In photo (© Anakpawis Partylist): Activist Amanda Echanis and her 1-month-old baby were arrested on December 2, 2020 by combined forces of the police and military in the Philippines on trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms.
To commemorate Human Rights Day, we are releasing a series of articles highlighting the worsening rights situation in the Philippines under the Duterte regime. These will be compiled with a dozen similar articles and published as a book in January 2021. We are grateful to the contributions of people’s organisations and civil society.
By Agatha Canape
In Duterte’s macho-fascist dreamland, Filipino women are in a state of mourning. Here, we recount stories of women who shared the heavy lot in Duterte’s state terrorism.
In Duterte’s macho-fascist dreamland, Filipino women are in a state of mourning. The “drug war” ravaged families of the urban poor leaving widowed teen mothers struggling to raise their children with scant opportunities for employment or education.[i] Migrant working mothers return to the country at the wake of their sons grappling with a gaping, unnameable loss.[ii] The thousands of killings have made us familiar with their faces of grief – weeping, clutching or hunched over their dead husband or children, condemned because of poverty. Victims of the government’s “whole-of-nation” approach to anti-communist insurgency share similar horrifying experiences of brutality and carnage by the police and military reinforced by the culture of impunity fostered by the government. The government even rewards the most inhumane and cruel of their lot as seen in the promotion of Debold Sinas, mastermind of 2018 and 2019 Negros peasant massacres, as chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP). The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the Anti-Terror Act of 2020 have brought the Duterte regime to new heights of state terrorism.
The misogynist state snatched March from women, sabotaging their preparations for the month, as it implemented the first pandemic-related lockdown of key cities. Just a few days after the multi-sectoral women’s strike on the International Working Women’s Day on March 8, the military and police, indistinguishable from each other by their similar combat uniforms, took over the streets. The state’s militarist response to the pandemic resulted in the arrest and detention of thousands, with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) describing it in April as one of countries with worse pandemic-related human rights abuses.
The heightened presence of the military and police in the cities made women vulnerable to sexual abuses. Women were sexually harassed at checkpoints by state forces, or worse they were raped in detention. The continuing rise in the number of people infected with the disease proved that militarism was an inutile response to the pandemic, as was reiterated by people’s organisations and civil society demanding for health-based responses since the beginning of the outbreak. The economic repercussions of lockdowns also take an inordinate toll on working women in informal and service sectors and peasant women in the agricultural sector.[iii] The disruption of transportation hindered women from seeking critical health services.
Heightened militarism during the pandemic was the state’s rehearsal for the Anti-Terror Act. Several activists were killed drug war-style by assailants who miraculously evaded multiple police checkpoints. Displaced working peoples who mobilised to demand for the promised government aid, and people’s organisations and civil society delivering relief were violently dispersed and even detained. In rural communities, state forces flagrantly toted their guns on peasant women asserting their right to land such as in Hacienda Yulo in Laguna province.[iv] Here, we recount stories of women who shared the heavy lot in Duterte’s state terrorism.
After the government exhausted the pandemic as a pretext for its militarist objectives and finally lifted the lockdown in most cities by June, it gave up its posturing of leadership and abandoned efforts to manage the health crisis. Its nonchalance toward public health is epitomised in the killing of community health worker Zara Alvarez on August 17, 2020 in Bacolod City, Negros island, hotbed of 2019 peasant killings, at 8 in the evening.[v] She was killed on the same day Randall “Randy” Echanis, 72-year-old peasant rights advocate and peace consultant on the negotiations between the Philippine government and the armed liberation movement in the country. Zara was part of the Negros Island Health Integrated Program and the Council for Health and Development (CHD), and was doing relief work and organising a community health program when she was killed.[vi]
Zara’s rights advocacy was extensive. She documented killings and rights abuses against farmers and peasant leaders and advocates during the height of Oplan Sauron, a joint police and military anti-insurgency campaign in Negros led by police chief Debold Sinas, in 2018 and in 2019. She co-founded alternative media outfit Paghimutad with journalist Anne Krueger to contribute to the media coverage of the peasant situation in the island. She also helped political prisoners, from delivering their basic needs, doing paralegal work, and comforting their families.[vii] She intimately knew their struggle as a fellow former political prisoner in 2012 to 2014.[viii]
Zara experienced harassment and received death threats because of her vigorous work for rights and democracy deemed threatening by an elite-ruled state. Posters that “red-tagged” her and other activists based in Negros were plastered all over the province.[ix] She was among more than 600 personalities – including peace consultants, activists, detained political prisoners, women’s rights advocates, former and present United Nations officials[x] – wrongfully and maliciously tagged as “terrorists” in a 2018 proscription case filed by the Philippine justice department.[xi] While Zara was not fazed by these state attacks, she took them seriously and resorted to legal measures in place to protect people like her, as she knew their possible fatal repercussions.[xii][xiii] The Philippine court rejected her request for a protection order, and her cold-blooded killing in the middle of a city by still unidentified assailants testifies to the country’s dysfunctional justice system.
Zara Alvarez (Photo by Aktionsbündnis Menschenrechte – Philippinen)
A young woman political prisoner’s cuffed hands clasping a white flower, a parting gift to her three-month-old baby daughter, catches the world’s eye.[xiv][xv] The young woman is Reina Mae “Ina” Nasino, a 23-year-old community organiser who helped the urban poor fight for housing rights and access to basic social services such as water and electricity before she was illegally arrested on trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms in November 2019 together with two union leaders.[xvi] She was among dozens consecutively arrested by the police in a crackdown against activists in Metro Manila and Bicol region, the southern part ofLuzon island in the Philippines, in late 2019. The police made all arrests using dubitable search warrants issued solely by Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert who is based in Quezon City, Manila.
Ina was pregnant when she was arrested and she was forced to carry the pregnancy to term in prison. This is despite petitions filed by her mother, Marites Asis, and lawyers to release her on humanitarian grounds along with other political prisoners vulnerable to COVID-19. Ina gave birth to her baby daughter River on July 1, 2020. In her photos released after giving birth, she joyously beamed while cradling baby River. But the state begrudged to spare Ina and baby River a moment of joy, and immediately moved them back to prison despite their critical health requiring medical attention, and separated them after a few weeks. Baby River’s health rapidly deteriorated after being separated from her mother. Early in October baby River was rushed to the intensive care unit of the Philippine General Hospital due to pneumonia.[xvii] Public clamour and petitions filed before the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 37 to release Ina and allow her to care for her ailing infant were unheeded.[xviii] Three-month-old baby River succumbed to sickness on October 9.[xix] At her daughter’s funeral, Ina wore an uncomfortable hazmat suit, was handcuffed and heavily guarded by armed state forces in the measly six-hour visits she was allowed for two days.[xx]
The state’s treatment of Ina and baby River violates international humanitarian standards on the treatment of political prisoners and the special rights of nursing mothers.[xxi] Their crushing predicament is also in stark contrast to the state’s treatment of convicted criminals such as former presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla, and the supposedly real state enemy, US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton who murdered Filipino transwoman Jennifer Laude in 2014.[xxii] But while the state gave no quarter to Ina even in her mourning, the US Marine murderer was granted pardon and released in September 2020.[xxiii]
Ina Nasino at her baby daughter’s funeral. (Photo by Kapatid – Families and Friends of Political Prisoners via Kristine Patag)
Beauty pageants flourish under dictatorships. In the early morning of October 25, 2020, Indigenous woman leader Beatrice “Betty” Belen was illegally arrested in her hometown in the Kalinga province of the Cordillera region in northern Philippines.[xxiv] On the same day, Miss Universe Philippines 2020 commenced in a different part of the Cordillera. Despite the great strides of progressive women’s groups in the country, the macho-fascist state insists on reinforcing feudal-patriarchal culture by rewarding women’s beauty, while suppressing their critical and proactive participation in society.
The combined forces of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), the police and military served a total of 13 search warrants[xxv] that authorised them to ransack several households in Manang Betty’s hometown, including her own.[xxvi] The irregular search claimed to have recovered three firearms from Manang Betty’s household, which became the pretexts for her detention.[xxvii][xxviii]
Manang Betty is a community leader who championed Indigenous Peoples (IP) rights to land and self-determination. In 2012, she led a barricade against the US-based energy corporation Chevron’s geothermal project in Kalinga. Manang Betty received an award recognising her efforts as an environmental defender in 2018.[xxix]She also advocated for women’s rights as a member of the Advisory Council of the regional women’s group Innabuyog-Gabriela.[xxx]Before she was arrested, Manang Betty’s organising work in her community made her a target of harassment, threats, “red-tagging,” and vilification by state forces, including troops of the 501st infantry Brigade that encamped in her community in 2015.[xxxi][xxxii][xxxiii]
The state cannot completely cover up its destruction of Indigenous Peoples’ ancestral lands for corporate and elite interests with edification and beautification. Its desperate attack against Manang Betty only strengthens the conviction of the IP’s struggle for their inherent rights to land and self-determination against a state that would not uphold them.
Betty Belen (Photo by Luchie Maranan)
Eufemia and Jevilyn
Manobo Indigenous women Eufemia Cullamat and her 22-year-old daughter Jevilyn Cullamat treaded two different paths in the struggle for social change.
Eufemia Cullamat is an Indigenous leader and lawmaker. As an Indigenous woman, she led the Lumad and Manobo communities in their fight back against the militarisation of their communities for mining and logging interests.[xxxiv][xxxv] She carried her advocacy for peasant and Indigenous People’s rights to land and economic sovereignty in congress as a representative of progressive party-list Bayan Muna (People First).
Eufemia’s daughter, Jevilyn Cullamat, 22, is a medic of the New People’s Army, killed by the Philippine Army’s 3rd Special Forces Battalion, in an encounter, in Surigao del Sur province, Mindanao, southern Philippines on November 28, 2020. Conflict and armed resistance remain part of Philippine reality because of a historical agrarian problem characterised by land monopoly of corporations and local elites, and dispossession of the majority of the country’s small farmers, including Indigenous Peoples. The Philippine army desecrated Jevilyn as they took a photograph with her lifeless body displayed as a “war trophy,” violating the 1998 Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Law signed both by the Philippine government and the political arm of the armed liberation movement in the country.[xxxvi]
In official statements, Eufemia honoured her daughter’s death, recognising her choice to join the armed resistance as rooted in historical and social conditions, amid the spate of “red-tagging” against the Bayan Muna party-list.
Jevilyn and Eufemia Cullamat (Photo by Tonyo Cruz)
The arrest of activist Amanda Echanis and her newborn baby, shows that the state has no remorse for the predicament of Ina and baby River and the killing of her father, peasant and peace advocate Randall Echanis. She was arrested in the early morning of December 2 by combined forces of the 77th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army, the PNP, and the CIDG in Cagayan province on similar trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms against most women activists.[xxxvii]
She was an organiser advocating for peasant rights in Cagayan when she was arrested. In Manila, she organised the urban poor in their fight for decent housing and livelihood. Amanda was also a writer and cultural worker who created and published works based on the lives and struggles of marginalised women, such as urban poor leader Carmen “Nanay Mameng” Deunida.
Amanda, a first-time, new and nursing mother, photographed carrying her newborn swaddled in multiple layers while surrounded by men in full combat attire during her arrest, is also baselessly accused as a guerrilla fighter in the New People’s Army.
Amanda Echanis and her 1-month-old baby (Photo by Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women)
Shattering fascist dreams
The state fears the power of Zara, Ina, Manang Betty, Eufemia and Jevilyn, and Amanda multiplied in all communities where there are marginalised women, collectively dreaming, cooking, sewing, cultivating, building, occupying, picketing, striking, and asserting.
The stories of Zara, Ina and baby River, Manang Betty, Eufemia and Jevilyn Cullamat, and Amanda offer a glimpse of the situation of the majority of marginalised women – the Indigenous and peasant women in militarised and underdeveloped rural areas, and the precarious working women in the cities – all starved of social justice. The state terrorises women activists because they are wary of the vision of a good life rooted in collective well-being that they share with fellow marginalised women. They fear the power of Zara, Ina, Manang Betty, Eufemia and Jevilyn, and Amanda multiplied in all communities where there are marginalised women, collectively dreaming, cooking, sewing, cultivating, building, occupying, picketing, striking, and asserting. They killed Zara and Jevilyn, they locked up Ina, Manang Betty and Amanda, but they cannot smother their spirit of resistance.
Their stories continue. A campaign was launched to demand justice for Zara’s killing. Rep. Eufemia Cullamat seeks the help of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights to probe her daughter Jevilyn’s death. Families, progressive lawyer groups and rights advocates work tirelessly to free Ina, Manang Betty and Amanda. Ina’s mother Marites Asis filed a case against the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, PNP, Manila City Jail, and all complicit in baby River’s death. We are all responsible for protecting and upholding the rights and welfare of women. It is high time to gather in numbers and strength to end state terror and shatter Duterte’s macho-fascist dreams. ##