Yet again, Filipino military task force is accused of human rights abuses

As civil and human rights advocates marked the 51st anniversary of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines and the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship that spanned 20 years, calls are rife for the immediate abolition of the National Task Force to End Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

Since it was established on December 4, 2018 via ex-president Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order No. 70, civil society and grassroots organizations all over the Philippines have been denouncing the task force. They said the task force has “weaponized the entire bureaucracy and state functionaries,” and has committed human rights violations with impunity, similar to those committed during martial law.

Recently, the task force was again under fire for what human rights group said was its role jointly with the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the abduction of two environmental activists, Jonila Castro, 21 and Jhed Tamano, 22 on September 2. The two are volunteers for AKAP KA Manila Bay (Alliance for the Defense of Livelihood, Housing, and Environment) and they were doing research on land reclamation in Manila Bay at the time they were abducted.

Jhed is also the program coordinator of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum church-community program working with communities along the coastal areas of Manila Bay in the provinces of Bulacan and Bataan together with AKAP Ka.

Witnesses saw the two being forced into a white van in the evening of September 2 in Orion, Bataan, south of Manila. Additionally, footage from a CCTV camera also showed the two young women walking on a road when a white van pulled up.

After two weeks of a widespread campaign supported by school campuses, various church groups, and human rights and environmental organizations, the two were surfaced during a press conference on September 19 and released to the custody of their parents and human rights groups afterwards.

During the press conference that was sponsored by the NTF-ELCAC and PNP, Jonila and Jhed declared that contrary to what the two agencies were saying, they did not surrender but were abducted, to the surprise and anger of the officials present.

The two women jointly said: “We were walking down the road when an SUV stopped in front of us and men forced us to go with them. We thought we were being kidnapped by a criminal syndicate, but they already knew who we were. 

“It’s important to know what really happened. The question is whether we were abducted or did we surrender. The truth is we were snatched by the military, forced into a van. We were forced to say that we surrender and sign an affidavit saying this because they threatened our lives. This is the truth.”

The NTF-ELCAC abruptly ended the press conference.  On the evening of September 19, with mass protests at the Plaridel Municipal Hall where Jhed and Jonila were held, they were released. No charges were filed against them.

Human rights groups are now considering filing charges against the NTF-ELCAC. The families of the two women have engaged lawyers from the Free Legal Assistance Group to represent them.

Protesters call for release of Jhed and Jonila. Photo credit: The Free Jhed and Jonila Task Force

Protesters call for release of Jhed and Jonila. Photo credit: The Free Jhed and Jonila Task Force

Protesters call for release of Jhed and Jonila. Photo credit: The Free Jhed and Jonila Task Force

Protesters call for release of Jhed and Jonila. Photo credit: The Free Jhed and Jonila Task Force

NTF-ELCAC used against activists

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, peasant leader Danilo Ramos said NTF-ELCAC and the presidential order that created it, granted unchecked power and authority to the military, police, and judiciary to execute actions aimed at stifling political dissent and to immobilize government critics.

Ramos is the president of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) or Peasant Movement of the Philippines, a group that is a perennial target of military operations on accusations that it is a terrorist front because it organizes farmers and their communities to assert genuine land reform and higher subsidies.

“This task force is behind all vile acts against human rights defenders and oppositionists. It institutionalized red-tagging and the legal and political persecution of activists and government critics,” he said. 

“The work of this agency is not so much to win the hearts and minds of Filipinos – it exists to churn out lies and disinformation to cover up the corruption of the government and its failure to address the economic crisis.”

Red-tagging is the malicious blacklisting and harassment of individuals or organizations critical or not fully supportive of the actions of a sitting government administration.

According to Ramos, a large chunk of the NTF-ELCAC annual budget is funneled into the Barangay Development Fund for the so-called consolidation and development of insurgency-free barangays.

Ramos said: “This fund that came from people’s hard-earned taxes is being used to bribe and reward individuals in local villages to give false information on alleged members of the New People’s Army (NPA) and to malign and discredit legitimate and legal people’s organizations. 

“The budget that goes to the NTF-ELCAC is better off being added to agriculture support and food production.”

Based on public records, the NTF-ELCAC along with the Inter-Agency Committee on Legal Action (IACLA) and local courts have pushed fabricated cases against known activists red-tagged and labeled as “communists-terrorists.”

The Criminal Investigation and Detection Group under the police agency implements orders for searches and arrests, and conducts operations to neutralize or liquidate so-called enemy targets.

Protesters are not backing down from attacks against civil and human rights. Photo credit: Kodao Productions

Protesters are not backing down from attacks against civil and human rights. Photo credit: Kodao Productions

Abductions and killings continue

Environmental groups Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defender (APNED), Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines Inc. (CEC), and the Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL) have also denounced what they said was the continued attacks against environmentalists in the country.

Enteng Bautista of the CEC said: “Local communities and environmental human rights defenders in the region have been experiencing attacks since the railroading of land reclamation activities such as that of San Miguel Corporation (one of the biggest corporations in the country) and Boskalis (a company from the Netherlands) for the New Manila International Airport in Bulacan province and the related dredging activities.”

They also said that many environmental human rights defenders have been experiencing harassment, threats and intimidation from the government armed forces, including those in the NTF-ELCAC.

In a related development, a report by farmers organization AMBI Amihan Isabela stated that six individuals, mostly female peasant advocates, were subjected to various forms of surveillance, harassment, and red-tagging across nine separate incidents in August. 

During one incident on August 27, residents of a community in Brgy. Lapogan were forced to “surrender” as rebels in a barangay assembly, at the height of the onslaught of a recent strong typhoon. 

Five soldiers from the 5th Infantry Division and policemen made a call at the house of Nenita Apricio, a peasant leader in Tumauini, Isabela. Apricio is an official of Amihan. The group has been working for the last six years for their right to food security and land rights.

As of this writing, soldiers were making the rounds in communities in Tumauwi, taking down names and taking pictures of women farmers, warning them against joining Amihan.

“Land and environmental defenders in Northern Luzon continue to be under threat,” said Jon Bonifacio, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (KPKNE). “It’s evident that there is a concerted effort by the police and military forces to intimidate and silence activists in Northern Luzon.”

Human rights violations in other parts of the Philippines also continued as two activists were abducted on the morning of September 15 by suspected state agents in Negros Occidental.

According to reports from the alternative media outfit Paghimutad, 26-year-old peasant organizer Bea Lopez, and tricycle driver Peter Agravante, were taken by masked and armed men in a white van. Witnesses said the two were forced into the wan and the tricycle was loaded to the back of a pick-up vehicle.

Two days later on September 17, Agravante’s body was found in a cliff in Brgy. Nagbo-alao, Basay, Negros Oriental. According to human rights groups, his wrists were bound with rope and his eyes, mouth and ankles covered and wrapped with duct tape. He had a gunshot wound to the head.

Based on eyewitness accounts, around midnight of September 16, a white pick-up truck stopped in the area where the body was eventually found.

According to the human rights group Karapatan (Rights), there have been approximately 10 recorded cases of enforced disappearances in just 15 months of the Marcos Jr. administration, which included the disappearance of IP rights advocates Bazoo de Jesus and Dexter Capuyan on April 28 and the recent abduction of the two young women Jhed and Jonila.

Dr. Natividad Castro, a community doctor, and indigenous leaders Windel Bolinget, Steve Tauli, Sarah Abellon Alikes, and Jennifer Awingan, have also been accused as terrorists by the NTF-ELCAC for their advocacies helping indigenous communities resist land grabbing and militarization.

In the Southern Tagaog region, 15 human rights advocates are facing criminal charges under the Anti-Terrorism Law and Anti-Terrorist Financing.

Religious groups are also not exempted. The General Secretary of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, Bishop Malzar Labuntog, expressed grave concern on the ongoing attacks on churches and church workers, with their grassroots missions being linked to acts of terrorism.

Labuntog said at a symposium: “As church workers, we simply aim to address the gaps in providing proper services to our indigenous communities and remote areas. 

“However, through the use and abuse of Anti-Terror Law, we have faced sanctions such as freezing of bank accounts and potential civil forfeiture of our properties geared towards helping those poorest of communities.” 

Atty. Kristina Conti of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) called on the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly to take action on red-tagging and terrorist tagging conducted by the NTF-ELCAC. 

The lawyer said sanctions should be laid down against Lorraine Badoy-Partosa, Ret. Gen. Antonio Parlade, Jr., and Jeffrey Celiz, all active players in the agency.

Protesters are not backing down from attacks against civil and human rights. Photo credit: Kodao Productions

Protesters are not backing down from attacks against civil and human rights. Photo credit: Kodao Productions

Slashed budgets for education as military funds increased

The Marcos Jr. administration has also prioritized allocations for NTF-ELCAC and military in the 2024 national budget proposal.  In 2023, the military received P27.5 billion (US$484 million); for 2024, P50 billion is being earmarked for it.  

The police are getting P16 billion more in 2024 from this year’s P180 million. The NTF-ELCAC is getting P10 billion for its work which, human rights group pointed out, is mainly spying on the citizenry, red-tagging, and leading abduction and extrajudicial killings of activists. 

In the meantime, a total of P10 billion is going into the overall confidential intelligence funds (CIFs) of the Marcos Jr government. 

In contrast to the massive increase in military funds, billions were taken off from the allocations for public education. The Commission on Higher Education will get a P1.21 billion budget cut; the implementation program of the Free Tuition Law will get a decrease of P583 million, and all state universities and colleges will have their collective budgets slashed by P6.12 billion.

Protesters call for release of Jhed and Jonila. Photo credit: The Free Jhed and Jonila Task Force

Protests to continue

Despite the relentless attacks and threats against civil, political and human rights in the country, activists are not backing down.  

Renato Reyes of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN or New Patriotic Alliance) said to give up is to allow the government to commit more abductions and killing. He said apart from calling for the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC, human rights advocates will continue to expose the abuses of the Marcos Jr. administration.

“From Marcos Sr. to Marcos Jr, from the fake Bagong Lipunan (New Society) to the rebranded Bagong Pilipinas (New Philippines), there has been no fundamental change in the Philippines. 

“Quite the opposite, we see many aspects of the past Marcos dictatorship in the current Marcos administration. The climate of impunity persists as killings, abductions and arrests of dissenters using such instruments as the “terror law”. Filipinos are reeling from low wages, inflation, unemployment and landlessness. 

“Essentially nothing has changed, so given this, we will continue to resist repression and seek justice for the victims from Marcos Sr to Marcos Jr.” 

Top photo credit: The Free Jhed and Jonila Task Force

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