‘Oplan Tokhang’ applied in counterinsurgency?

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2021 - 12:00am

I am 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.

The statement came from Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate committee on national defense and security, peace, unification and reconciliation, last Dec. 2, 2020 after the committee had concluded three public hearings on red-tagging.

At least three lawyers invited to the hearings had made such a recommendation, briefly citing their respective reasons. Commission on Human Rights member Karen Gomez-Dumpit: “(Red-tagging) is more often than not a prelude or even an open invitation to commit atrocities against the persons targeted.” Constitutional lawyer Antonio La Viña: “(It) is terrorism in its worst form.” And human rights lawyer and former congressperson Neri Javier Colmenares: “(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.”

However, on Feb. 23, Lacson turned around and released his committee’s report on the hearings, signed by him and 12 other senators. There is no more need to criminalize red-tagging, they said, because there are already “legal remedies… sufficient and available for personalities or groups” that have been red-tagged, such as filing complaints against the red-taggers before the ombudsman.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate would agree or not with the Lacson committee’s report when it is taken up in plenary session.

Just consider how the report sharply criticizes the conduct of the Duterte government’s most vociferous red-tagger – Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, AFP Southern Luzon Command chief and one of two spokespersons of the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, chaired by President Duterte himself).

“It bears emphasis that ‘personal opinion’ [does] not absolve General Parlade from his lack of sense of responsibility and negligence in issuing contentious statements to the media and his Facebook account,” the report says. His remarks, it adds, “could never be disassociated” from his positions as NTF-ELCAC spokesperson and a ranking officer of the AFP.

“The many pronouncements of Parlade, verbal or written, have paved a warpath against personalities, entities and organizations who [that] are critical of the government,” it points out. “This unnecessary public propaganda proves to be counter-productive and damaging to the organizational integrity of both the NTF-ELCAC and the AFP.”

Relevant to the Senate committee report was the announcement, on Feb. 24, by an NTF-ELCAC component in the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR), of two resolutions in pursuance of counterinsurgency. Both resolutions are repugnant to the Bill of Rights. They were drawn up by the Regional Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee (RLECC), co-chaired by Police Brig. Gen. Rwin Pagkalinawan, chief of the Police Regional Office-CAR, and National Bureau of Investigation-CAR director, Hector Geologo.

Signed by the heads of 45 regional agencies and offices (one, the CHR-CAR head, withdrew his signature), both resolutions are supposed to be transmitted to all governors and mayors in the region for appropriate action.

One (RLECC Resolution No. 2) appeals to local chief executives in the region to pass a resolution/ordinance requiring cause-oriented groups that intend to organize mass gatherings “to secure clearance first from the concerned local government unit (LGU) with the concurrence of the PNP/AFP unit in the area.”

It premises such requirement on the absurd presumption that, while it’s the constitutional right of the people to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances, “the CPP-NPA-NDF and its front organizations exploit the freedom of assemby… in order to arouse, organize and mobilize unsuspecting individuals, especially the youth, to go against the government.”

The other (RLECC Resolution No. 4) calls for the adoption of “Oplan Tokhang”, used by the PNP in the government’s widely-assailed “war on drugs,” as a strategy ”to address the insurgency problem” in the Cordillera.

Targets of the oplan are “known left-leaning personalities in the government, media and other entities.” Police teams would visit such targets in their residences to “dissuade them from further supporting or being active members of the CPP-NPA-NDF or any of its known front organizations…” and “to convince [them] to return to the folds of the government and dissuade them from further supporting the Marxist-Maoist inspired rebellion and its known front organizations.”

“To build trust… and to remove the fear brought [about] by some instances of ‘Oplan Tokhang’on illegal drugs that went wrong,” the resolution adds, “a composite of the members of the local PNP, church, NGO and barangay officials will team up for the said ‘OplanTokhang’ concept.”

Coinciding with the RLEEC announcement, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, in a video message, submitted his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, acknowledging serious flaws in the drug war after an inter-agency panel he heads had reviewed its conduct.

Half of the police operations reviewed, Guevarra said, “failed to follow standard protocols [on] coordination with other agencies and the processing of the crime scene.” While noting the PNP assertion that many drug suspects were killed – the officially acknowledged figure is 8,000 upwards – because they resisted arrest or attempted to draw weapons and fight back, he stressed: “No full examination of the weapon recovered was conducted. No verification of its ownership. No request for ballistic examination or paraffin test was pursued until its completion.”

Critics have described the report as a “smokescreen,” which shields the “principal enablers” of the extrajudicial killings by blaming police officers on the ground and does not explain why the killings still continue with impunity.

The progressive organizations and human rights alliance in the Cordillera have assailed both RLEEC resolutions. Similarly, members of the network of national progressive organizations have raised their collective and separate vehement protests.

Promptly, the National Union of People’s Lawyers issued an initial legal opinion, specifically on the “Oplan Tokhang” counterinsurgency version. It raised the following objections:

• It profiles “left-leaning personalities” and “supporters” or “active members of the CPP-NPA-NDF” or any of its alleged front organizations. This red-tagging threatens the rights to life, liberty and security of these individuals.

• It equates the causes and advocacies of these targeted personalities to “insurgency,””Marxist-Maoist inspired rebellion” or security threat that may be addressed by law-enforcement authorities , in violation of the fundamental right to due process.

• It authorizes law enforcers to intrude into the homes of activists and government critics and to interrogate and coerce them to “return to the fold” of the law. This witchhunt will result in serious transgressions of the rights to privacy, personal liberty and against self-incrimination.

• It sanctions the violation of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression and of association by enabling law enforcers to harass, intimidate and threaten critics and activists from pursuing their advocacies. It exposes those who refuse to cooperate to harsher police action and acts of reprisal in the form of trumped-up charges or nuisance suits.

• It rests on the erroneous premise that the “insurgency problem” will be addressed by stifling dissent and infringing upon liberties, using the same operational measures that have resulted in extrajudicial killings of suspected drug offenders.

• It will foster impunity, as it provides a license or legal basis for law enforcers to blatantly violate human rights.

One hopes that the Lacson-led committee’s stance has not given the go-signal for more human-rights and constitutional violations to be inflicted upon local communities.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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