 1400 MW Ahunan Hydropower Plant being constructed on top of Pakil’s mountains. Her group argued that the powerplant will destroy Pakil and nearby towns’ natural resources, most specifically their source of freshwater springs.
In an online press conference immediately after her release, Vertudez shared her experience as a political prisoner and the illegal process that she was subjected to.
“It was like a big nightmare. We know that dams should not be built on top of mountains, and this is why we‘re protesting against it. I was arrested for being with others fighting to protect Pakil’s mountains and the environment. We just want to protect natural watersheds to ensure that the next generations can still benefit from them,” she said.
Macanpan was released on bail of P200,000 (US$3,575), and her arraignment and pretrial will be held on September 2.
Another case of illegal arrest is that of Tes Pielago, the former chairperson of Bicolana-Gabriela and the and fourth nominee of the progressive party-list group Bayan Muna in the 2019 elections.
The ailing 63-year-old Pielago was receiving medical care at the Dr. Nilo O. Roa Memorial Foundation Hospital in Naga City when during midnight of July 28, soldiers and police officers entered her hospital room to serve her a warrant of arrest on charges of murder and attempted murder.
Tes Pielago is a long-time leader-activist and advocate for women’s and consumer’s rights.
As another concrete case of the new government’s seeming indifference to human rights issues, its top executive is also keeping kept mum on the matter of the country’s almost 800 political prisoners.
The group Kapatid (Sibling) decried Marcos’ non-mention of their concerns. Every new government, they said, has at least mentioned the existence of political detainees, but Marcos Jr. has ignored the issue completely. Kapatid is a support organization for families and friends of political prisoners that works for the detainees’ release and the protection of their rights and welfare.
Kapatid’s spokesperson Fides Lim’s husband, 72-year-old Vicente Ladlad, is a high-profile political prisoner and has been in prison since November 2018 on charges of illegal possession of firearms.
Lim said that as relatives of political prisoners, they have no choice but to engage with the government. She has, however, low expectations of the new Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Crispin Remulla.
Lim explained that the justice department is the main government agency they have to deal with because of bogus cases heaped on activists to keep them in indefinite detention.
“The problem with Mr. Remulla is his own words undermine rather than inspire confidence. He is a red-tagger, and he said that he is only “unmasking” those people whom he has red-tagged. Presumption of guilt has no place in the DOJ, especially if you claim to be a “professional” and “constitutionalist.” It will be a big challenge to sit down with him. But it takes two to have a dialogue,” she said.
Lim said the DOJ should prioritize the cases of detainees and the agency should reinvestigate and stop the filing of made-up cases and search warrants to criminalize and imprison activists. These, she said, particularly included the nonbailable charges of illegal possession of explosives.
“In all of the cases, it was revealed that the explosives were planted on the victims by the arresting officers. Successive courts are now dismissing these cases for glaring violations of procedures on evidence and the rule of law,” she said.
Lim said the relatives of political prisoners and relatives of other victims of human rights abuses feared the situation will only worsen under Marcos Jr.
A blood-soaked record
If Marcos Jr. wants a better human rights reputation, he has to undo the record set by his predecessor. By the end of 2021, international human rights institutions stated that under Duterte, there were 20,000 victims of murder, forced disappearances, torture, and imprisonment, as well as over 5,000 victims of unlawful arrests and detentions.
Civil liberties and democratic rights also sustained serious attacks. A major television network, ABS-CBN, was effectively shut down, while government-instigated libel cases were filed against Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa. Independent media outlets Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly have also been red-tagged and are fighting state censorship.
By the end of 2021, apart from the killings of civilians, there were 537 cases of attempted extrajudicial killing, 2,807 cases of illegal arrest without detention, 1,161 cases of illegal arrest with detention, and 1,367 cases of illegal search and seizure.
In rural areas, the attacks have been far more severe as police and military forces were mobilized to control and curb political dissent against the impacts of worsening poverty and aggression against farmers and indigenous peoples.
At the end of 2021, human rights groups monitored 470,747 cases of forced evacuation, 580,258 cases of threat/harassment/intimidation perpetrated by the armed forces, 11,635 cases of indiscriminate firing, and a massive 376,809 cases of bombing of farmers and indigenous communities. Human rights groups also documented 57,502 cases of schools, medical and religious public places being used for military purposes.
Violations against human rights continued to be committed all over the country even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human rights advocates vow to fight on
As local human rights advocates vowed to keep a close eye on the Marcos Jr government’s actions, the international human rights community is doing the same.
In July this year, the Congress of the United States agreed on an amendment to a defense spending measure with the Philippines. The amendment blocks aid, including equipment and training, to the police institution of the Philippines until such time that “the Philippines is deemed to have met basic human rights standards.”
The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2023 was introduced by Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild and adopted by the US House through a voice vote. I
The amendment states that U.S. State Department (USDA) will not give funding to the Philippine police until it has been certified that the Philippines has investigated and successfully prosecuted police officers who violated human rights. The Philippine police is also compelled to cooperate with judicial authorities, and the USDA must confirm that such violations have ceased.
“The Filipino people need all the support they can get to defend human rights. No one is safe from a government that is dismissive of human rights concerns, and impunity continues. The indifference of the administration to abductions and the extrajudicial killing of civilians including children is a go signal to the police and military to continue their rampage,” Karapatan’s Palabay said.
“We cannot just stand by and watch as the bodies again pile up like during Duterte’s presidency. We demand that the Marcos Jr. presidency speak out against the violations and address the human rights crisis in the country.”
All photos credit: Gabriela, KIlusang Mayo Uno, and Karapatan.