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Is red-tagging preparing for 2022 electoral campaign?

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - December 5, 2020 - 12:00am

The current, murderous red-tagging campaign engaged in for the past two years by the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) could be more far-reaching than it seems.

Created by President Duterte on Dec. 4, 2018 through Executive Order No. 70, with himself as chairman, the NTF-ELCAC is purportedly guided by a “National Peace Framework” that has instrumentalized the entire government machinery and resources (national and local) plus “civil society and and other stakeholders” towards an ambitious goal: to end the more than 50 years of armed conflict by the end of his term in mid-2022.

Duterte signed EO 70 after he had issued two presidential proclamations: one “terminating” the GRP-NDFP peace talks in November 2017; the other “designating” the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army as terrorist organizations in December 2017. Those were troubling turnabouts on the part of the President.

To recall: Following through on his electoral campaign promise to arrive at a peace agreement with the Left revolutionary movement, he resumed the long-suspended peace talks in August 2016. In an atmosphere of euphoria and high expectations, the two negotiating panels reaffirmed and vowed to uphold all previously-signed agreements since the talks began in 1992. They agreed to accelerate the pace of negotiations to enable President Duterte to begin implementing the key agreements already signed and others that would be completed.

The ensuing series of formal negotiations and informal discussions between the panels produced mutually-acknowledged “unprecedented” gains. Substantive draft agreements were signed or initialed by both parties, involving agrarian reforms and rural development (with free distribution of land to tillers and landless peasants as basic principle) and national industrialization and economic development. There was even an Interim Peace Agreement. However, pressured by his militarist advisers who opposed the agreements and further peace talks, Duterte aborted the formal signing of the accords in November 2017. Then the hate and extermination campaign was launched.

Over the past two years, the NTF-ELCAC has pursued its goal with intertwining actions:

• An “all-out” war against the CPP-NPA, which Duterte ordered revved-up to “non-stop, all-out” war in September 2019. (“Gusto ko, kung maaari lang, tapusin ko sa panahon ko,” he said then.)

As part of the counterinsurgency program, the AFP and the PNP have been pressuring local government units to declare the CPP-NPA as “persona non grata” in their areas of jurisdiction, putting up billboards and tarpaulin with that message. Then they included the names of well-known legal organizations and party-list groups, declaring them also as “persona non grata.” These were apart from tarpaulins with names and photos of personalities, activists and other individuals tagged as “enemies of the state.”

• The unrelenting, well-funded nationwide campaign of red-tagging, vilification, harassment, threats and intimidation has targeted leaders and members of a broad array of progressive organizations – and even led to outright killings. These targets include those courageously pursuing their advocacies, and just plain doing their jobs in an open, legal way. They work in faith-based organizations, academe, the arts, the mass media; they are professionals such as lawyers, human rights defenders. Not least, they represent party-list organizations and constitute the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives.

Last Monday night, in his televised address to the nation, Duterte renewed his attack against the Makabayan bloc. One news report quoted him as saying that he was not engaging in red-tagging, but then went on to rant that “we are identifying you as members in a grand conspiracy comprising all the legal fronts” organized by the National Democratic Front, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.

The President didn’t say what the “grand conspiracy” was all about, nor did he cite any clear evidence to back up his claim. It seems to be enough for him that the AFP has done the identifying, and that he trusts the AFP to be “very correct.” It’s Duterte’s repeated full backing of the military that emboldens them to go on their red-tagging spree.

In its editorial yesterday, the Inquirer noted that Duterte’s “animus” toward the Left and the rebel movement has been a “curious 180-degree turn” from his previous stance when he was Davao City mayor. In 2013, he acknowledged before Davao business leaders that “historical injustice committed on the people” impelled some citizens to take up arms against the state. “[‘To the] credit [of] these revolutionaries,” he told his audience, “you can easily exchange words and deal with them.”

Weighing in on the President’s diatribe Monday night, the Commission on Human Rights spokesperson commented: “The CHR does not really delve into who is communist or not. We would just like to caution the government against making sweeping generalizations… against red-tagging individuals who have not clearly taken up arms [against the government]. There must be a clear delineation between people who have joined the armed combat, and those who have not.”

Last Wednesday, after concluding three public hearings on red-tagging, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate committee on national defense and security, peace, unification and reconciliation, said he was “seriously considering the recommendations to criminalize red-tagging as long as such legislation will not infringe on the Bill of Rights involving freedom of speech and expression.”

At the Tuesday hearing, CHR commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit said it was within the plenary powers of Congress to criminalize red-tagging, pointing out that such a measure will not infringe on the freedom of expression and speech. She expressed serious concern that red-tagging “is more often than not, a prelude or even an open invitation for anyone to commit atrocities against the persons targeted.”

Constitutional lawyer Antonio LaViña agreed that red-tagging must be outlawed because “it is terrorism in its worst form.”

The Makabayan party-lists and allied groups support the criminalization of red-tagging, Bayan Muna chair Neri Colmenares said, because it “entails the use of government resources and funds to target people on their political beliefs – an affront to the constitutional right to freedom of expression.”

Further, he raised a highly credible point: the NTF-ELCAC wants “to disable Makabayan’s electoral machinery that will campaign against the administration’s presidential candidate in 2022, because they know we will campaign hard for the opposition.”

Colmenares has hit the nail on the head. NTF-ELCAC vice chairman Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Duterte’s national security adviser, has in fact already announced that the government would move “as soon as possible” to disqualify the progressive party-lists from participating in the 2022 elections. His basis for trying to force them out of the electoral arena? Because “they do not believe in condemning the NPA for its violent actions.” Esperon ought to educate himself by reviewing the country’s election laws.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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