In March 2021 when Covid-19 cases rose anew in the Philippine capital, Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas and fellow officers of the women’s party-list group braved the pandemic and trooped to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in Intramuros, Manila to fight a different threat.
They filed a manifestation to participate in the 2022 party-list elections, defying a disqualification case filed by a formidable government foe.
What better day to fight for women’s representation in Congress than on March 8, International Women’s Day?
“This is an act of defiance,” a resolute Brosas told a small crowd. A placard in her hand read: “Defend Filipino women. Defend Gabriela partylist!”
A disqualification case had been filed by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), a civilian body headed by President Rodrigo Duterte and retired generals. It accused the party-list group of “advocating violence” in support of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the National Democratic Front (NDF), and the New People’s Army (NPA), and of receiving foreign funding.
These are grounds to cancel the registration of a sectoral group under Republic Act 7941 or the Party-List System Act.
Gabriela flatly denied NTF-Elcac’s allegations, citing its nearly two-decade track record in the House of Representatives. Gabriela said it was only guilty of opposing unsound government policies.
What the government really wants, the group said, is to silence opposition voices. “This really is a desperate attempt to silence dissent,” Alnie Foja, lawyer for Gabriela, told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
Gabriela had called for the resignation of Duterte, who had been prone to abuse women verbally in his speeches. He ordered soldiers to shoot female rebels in the vagina. He joked about rape. He also claimed to have molested a house help when he was a teenager.
Gabriela is a member of the Makabayan bloc of progressive party-list groups, along with Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, Kabataan, and ACT Teachers. The bloc has taken a collective stand against Duterte’s “war on drugs” and human rights violations, China’s encroachment into the West Philippine Sea, and the administration’s Covid-19 response, among other issues.
"All the legal fronts of the communists, all of them, Makabayan, Bayan, they are all legal fronts, Gabriela. We are not red-tagging you. We are identifying you as members in a grand conspiracy comprising all the legal fronts that they have organized, headed by the NDF," President Duterte said in his public address on Nov. 30, 2020.
To prove its allegations that these groups are communist “fronts,” National Security Adviser and NTF-Elcac vice chair Hermogenes Esperon Jr. pointed to videotaped statements of CPP founder Jose Maria Sison describing them as “allied organizations” or legal organizations in the “national democratic revolution.”
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate rejected the government’s arguments. Makabayan bloc’s parliamentary work cannot be considered part of the CPP-NPA’s armed struggle to overthrow the government, he said.
“Bayan Muna and members of the Makabayan coalition in the House are legitimate parties that believe in engaging in parliamentary struggle to advocate for reforms and change in our society,” he said in Filipino during the Senate hearing on red-tagging on Nov. 24, 2020.
The security sector is not convinced. The party-list groups had been recruiting for the NPA and benefiting from taxpayers’ money, military officials claimed.
When Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat’s daughter — a medic of the NPA — was killed in an encounter with the military in Surigao del Sur in November 2020, the NTF-Elcac said it was further proof of its claims. Cullamat said her daughter was of legal age and made her own decision to join the NPA.
NTF-Elcac spokespersons claimed to have witnesses who could reveal the connections between the Makabayan bloc and the CPP-NPA.
“We have testimonies coming into the open and willing to testify. I think for the last 52 years, we are aware of the connections of Makabayan bloc to the CPP-NPA-NDF. That's quite clear. But I think only this time, can we see concentrated effort,” lawyer Marlon Bosantog, NTF-Elcac spokesperson for legal affairs, told the PCIJ.
During a Comelec hearing on June 17, Esperon also testified against Gabriela Women’s Party for violating the law by allegedly receiving funding from the Belgian and Dutch governments.
However, the documents that NTF-Elcac submitted showed that the money was received by Gabriela Inc., the women’s organization that is separate from the party-list group.
Foja said NTF-Elcac’s case will only succeed if the Comelec finds that Gabriela Women’s Party and Gabriela Inc. are one and the same. “It will have to pierce the corporate veil of Gabriela Inc. as a separate entity registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission from Gabriela Women’s Party, registered with the Comelec,” she said.
The progressive groups joined government in 2001 through the party-list elections, which seek proportional representation of marginalized and underrepresented sectors in the House of Representatives.
Bayan Muna topped the elections, getting 1.7 million votes and three seats in Congress. It was represented by veteran activist Satur Ocampo, labor leader Crispin Beltran and women’s rights activist Liza Maza.
The following elections, in 2004, the three seats became six. Bayan Muna won three seats again. Beltran led the Anakpawis party-list group, which won two seats. Maza led Gabriela, which won one seat.
In the 2007 elections, the progressives got eight seats. Gabriela added one more seat, and a change in the party-list law allowed the entry of Kabataan youth party-list group.
ACT Teachers’ Party joined the 2010 elections. The five party-list groups formed the Makabayan bloc, which has been one of the most consistent critics of people in power.
The security sector resents the fact that the party-list groups receive government funds.
“If you take a look at their history, they've done nothing but criticize the government, and while they're there, the (CPP-NPA) is only getting stronger," said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in a radio interview on Dec. 13, 2020.
Bosantog said the Makabayan bloc often criticized government “to destroy government.”
“Destroying government from within,” is done in two ways, he said. One is when party-list groups get hold of “internal information” about government policies and projects and “parcel them out to their CPP-NPA fighters.”
“(The witnesses) also say that even Sarah Elago’s salary is given directly to CPP’s central committee, and the CPP central committee is giving particular allowances to these Makabayan bloc (members). The fund allocation to them in Congress also is being utilized in order to...help the CPP-NPA in particular areas,” he further claimed.
Elago found the claim absurd. “It's no secret that the bulk of my income goes to support nationwide advocacy campaigns for the promotion and realization of our legislative agenda which the youth sectoral party collectively sets,” she said.
Human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares, who had represented Bayan Muna in Congress, said it was easy to disprove Lorenzana and Bosantog’s allegations.
“They’ve been saying all along: your funds are diverted to NPA. But the government holds all the documents,” said Colmenares.
“All funds in Congress are DBM (Department of Budget and Management) documents, they’re COA (Commission on Audit) documents. They come up with nothing. That’s because we don’t get involved in that (armed struggle),” he said.
Fear among members
Makabayan’s grassroots organizers and activists suffered from the government campaign.
Gabriela-Bicolana chair and barangay councilor Jenelyn Nagrampa-Caballero, 37, said she faced “trumped-up charges” simply because she was an activist.
She was the 6th nominee of the party-list group during the 2019 elections.
The timeline was clear, she said. In March 2019, she spoke at a rally that coincided with a meeting of the Regional Peace and Order Council (RPOC), to protest the creation of NTF-Elcac. A vilification campaign against her followed.
A few months later, in October 2019, she was tipped off by friends from the government that the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) was investigating her for participating in protest actions and sympathizing with “communist-terrorist groups.” There was supposed to be a letter from an unnamed “LGOO (Local Government Operations Officer) II/Field Officer” to Interior Secretary Eduardo Año that singled her out for investigation.
Nine more months later, on July 8, 2020, Caballero and fellow activist Dan San Andres, a United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) pastor, were arrested in their separate homes based on arrest warrants over the deaths of two cops in Ragay town two years earlier. They faced two counts of murder.
They were released after 12 days. The judge realized that the prosecutor failed to read Caballero’s counter-affidavit before filing a complaint. It turned out, Caballero was nine months pregnant at the time and was preparing for the barangay elections the following day. She gave birth days later, on May 19, 2018.
All these “red-tagging” were linked to the extrajudicial killings of their members, the groups said.
Human rights alliance Karapatan has claimed that 376 political activists and members of party-list organizations were killed under the Duterte administration, between July 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2020.
Duterte’s former allies
It wasn’t always this way. Makabayan forged an alliance with Duterte after supporting the failed presidential bid of Sen. Grace Poe.
Duterte announced himself to be the country’s first socialist president. He appointed Maza chief of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, former Anakpawis representative Rafael Mariano to the Department of Agrarian Reform, and Joel Maglunsod, also a former Anakpawis representative, to the Department of Labor and Employment.
Duterte also promised to support policies advocated by Makabayan — the resumption of peace talks between government and communist rebels, genuine agrarian reform, and an end to labor contractualization, among others.
This alliance was short-lived, however. The relationship soured after Duterte scrapped the peace talks with communist rebels in 2017 and when he declared martial law in Mindanao, in the wake of the siege of Marawi City.
As he moved away from the Philippine left, Duterte forged closer ties with the military. He also allowed his allies in the Commission on Appointments to reject the leftists’ appointments in the Cabinet and began to pack his government with retired generals.
Makabayan also began to be more critical of the administration, infuriating Duterte. The coalition left the House majority in September 2017 and opposed Duterte’s key legislations including the tax reform law and two extensions of the Mindanao martial law.
By 2018, the relationship could no longer be saved. Duterte issued Executive Order No. 32, calling for deployment of additional military and police units to the provinces of Samar, Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, and the Bicol Region, “to suppress lawless violence and acts of terror.”
It was followed by Executive Order No. 70, which institutionalized the “Whole-of-Nation Approach in Attaining Inclusive and Sustainable Peace, Creating a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), and Directing the Adoption of a National Peace Framework.”
Most vilified: Kabataan’s Sarah Elago
In June 2021, in its latest move against the Makabayan bloc, the NTF-Elcac filed a disqualification case against youth party-list group Kabataan based on allegations that it had been recruiting young people to join the NPA and overthrow the government.
Lawyer Antonio La Viña, legal counsel for Kabataan, said the allegation is baseless. “Their claim is Kabataan is kidnapping young people to become its members, trafficking on them, abusing them. First of all, most Kabataan members are aged 18 and above, so it is irrelevant. But even those that are 15, 16, 17 – they voluntarily joined and that the Supreme Court declared that there is nothing wrong with youth organizations,” La Viña said.
“Kabataan is a legitimate organization, with members across the country, clear principles and a legislative agenda. They have successfully filed and enacted legislative bills. Very productively engaged in the legislature. You listen to Sarah Elago, she is a very good legislator. So she really knows how to legislate,” said La Viña.
On Sept. 15, 2020, the Supreme Court decided against the writ of amparo and habeas corpus petition against Elago and other youth leaders, for the supposed kidnapping of 19-year-old activist Alicia Jasper Lucena.
The Department of Justice also dismissed the charges of “kidnapping and failure to return a minor” filed by Lucena’s mother and the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group on Oct. 15, 2020.
The NTF-Elcac was rehashing cases that had been junked, La Viña said. “They are forum shopping.”
Bosantog argued that radicalization started when the Kabataan members were minors. They planned to make this argument before the Comelec.
“Radicalization starts when they are recruited before 18 and it continues after 18 years old. So what we are arguing is that the decision of consent continues,” Bosantog said.
Even as their members are of legal age, Kabataan should still be held to account for “radicalizing” these members when they were minors, he said.
Elago, who joined Congress in 2016, has been at the receiving end of the security sector’s worst vilification campaign.
Aside from vicious attacks on social media, Elago said military officials also accused Kabataan and other progressive youth groups of recruiting students to join the communist rebellion during National Service Training Program classes in colleges and universities.
There has been a very systematic and well-oiled campaign against Kabataan since NTF-Elcac was formed in 2018, she said.
“Disinformation and smear campaigns [for us] are not new. But it has certainly become more pervasive under the Duterte administration,” she told the PCIJ.
“We noticed how this intensifies whenever young people speak out against the drug war, or whenever we criticize or say our piece on the pronouncement or policies of the current administration,” she said.
War against dissent
The Makabayan bloc is counting on the Comelec to dismiss disqualification cases against Gabriela and Kabataan.
Progressive party-list groups will continue to participate in the elections as long as the system allows them, said Foja.
“I think that at the end of the day, the party will rely on its membership, on its strong grassroots support. As far as we know, Gabriela is a household name already. I personally cannot envision the House of Representatives without Gabriela Women’s Party,” she said.
But they also know that the threats were not confined to the disqualification cases.
Colmenares said it was clear that they were targets of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020, which was criticized widely for its vague provisions on what constitutes terrorism.
“The law targets an ascertainable group of activists and perceived dissenters who have been victims of red-tagging and terrorist tagging by the mere claim that they are ‘suspected persons’,” Colmenares told the Supreme Court.
Thirty-seven petitions were filed before the high court to declare ATA unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, a report was filed against Gabriela before the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) for supposed foreign government financing. Its assets could be frozen by the Anti-Terrorism Council without a court order, which critics of the law said was a violation of the separation between the executive and the legislative branches.
The NTF-Elcac was also allocated a staggering P16.44-billion fund in the 2021 budget, money that its former spokesperson, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., said would be “used to prevent the destruction of our youth and indigenous people’s exploited by the CPP front organizations.” (Parlade recently resigned from his post at the NTF-Elcac.)
Elago said she was confident youth activists would overcome the attacks, even as she expected these to intensify as the 2022 national elections drew near.
The groups however warned that the government would not stop at progressive groups. “All these are attacks against dissent,” said Colmenares.
He cited the government claim of a “Red October” plot in 2018, where various opposition politicians, civil society organizations, schools, and other groups were supposedly preparing to oust President Duterte.
“This government has been red-tagging and attacking any form of dissent, any form of nonconformity by anybody,” said Colmenares.
“It could be Makabayan, it could be Maria Ressa [of Rappler]. For example, they saw a picture of Patreng Non (initiator of the community pantry phenomenon) in clenched fist – they wanted to use it as evidence to prove that she is a member of CPP-NPA or something,” Colmenares said. END