Community campaigners Janet Villamar and Christine Vidaya have never held a firearm, much less fought in the Philippines’ ongoing civil war. Yet they say police and soldiers tried to get them to publicly admit to being rebels of the New People’s Army, or NPA.
Villamar and Vidaya are among thousands of poor Filipinos the security forces are accused of trying to coerce into fake surrenders using threats and/or bribes of assistance in recent years – part of an effort to bolster the government’s narrative that it is bringing five decades of conflict to an end.
“We’re just ordinary people who have been calling on the government to address the needs of the poor,” Vidaya, who works with the Pinagkaisang Lakas Ng Mamamayan (PLM), a women-led group that runs community kitchens, told The New Humanitarian. “The police didn’t even investigate anything before quickly calling us as NPAs.”
Former president Rodrigo Duterte set up the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, or NTF-ELCAC, in late 2018 in a bid to finally crush the over 50-year insurgency of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its NPA armed wing.
Since then, rights activists say, thousands of mainly poor civilians with no link to the insurgency have been pressed to sign documents stating they are surrendering rebels; promised aid if they do, and sometimes threatened with criminal charges if they don’t.
Karapatan, the national human rights network, has tallied 3,908 civilians forced to surrender as of the start of 2022, while nearly 4,000 individuals have been detained on politically motivated charges since the NTF-ELCAC came into existence. Countless others have been publicly labelled as communist sympathisers, NPA members, terrorists, or all of the above. This practice, known as red-tagging, has cast a wide net over civil society, enveloping activists, journalists, the clergy, even UN special rapporteurs and celebrities.
“Under duress, victims are compelled to fabricate stories, sign incriminatory statements, testify in court, and implicate others in all sorts of crimes,” Maria Sol Taule, of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, told the New Humanitarian.
Taule, who said she herself was red-tagged as an NPA “urban operative” on social media by NTF-ELCAC officials because of her legal defence work, recalled how the security forces have had to own up to their dishonesty more than once already. In December 2019, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) released manipulated photos of a mass surrender with rifles photoshopped in. In April 2021, police officials were accused of fabricating a ceremony in which Indigenous civilians were also made to pose as surrendering rebels.
Between 1969 and 2008, some 43,000 people were killed in one of the world's longest running insurgencies. Though the intensity of the conflict has lessened considerably over the past 15 years, the CPP continues to push for a revolution with regular military actions. Government efforts to classify the outlawed CPP and its armed wing as terrorist organisations have failed, and activists say the ongoing fight has offered the government an effective means both of silencing critics and promoting its military.
While the Philippine National Police (PNP) and other agencies working with the NTF-ELCAC tout their successes, there are significant discrepancies in their counts of remaining rebels and the numbers they say have laid down arms.
In 2016, the Duterte government asserted that the NPA was down to 3,900 fighters. In 2022, the NTF-ELCAC announced that around 24,000 had surrendered since December 2018. The PNP, meanwhile, says 5,164 have ceased all rebel activity for good. Ahead of the new year, the military reported that the NPA’s number was down to 2,112.
The confusion prompted the CPP’s spokesperson, Marco Valbuena, to quip: “These numbers are conjured or false, churned out by the AFP leadership for publicity and psywar purposes.”
‘I’m afraid for my family’
In July 2022, two men introducing themselves as part of the military’s 48th infantry battalion visited Villamar’s home in Bulacan province, north of the capital, Manila.
“They wanted to make me sign an affidavit saying I was a former NPA rebel,” Villamar, who works with the urban poor aid group Kadamay, told The New Humanitarian.
“They showed me pictures of guerrillas with rifles asking me to identify them,” added Villamar, who refused to sign the papers. “I had never seen them before. They said if I refused to cooperate, they’d soon charge me with rebellion like the others.”
Villamar – who was arrested (then released without charge) in July 2020 for protesting the lack of pandemic-related state aid – believes she has long been marked down as a target by the government. But she added that the authorities have lately been attracting more of her neighbours to sign up as fake surrenderers in exchange for groceries.
Vidaya’s experience was less straightforward and more public.
In September 2022, she and around 20 other residents of the Payatas shantytowns in Manila were invited to the police station, where they expected to receive financial aid. When they reached the station, she wondered why there was such a big fuss: Many officers had assembled, the police chief was formally dressed, and TV cameras were everywhere.
Live on the right-wing SMNI news, Ponce Rogelio Penones Jr., acting director of the Northern Police District, then announced: “At least, once and for all, they’ve seen that they were deceived and now have decided to trust the government.”
“They know where I live. They have my fingerprints.”
“The next moment, the chief was declaring that we were all NPAs and supporters,” Vidaya recalled. “I couldn’t understand it. We signed three waivers; they took our fingerprints and sent us home with some cash and a bag of food.
“I’m afraid for my family. They know where I live. They have my fingerprints.”
PNP spokesperson Redrico Maranan told The New Humanitarian that each individual who surrenders goes through a “validation” process conducted by multiple agencies to make sure they aren’t fake insurgents.
“The PNP welcomes the series of surrenders of the members of the Communist Terrorist Groups (CTGs) in various parts of the country as a very significant development in the government's fight against the local CTGs,” Maranan said.
Any rebel returnee, he explained, can “avail [themselves of] the benefits of the government's Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-Clip)”. Signed into law with the setting up of the NTF-ELCAC in 2018, E-Clip is a package intended to pay for the “economic, social and psychological rehabilitation needs” of demobilising rebels.
But rights activists say the rebel surrendering system should be seen in the context of Duterte's bloody drug war operations, which began around the same time in 2016, when thousands of drug dependents or former users were pushed to come forward. Soon after, the arrests and killings started, with the death toll reaching over 30,000, according to the Commission on Human Rights.
Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of Karapatan, said the experiences of Vidaya and Villamar – who shared their ordeals at a Karapatan-organised press conference in November – show that the abusive militaristic methods of the Duterte era have carried forward into the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
“Being treated as a combatant, when someone is a civilian, violates international humanitarian law. The potential harm includes being subjected to torture, and continuing threats,” she told The New Humanitarian, adding that she hoped more victims would overcome their fears and share their stories.
Apart from touting its success with surrenderers – fake or otherwise – a chief tool in the NTF-ELCAC’s arsenal is red-tagging. Poor residents calling on the government for aid or support – as both Villamar and Vidaya have done – have been particularly heavily targeted.
“Communities and sectors are being red-tagged for calling out legitimate demands – just wages and decent jobs, aid, housing, and other social services. But we say: ‘No more!’,” said Lean Porquia, lead convenor of the Citizens Rights Watch Network. Porquia understands the stakes of red-tagging intimately: His father, a community organiser, was murdered in 2020 after being branded an NPA by local authorities.
Officials in the new Marcos government have defended the counter-insurgency strategy. In November’s session of the UN Human Rights Committee, newly appointed Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla described red-tagging as “part of democracy”.
“[The CPP-NPA] have front organisations working with them and they are criticised by many people in government or by some persons who care about the country,” he said. “Are people who fight [the] government immune from criticism?”
In response, Palabay, a delegate to the ongoing 4th cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on the Philippines, called on the UN Human Rights Council to “walk the talk in their recommendations in the UPR, and pave the way for the long overdue independent investigation on the Philippine human rights situation”.
Both Duterte and (so far) Marcos have shunned outside investigations – like that of the International Criminal Court – into alleged state violence in the Philippines.
Edited by Abby Seiff.