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Why Duterte's 'red-baiting' of activists is dangerous

Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr stressed the activist groups President Rodrigo Duterte mentioned are “unarmed and are not engaged in armed struggle.” Noel Celis/AFP

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncement that protest groups are in conspiracy with communists endangers activists' lives, leaders said.

In a televised speech in Pili, Camarines Sur on Tuesday, Duterte accused transport group Piston (Pinagkaisahang Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide), human rights group Karapatan and labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno of committing rebellion alongside the Communist Party of the Philippines, which advocates armed struggle and has been in conflict with the government since 1969.

“This Karapatan, KMU, Piston, they are just the legal fronts of the Communist Party of the Philippines... It's one big conspiracy but they are at the same time—all of them—are committing right now rebellion. They are just helping each other,” Duterte, who identified himself as a leftist early in his term, said in English and Filipino.

He added: “It's a one big conspiracy, mayroon sila,  look at Piston, they have a star... that's the logo of the communists.”

Piston's logo is actually a stylized steering wheel and a map of the Philippines.

READDuterte says transport strike group 'committing a rebellion'

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'Dangerous, no basis'

Bagong Alayansang Makabayan Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr told Philstar.com in an online exchange that "these are very dangerous pronouncements coming from no less than the commander-in-chief.” 

Reyes also said that Duterte's claim about the protest groups has no basis because the activists he mentioned are “unarmed and are not engaged in armed struggle.”

Support for or membership in an activist group does not equate to membership in the CPP or the New People's Army. The president himself has claimed past membership in Kabataang Makabayan, now an underground youth group, but has said he is not a communist.

"I am a socialist, not a communist. We socialists are for the people," he declared at a campaign rally in April 2016.

Piston National President George San Mateo also said the president is putting the lives of his members in danger.

“The president is accusing us without giving evidence and without due process. Violation of our right to due process [is a violation of] basic human right,” San Mateo told Philstar.com.

Duterte's attacks came amid Piston's two-day nationwide strike to protest a jeepney modernization program that the group said would force small cooperatives and single-unit operators out of business.

READ: Why some transport groups oppose jeepney phaseout

The president said he would not change his mind to modernize the country's transport system. Jeepney drivers who continue to defy the transport modernization plan would be arrested, he said.

The chief executive has repeatedly accused left-leaning groups, the "Reds" — the CPP-NPA-National Democratic Front of the Philippines — and the Liberal Party of conspiring with the communists to oust him from office.

READDuterte warns ‘communist front’ Piston of arrest

Red-tagging, red-baiting

Reyes said Duterte’s pronouncement suggested that he was ordering state forces to persecute activists or file false charges against them.

“Is Duterte now signalling to the AFP to shoot activists? Is he setting the stage for a crackdown on a legal activists through the filing of trumped-up charges?” he said.

“The last time a president did this kind of red-tagging, hundreds of activists were killed and arrested, in one of the worst period for human rights in the Philippines, between 2005-2008,” Reyes noted.

Red-baiting, as defined by the International Peace Observers Network, is the practice of publicly and detractively classifying government-critical individuals and organizations as communist terrorists, state enemies or subversives.

The term red-baiting stemmed from the political campaign against communist elements in the United States during the 1950s.

The Bayan secretary general was referring to former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration.

During her term, Arroyo institutionalized a counter-insurgency campaign called Oplan Bantay Laya which tagged organizations critical of the government like Bayan, KMU, among others as “communist fronts.”

According to the Karapatan 2009 Report on the human rights situation in the Philippines, there were a total of 1,188 victims of extrajudicial killings and 205 who have been forcibly disappeared since Arroyo assumed office in 2001.

Then United Nations Special Rapporteur on EJKs Philip Alston criticized the practice.

Alston called on Arroyo to “take concrete steps to put an end to those aspects of counterinsurgency operations which have led to the targeting and execution of many individuals working with civil society organizations.”

READ: Activists chant Duterte off rally stage

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