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#DefendNegros: Filipino activists stand up for peace

  • JASS

Due to heightened violence in the area, the author of this piece, a JASS Southeast Asia ally, has chosen to remain anonymous. 

It was a chilling evening when I heard the news that my friend and fellow activist, Salvador Romano, was killed by two masked assassins on a motorcycle as he was leaving church at noon on July 7. Bador, as we knew him, was a youth activist in his younger years and our paths had crossed many times at events in support of marginalized communities. He was full of humor and energy, the life of every activity, admired by so many with a new focus in life as a youth advisor at his church. This time, the killings that had been escalating in my home province of Negros Oriental in the Philippines had arrived at my doorstep. Bador’s killers had sent a message: anyone who had defended abused women and children, evicted farmers, and beaten workers, was now also a target. Within just 10 days this past July, 21 people were killed in Negros Oriental: human rights defenders, community leaders, farmers, church workers, and lawyers.

Behind the violence

Negros Oriental, known as the “sugar bowl” of the Philippines, is simultaneously home to the majority of the country’s sugar plantations owned by wealthy and politically influential families as well as some of the nation’s poorest individuals. With abusive labor practices that force landless farmers to manually plant and harvest sugarcane, daily wages have never risen above $2.50 USD. In the 1980s when U.S. consumers began to prefer artificial sweeteners, the sugar industry collapsed, a crisis that exacerbated poverty and exploitation and created the conditions for resistance and rebellion. Today, much of the local resistance is organized into a larger nationalist movement called the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) with its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). For 50 years, the NPA has waged a civil war seeking agrarian reform and social and political change for the whole country.

Fast forward to the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. At first, he said he wanted to reopen the peace process with the NDFP that had begun in 1992, but after a hopeful start, the president reverted his position. His government officially designated the NDFP and NPA as “terrorists” who must be eliminated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The gradual militarization of the Philippine government launched a “whole nation approach” to defeat insurgency. Short of declaring Martial Law nationwide, in November 2018 President Duterte ordered the military and police to suppress all forms of “lawless violence” in four provinces, including Negros Oriental, which has since become a hotspot for increased militarization. A month later, President Duterte formalized a task force to “end local communist armed conflict” and gave the police and military license to interrogate citizens at will. This intimidation escalated with the National Police’s Synchronized Enhanced Managing of Police Operations (SEMPO), which orchestrated 38 simultaneous operations to storm into the homes of suspected NPA supporters, mostly farmers and community leaders, leaving 6 people dead and 31 arrested. Of the 87 people who have been killed in Negros during President Duterte’s term, 55 have been confirmed as politically motivated state-sanctioned killings.

Coming together

The murders of human rights defenders who struggled alongside the marginalized and oppressed peoples of Negros Oriental put my own life and safety in question. Those killed are like me; they joined protests, supported victims in courtrooms, and spoke out publicly about exploitation and human rights abuses. Those of us who have walked this road are finding each other again and building spaces of solidarity and support.

One important space was a peace concert JASS organized on September 10 to merge music with information that awakens a new consciousness among the people. JASS, with local groups, gathered 150 young women, mothers, academics, artists, and religious groups, along with 19 organizations, to remember those we lost and call for an end to the violence and impunity in Negros. Artists created a centerpiece where people of diverse faiths could lead everyone in prayer, as local bands drummed. At 8pm, the bells began to toll, and we burned our candles while religious leaders led us in the oratio imperata prayer to end the extrajudicial killings. As I lit my candle, I thought of Bador. 

Others are calling for peace too. The civil society group Defend Negros Network was organized in June 2019 to unite concerned citizens within and outside Negros. The Network has been a source for accurate information on the situation in Negros while providing an outlet to raise our voices. Meanwhile, the Senate and the House of Representatives have filed resolutions for an independent investigation into the heightened spate of killings and violence in Negros Oriental to identify the causes and factors that have led to this horrific situation and to seek justice for victims and their families.

A Way Forward

International solidarity with the Filipino people is urgent and imperative. The broader the voices of resistance and the stronger the movement denouncing the violence and militarization in the Philippines, the greater the potential for change. The brunt of the violence has fallen upon the poor farmers and fishermen and women who have had to go into hiding while others have been killed, leaving their families with not only the trauma of losing a loved one, but also with the economic realities of losing a primary wage earner. This is a struggle for the people of Negros to confront directly, but we call upon our national and global networks to support our struggle with the resources that can infuse creativity and strength toward the demands and intentions of the people of Negros. We ask our national and global networks to listen and respond to this urgent call and evolving strategies defined by the growing movement in Negros. This will not be a short-term struggle, especially since President Duterte will be leading the country for another three years. For the latest information, people can follow #DefendNegros and @JASSSEA on Twitter and Facebook.

My friend Bador lost his life because he had a heart that sympathized with the marginalized people of Negros. He used his courage and educational privilege to speak out against injustice and he offered a vision of life where land would be given to the tiller and landlords would stop their oppression. His vision included livelihoods to uplift women, schools and hospitals to serve the poorest communities, and land and water resources to protect and not exploit. I share this vision with Salvador Ramano. This is the vision so many have died for, and for those of us who are still able to struggle, it is a vision we will one day realize for the people of Negros.

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