by Lucio Blanco Pitlo II*
24 June 2020
While mayor of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte tolerated the presence of rebel groups so long as they will not bear arms and carry out attacks in his city. It was an uneasy arrangement that was generally observed. Since becoming President of the Philippines, the self-confessed socialist even appointed some leftist leaders in his cabinet. But this romance with the reds now seem to unravel as pressure mounts on the country’s remaining insurgent and terror groups. A controversial anti-terror bill recently passed by both legislative chambers is now up to his signature. Whether it will be the nail in the coffin or a boon to recruitment for local non-state armed groups depends on how it will be enforced and whether it will be complemented by non-military measures.
Domestic security challenges long kept the Philippines from shifting towards territorial and maritime defense. The country is home to Asia’s longest communist insurgency by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), a three-decade old reign of terror by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and offshoots from two main Moro rebel groups that since made peace with the government in return for autonomy.
Aside from tying down its military to internal security, conflict frustrated economic opportunities in the countryside, discourage investors and put communities in the crossfire. According to the Global Terrorism Database, over 60 percent of deaths from terrorism in Southeast Asia in 2017 alone occurred in the Philippines.
Insurgent and terror groups engaged in recruiting child soldiers, targeting civilians, extortion, disrupting public works, destroying telecommunication towers and burning farm equipment and provincial buses not paying “revolutionary taxes.” The CPP-NPA’s internal purges also killed hundreds of former members in “killing fields” unearthed in different parts of the country. The ASG has become notorious for its kidnap-for-ransom, beheadings, and daring cross-border raids. In fact, the transboundary danger posed by this extremist group and its regional linkages, along with piracy, led neighbors Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to conduct trilateral air and naval patrols.
Most communist movements in Southeast Asia predated World War II and reach their zenith during the Cold War. But they eventually splintered, surrendered, dismantled or withered by the 1990s. Not the CPP-NPA, which persisted, although its numbers and areas of operation greatly diminished. With domestic stability, many of the country’s neighbors were able to focus on economic development. To a much lesser extent, Jakarta continue to fight a localized insurgency in west Papua and Bangkok still deal with occasional disturbances in its far south. But the Philippines joins Myanmar in a continuing struggle against geographically spread armed groups, although Naypyidaw is besieged by more rebel outfits than Manila. And while terrorism has become a regional concern, nowhere is the threat more felt than the Philippines. The five- month battle to retake Marawi from the clutches of these radicals in 2017 showcase this.
The troop strength of homegrown insurgent and terror groups pale in comparison to their heydays in the 1980s and early 1990s. Nevertheless, their continued presence check development in rural areas and divert military resources away from external defense. At their present form, neither the CPP-NPA nor the ASG constitute an existential threat to the country. But Duterte seems not inclined to give them another 50-year and 30 year leases in life respectively.
The anti-terror bill provides the state greater authority to defeat these enduring domestic security challenges. It expanded the range of punishable acts to include preparatory and mobilization activities for the commission of terrorism. Planning, recruitment, training, financing, facilitating, conspiring, providing material support, inciting and proposing to commit terror were now covered. The bill allows for surveillance, extends the period of detention without warrant, restrain travel, and examine and freeze financial assets of suspects. The proposed measure also has an extra-territorial clause that can apply to Filipinos or foreign nationals preparing for a terrorist attack against the country or a Philippine vessel or aircraft.
The bill created an executive-led inter-agency Anti-Terrorism Council that can designate individuals and organizations as terrorists. It can also direct and supervise the swift investigation and prosecution of terrorism cases and raise rewards for persons that can share vital information leading to the capture of terrorists. The Council can also cooperate with other countries in the global fight against terror.
The timing of the bill, however, was seen as misplaced priority given the prevailing pandemic and its serious economic impact. Critics also expressed concerns about relaxing legal restrictions for police and security agencies that may create openings for abuses. Government was quick to point out the safeguards present in the proposed law to allay these concerns. These include the need to secure a court order prior to engaging in surveillance, inadmissibility as evidence of any information obtained in violation of the bill, and the opportunity given to persons or organizations about to be proscribed as terrorists to be heard before a court. The bill also prohibited the use of torture or coercion during interrogations.
The bill may help address perennial concerns of security allies about the country’s inadequate legal framework to deal with the evolving landscape of terrorism. Both the CPP-NPA and ASG were designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the United States. Australia listed the ASG as a terror group and the European Union did the same for the CPP-NPA. The United Nations Security Council designated the ASG and its close affiliate, the Rajah Soliman Movement, as terrorist organizations.
But while the bill can strengthen the Philippine posture in confronting terrorism, addressing the root causes of terrorism will require measures that go beyond its text.
The provision for preventing and countering violent extremism program is a good start, but much of its details remain to be spelled out. Finally, over reliance on draconian measures and limiting space to express legitimate grievances may inadvertently drive people to the fold of the very groups the bill is out to defeat.
*Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, fellow at the University of the Philippines Korea Research Centre, lecturer at the Chinese Studies Programme at Ateneo de Manila University, and contributing editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal.
Original version of this piece appeared in South China Morning Post.
Photo Credit: Fighters of the New People’s Army by EPA as used in South China Morning Post.