The Philippines’ anti-terror bill is poised to cause more terror

The government needs to accept that there are no shortcuts to peace and retract the bill.

Philippines anti-terror bill protest AP photo
A protester talks to the crowd during a rally against the proposed anti-terror bill at the University of the Philippines in Manila, Philippines on June 12, 2020 [AP Photo/Aaron Favila]

As the world is plagued by COVID-19, an impending anti-terrorism bill is creating more fear in the Philippines.

Recently passed by Congress, the bill is set to be signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte. If this happens, the bill will not only suppress the fundamental rights and freedoms of Filipinos, it will also terrorise the same conflict-affected communities it seeks to protect, as it undoes decades of peacebuilding work.

Despite protests against the bill and mounting calls to provide more time for deliberations, Congress has quietly fast-tracked its passage while the rest of the country braced for the impact of COVID-19. The bill will allow for a lengthened period of warrantless detention and expanded surveillance of those law enforcement deems suspicious. It will also remove stiff penalties for wrongful detention. 

Most importantly, the bill carries a vague definition of “terrorism” that offers little distinction between organisations that commit acts of terror and revolutionary armed movements, which is important for those doing mediation among warring parties. The bill will provide law enforcers with broad powers to determine what constitutes a “terrorist”, shifting the burden of proof to suspected individuals and organisations. This is not only a threat to dissent and democracy, but also to peace.

Threat to peace in Mindanao

For more than half a century, the Philippine government has been trying to quell secessionist and communist armed movements in the country.

Bangsamoro, an autonomous region in the south of the Philippines, is currently in transition after decades of fighting between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. While much remains to be done, significant strides have been taken, with a transitional regional government installed last year and the decommissioning of combatants and arms under way. These gains have been made possible primarily by the peace talks and reconciliation processes.

The ill-advised and shortsighted fear of the ISIL (ISIS) armed group taking root in Mindanao, and the increased framing of the communist armed movements as “terrorist”, distract the government from seeing the gains of dialogue and peacebuilding.

The threat of terrorism is real, but it is not the main threat to peace.

In fact, militaristic approaches to counterterrorism have caused the most suffering and displacements, prompted breakdowns in ongoing peace processes, and given birth to more aggressive splinter groups like the Abu Sayyaf, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Maute Group.

Insensitivity to the local context and the peace process in prioritising fighting terrorists in Mamasapano in 2015 and Marawi in 2017 delayed the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and undermined reconciliation across communities in the country. These should not be forgotten, and should not be repeated.

Opening old wounds

Due to a long history of discrimination, the Moro and Muslim minorities in the Philippines are often most affected not only by terrorist attacks but by harassment and warrantless arrests packaged as “counterterrorism”.

This profiling of Muslims as violent “terrorists” continues to this day. In January, it was discovered that the Manila Police District was collating information about Muslim youth and students in the National Capital Region for its “preventing violent extremism” initiatives.

Two months before, in November 2019, the police barged into the office of a long-established Mindanao-based peacebuilding organisation, without a warrant, checked the living quarters, and inspected the bags of young Moros from Marawi who were attending a psychosocial support training.

Being a woman while being both Moro and Muslim adds another layer of vulnerability, especially with the heightened visibility that comes with wearing a headscarf. Women widowed by war and children orphaned by conflict are also disproportionately affected by counterterrorism that narrowly sees them as vulnerable to being recruited into terrorism, instead of partners who can inform policies for change.

This bill will undermine efforts at reconciliation, as it will make it easier to target Muslims and open old wounds anew.

Ending or escalating the communist insurgency?

The military generals clearly see the impending anti-terrorism bill as a way to “end” the world’s oldest existing communist insurgency. But the bill is more likely to reignite war and bring further insecurity.

Following the termination of the peace negotiations between the government, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines in 2017, the government has since branded the CPP-NPA as “terrorist” and filed a petition seeking to declare them terrorist organisations under the Human Security Act, the current counterterrorism law. Following delayed progress through the courts, the government has taken a new tack: change the law directly. Thus, the Anti Terror Bill.

The argument about whether the CPP-NPA is a terrorist organisation or a revolutionary movement is fraught with a lot of biases, and a long, violent history between the communist armed movement and the military. What is clear is that the impending declaration of the CPP-NPA as terrorist organisations will impede any future peace talks, and escalate violence and displacement in communities.

As lessons have not been learned, the military should be reminded that the CPP-NPA was at its strongest under the martial law regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It is not activism that pushes communities towards violence. Rather, it is crackdowns on nonviolent civic action that will push communities to lose trust in government and take alternative routes for affecting change.

‘Activism is not terrorism’

The government assures the public that crackdowns on activists will not happen under the guise of counterterrorism, but in the same breath the Speaker of the House tells activists to “not allow terrorists to hide within [their] ranks.” This statement itself is telling of the government’s narrow and misinformed mindset about activism and terror – that those who are radicalised through activism will participate in armed rebellions and, therefore, to prevent “violent extremism” the state should stop “radicalisation” made possible through activism. 

Given this bias, and the weak intelligence capacity of law enforcers, the bill will crush progressive organisations and student activists who the state perceives are communist fronts; mediators who are perceived as communist sympathisers; and Indigenous people who are perceived as the main targets of recruitment by the NPA. 

These groups are already being “red-tagged” or wrongly targeted for alleged links with the CPP-NPAEven without the new law and under the martial law in place until last year, young Indigenous people who work on peacebuilding in Western Mindanao were reportedly wrongly included in the military’s “terrorist lists,” and asked to show themselves to law enforcers and prove they are not linked with the NPA. As the Senate president admitted, there is no need for martial law once this bill becomes law.

The looming anti-terror law will assume rather than fairly test the guilt of civilians, as law enforcers will have free reign to arrest and detain individuals based on mere suspicion. This is both unconstitutional and dangerous.

No shortcuts to peace

If implemented, the new anti-terrorism bill will not only impede our ability as peacebuilders and human rights defenders to bridge divides or raise the alarm when atrocities occur. It will also put our lives and limbs at risk. It will undo years of peacebuilding and further devastate the communities worst affected by terror. 

If it is sincere in its “whole-of-nation approach” to peacebuilding, the government must retract the bill, re-open deliberations and listen to a wide range of voices across society, especially the voices of those who have borne the brunt of both terrorist violence and abusive counterterror laws. It must heed the lessons from community leaders and peacebuilders. We need a policy that addresses the underlying roots of terrorism, and that prevents further distrust, injustice and escalations in violence. 

Yet as I write this, trust in the government is also under threat. What is left of our democracy is under threat. Peace is under threat.

It is our collective duty to end violence against civilian communities. For this same reason, we cannot take shortcuts to peace.

This rushed and unrestrained anti-terror bill will cause terror – and it will come from the state.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.