„The killing of Ben transformed our fears into a challenge“

Interview with Yesha Ramos and Felipe Gelle from Peace and Development Group (PDG) in the Philippines

We are aware of the dramatically intensifying attacks on social movements and human rights defenders in the Philippines under the Duterte administration. We have also learnt that the coronavirus pandemic is being used to repress civil society. Could you give us a brief update on the latest developments and describe the various means of repression?

On the 24th of March, the Philippine Congress passed a bill granting Duterte emergency powers to fight the pandemic. Among others, it centralizes the 2020 General Appropriations Act (budget) in the hands of Duterte, including income from Government-owned or -controlled corporations (GOCCs) and agencies, the power to control privately-owned public utilities such as power, water, hotels and buildings, transportation and roads, with penalties for those who violate the special law. The law will be in effect for two months and could be extended.
Community quarantine has been in effect since March and curfews have been implemented. The government has ordered the police and military units to man checkpoints, and identifications cards are being used as a basis for arrest or non-passage of individuals, which maybe discriminatory, especially for the poor.

The worst affected would be the informal sectors, both urban and agricultural, who have to work on a daily basis to put food on the table for their families and this can really be felt now. It is said that government will provide subsidies or introduce food rationing but it seems to be going nowhere and there are no clear guidelines as to how it would be implemented, notwithstanding that politics may also be a factor in delivering such services to the people: the closer you are to the officials the more chance you have of getting the support. On the other hand, the costs of transportation and goods have risen dramatically.

How are the progressive civil society organisations and HRDs that are being targeted by the Duterte administration reacting to the on-going violent repression?

Attacks against civil society organizations have worsened under the Duterte regime. Most civil society organizations and human rights defenders have been unjustly and maliciously accused of being “front organizations” or supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and hence they are listed as targets in the context of “ending the communist insurgency”. It can be said that the CPP-led armed struggle in the Philippines is the longest running insurgency in Asia to date.

What can be seen on the ground is the growing role of the Philippine military within the civilian bureaucracy. Some 70 former military have been appointed to civilian agencies and they impose their “style” of leadership:, “obey first before you complain”.

The people’s organizations and civil society organizations in the communities are subjected to surveillance and intimidation. Community leaders are frequently visited and instructed not to participate in organizational meetings; if they refuse they are subjected to harassment and threats. People’s organizations seen taking part in rallies and demonstrations are subjected to red-tagging and malicious accusations.

There is also a rising trend of trumped up charges being brought against leaders and activists, use being made of the laws and courts to harass them. To avoid being subjected to harassments and red-tagging themselves, prosecutors file cases out of fear, even if these cases are patently without legal basis.
The government has also used regulatory issuances to restrict the existence and activities of civil society organizations, using charges of anti-money laundering and/or terrorism as a pretext. Since 2018, two Memorandum Orders introduced by the Security and Exchange Commission restricting civic space have been criticized by networks of civil society organizations.

Is there growing resistance?

Right now we are facing a stronger enemy: the state itself, which is using all its resources and armed personnel against civil society organizations and people’s organizations, creating a climate of fear and impunity. We face a hard and arduous struggle, but we keep on working. We fight back by asserting our rights. Many people, even the most avid supporters of Duterte, are disgruntled with the extrajudicial killings and repressions.

Civil society organizations and people’s organizations have responded collectively and continue to resist the state-sponsored repression through massive education activities and campaigns. Whenever there are human rights abuses, investigations are carried out and statements of condemnation are immediately released in mainstream and social media. In Negros, we have formed the Defend Negros network, strengthened our coordination with the September 21 Movement and the human rights group KARAPATAN-Negros and are engaging in various forms of human rights campaigning locally and internationally. We have done this creatively through films, social media exposure and petition letters to expose the situations and organize the victims.
The international campaign has taken off and the world knows what is happening in our country. Slowly we are gaining support from various arenas to condemn the repression in our country. The Duterte government has felt the blow of the international campaign that has impacted its economic agenda, with fewer funds available to support his Build! Build! Build! program.
But we need to be vigilant. Perhaps more has to be done, more pressure needed.

Yesha and Felipe, you recently attended the 43rd UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva with other human rights defenders from the Philippines. Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, who had been in Geneva for the UNHRC high-level meeting, claimed after his visit that “the UNHRC was receptive to the country’s statement about valuing press freedom and human rights” and pointed out that the government has a right to correct the falsehoods put out by its critics. Did you feel that you were able to correct these claims regarding the human rights situation in the Philippines and to convince those people you spoke to of the real situation in the country?

Indeed during the opening of the 43rd UNHRC session, Secretary Andanar was trying to appease the Council by saying that the Philippine government is open to dialogues, but at the same time he proceeded with maligning and hurling hate speeches against human rights defenders who legitimately sought the support of the UNHRC against the vicious human rights violations.
We believe that the lobbying we have done at the UN has given the UNHRC country members, the special rapporteurs and the international human rights organizations a clearer picture of what is really happening on the ground. We were able to substantiate the reports submitted by conveying to them our harrowing experiences of harassment, threats, public humiliations through the military’s radio programs, being imprisoned without legal grounds, tortured and worst of all, witnessing the unjust killings before our eyes. The oral statements delivered and submitted before the Council concretely echoed the voices of the victims. With eight special rapporteurs all calling on the Philippine government to assume accountability for the human rights violations and to allow independent investigations, we know that they are on our side and that they have heard the pleas and cries of the victims of human rights violations. We do recognize that within the UN bodies there is an interplay of politics and we respect that. But we know that within each of them, there will always be a human heart willing to listen and to take action.

The killing of Ben in November 2018 was surely a terrible personal tragedy for you and your family as well as for all the members of PDG and the communities it serves, but despite all this, PDG has managed to continue its work. Could you tell us something about the impact Ben’s murder had on PDG as an organisation, its work with the communities and how you are all coping with the new situation? What changes had to be made and what plans do you have for the future, assuming that that is possible to plan at this stage?

The killing of Atty. Ben had a big impact on PDG and the communities. A climate of fear as a result of the climate of impunity for the perpetrators of state-sponsored killings and the continuing repression gripped us and the communities. Lawyers from the region were too afraid to take on the cases left by Atty. Ben, mostly agrarian and human rights cases, fearing that they too might be the next victims.
The attacks against PDG continued after Ben’s murder. A week later, two staff members, Felipe Levy Gelle Jr. (Advocacy) and Enrita Caniendo (administrative staff), received threats and believe that the military was behind it. Several staff members also were subjected to surveillance and harassment in social media accounts. Communities were subjected to intense militarization. Military troops are encamped in areas assisted by PDG and are harassing the leaders of the associations so as to force them to desist from engaging with PDG.
The killing of Ben however transformed our fears into a challenge. It strengthened the resolve of the communities that we assist to stand up, assert their rights, and form a stronger group to face the new and developing challenges. Our communities designated teams to provide day-to-day security at the PDG compound, and closely accompanied the staff who continue to engage in organizing work in the communities. Some communities gave financial support, sourced from the social enterprises that had been made possible by PDG and from the collective farms of their associations, to enable us to install security systems.

But more importantly, the continuing determination of our staff and the communities themselves to stand up against repression has been our greatest triumph, clearly showing that our work has indeed made a difference. We did not see any reason to change our plans because we have the strong commitment of our staff and the solid support of the communities.
We believe that the only way to fight this impunity is to organize as many communities as possible, to educate them about their rights, and to mobilize them to take collective actions.
Since the death of Atty. Ben we have strengthened our relationship with the Commission on Human Rights both at the national and regional level as well as with international human rights groups and networks. We have strengthened our links with the local government officials and government line agencies with whom we have good relations and who have known us as active partners in development programs in the locality; they can defend us from the malicious acts of red-tagging. We will continue to link up with other civil society organizations and networks that will stand up against these repressive measures. Before his death, Atty. Ben had already tried to form such groups and we believe that it is a must for us to continue his work.

In view of the increasing attacks on organisations in the Philippines such as Gabriela, Karapatan and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and the freezing of the latter’s bank account, are you concerned that PDG could soon be targeted too?

Many civil society organizations and groups have expressed their concern about the shrinking civic spaces in the Philippines and the repressive environment that now exists. The Memorandum Orders issued by the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) putting stringent requirements on CSOs and categorizing them as being high risk organizations without any clear basis practically suppresses our freedom of association; these mechanisms are used to sow fear. All civil society organizations that oppose the anti-people policies of the government will not be spared, all are placed under scrutiny, and all are red-tagged.

Amidst these attacks, PDG will continue to implement its programs, to comply with all the governmental requirements and to ensure that program and financial systems and policies are in place. We have nothing to fear, our services are relevant and have reached the poorest of the poor communities. We believe that the people and communities will not abandon us and will be on our side as we continue our work. They are our source of strength and oasis of defence if things come to worst.

As partners, we need to prepare together for a situation in which PDG might no longer be able to receive foreign funding and to look for alternative ways of continuing our solidarity ties. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Institutionally we have developed plans for such a situation. This year we will be holding a strategic planning exercise to enable us to assess our work, assess our capabilities, our strengths and weaknesses and to develop plans according to the opportunities and threats and see how we can adapt to the developing situation.
Apart from that, we are currently developing our internal resources by establishing viable social enterprises such as the Muscovado Project and the Food Hub. At present, we tapped the resources from the provincial government and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to support the Muscovado Project. The government agencies have been very supportive of our efforts to improve and expand the milling capacities. The Food Hub Project is also being developed. The concept is to create an agro-ecological village (where most of our staff would live) that would display diversified farming systems with the components of agri-aquaculture, poultry and livestock as well as viable water and renewable energy sources that will principally serve the families of PDG staff and adjacent communities. Although still needing initial funding resources to keep the enterprise going, we believe it will be viable and will help support the work of PDG in the long run.

Could you tell us something about your experiences here in Europe and how it has benefited PDG in terms of deepening and broadening solidarity links with European civil society and creating more political awareness about the human rights situation in your country?

Indeed PDG has benefited much from our solidarity campaign in Europe. First of all we have spoken about the real situation we experienced in Negros in the context of the worsening shrinking civic spaces and culture of impunity. The different organizations and the representatives of the EU and various national parliaments that we met have all been very receptive and have expressed in one way or another various forms of solidarity and support.

We met representatives of countries that are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council as well as institutions that promote human rights. We believe that what we have shared has touched their hearts and we hope that concrete actions will now be taken to pressure the Philippine Government to fulfil its obligations under the international treaties to which it is a signatory.
We have met with Filipinos in Europe and Belgians sympathetic to our plight who have listened to us and expressed their support for our campaign and are open to form a solidarity network (Belgian Filipino Solidarity). This network will be a concrete expression of our solidarity, a venue to continue defending and protecting human rights defenders and a strong link to broaden our analysis and unity to fight the worsening economic and political repression around the globe.

Yesha and Felipe were supposed to visit Luxembourg on the 23rd and the 24th of March but the activities were canceled because of the coronavirus crisis.


ASTM’s employee Birgit Engel was recently denied entry to the Philippines during a work mission of the NGO. A precedent, which reveals the situation of civil society in this country…

„We won’t let you enter the Philippines, you’re black-listed!“
February 10, 2020: Together with two colleagues I flew almost 7000 miles from Luxembourg to Manila, only to be faced with three immigration officers telling me I was not allowed to put a foot outside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Many security precautions had been taken before the mission, but there was no possibility of avoiding this situation as visas for the Philippines are only given upon arrival.
„We have information from the National Security about your last stay here.“
„Would you mind telling me what type of information you are talking about?“
„No, we can’t tell you, it’s confidential.“
Back in 2014, I visited our partners from MASIPAG to discuss research and collaboration in the field of development education and campaigning. Sounds very conspirative, doesn’t it?
“Are you involved in any activities against the President? Do you have contacts among social or political movements?
My colleagues were allowed to enter the country, which confirmed the arbitrariness of this order.
„You have to leave the Philippines on the next flight to Europe.“
On my way back I was under constant surveillance, and I only received the necessary boarding passes step by step, with my passport being retained until Frankfurt.
„That’s illegal, the legal decree marked on the exclusion order does not even exist“, our Filipino partners said. But in order to prove that, I would have had to refuse to leave, giving the authorities a reason to detain me.
45 hours after our departure we were back in Luxembourg – with a glimpse of what it feels like to be arbitrarily rejected at a border. Only for me – as a European – this situation wasn’t dangerous; I experienced it as censorship and abuse of power. I had a safe country of origin that I could easily return to – others do not.
These days human rights groups in the Philippines are extremely concerned about a crackdown against activists and the risks they continue to face under the Duterte government. But this incident also highlights the prevailing hostile environment in which civil society the world over is being threatened by this kind of repressive measures that are aimed at stopping financial support for and collaboration with local partners.
It is the first case for us, but certainly not the last, and it will certainly not prevent us from continuing to work for more social justice worldwide.

Birgit Engel

Brennpunkt Drëtt Welt est édité par Action Solidarité Tiers Monde
136-138, rue Adolphe Fischer L-1521 Luxembourg RCS F6030 www.astm.lu