Red-Tagging the Philippines’ Young Activists

Students protest against President Duterte in September 2019

Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, formerly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s national police chief who oversaw the bloody War on Drugs, has a new mission. This time, he’s going after alleged communist guerilla recruiters.

During the 2020 national budget hearing for state colleges and universities in the country, the senator confronted the president of the University of the Philippines, Danilo Concepcion, for sitting back while the students were being recruited into the Communist Party of the Philippines. He reprimanded the university administrator for allowing the institution to be involved in “producing enemies of the state”.

Although Concepcion stood his ground by emphasising the importance of academic freedom on campus, this isn’t the first time the Philippine state has raised the issue of young people joining rebel fighters. 

In January 2019, the Philippine National Police unveiled testimony from surrendered rebels stating that students from the University of the Philippines, and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, had been coerced into joining communist guerrillas. Eduardo Año, the Secretary for Interior and Local Government (who, like Dela Rosa, was formerly in the security sector, serving as the military chief) also revealed that hundreds of students join up with the revolutionaries every year. This comes after several UP students were found to be among the casualties of firefights between rebels and the military over the past few years. Parents have also approached the Philippine army and Senator Dela Rosa for help locating their missing children, who have allegedly joined the NPA.

Both the CPP and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, have been active in the Philippines for decades. The Philippine government considers them terrorist groups seeking to violently overthrow the state. Anyone aligned or involved with them might be subject to harassment, arrests, or other forms of state force.

Both the CPP and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, have been active in the Philippines for decades. The Philippine government considers them terrorist groups seeking to violently overthrow the state.

According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, 513 minors from the NPA have either been arrested, killed or have surrendered in the past two decades. Deputy Chief of Staff for civil-military operations, Brigadier General Antonio Parlade Jr. lamented the trend of young students leaving their families and running to the mountains. He claimed that many of these children have “returned in cadaver bags, after joining the NPA and fighting the government”. 

This led to Dela Rosa expressing alarm, saying that kids “should be in school, not on the streets fighting the government after being brainwashed and their minds poisoned”. 

On 11 November, Dela Rosa unveiled to the Senate a report put together by the Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs, urging his fellow legislators to help save the youth from leftist organisations using children for violence against the state. Among the report’s recommendations were the increased presence of security forces inside campuses, studying the culpability of faculty and administrators, and reviewing the curriculum. 

But the senator’s failure to distinguish between armed combatants in the mountains from young protesters exercising their constitutional rights in the streets has triggered concerns that the Duterte administration might be using the issue of youth guerillas to justify a broader crackdown on dissent.

The History of Student Activism in the Philippines

The involvement of young people in social movements against the Philippine government is nothing new. In fact, the zenith of student activism in the Philippines can be traced to the 1960s: in 1964, the socialist youth organisation Kabataang Makabayan was co-founded by writer and activist Jose Maria Sison, who later went on to establish the Communist Party of the Philippines. During the student and youth uprisings in early 1970, dubbed the First Quarter Storm, KM was on the frontlines of skirmishes with police. By that time, they had already expanded the scope of their organising work beyond the capital of Manila to the various regions of the country. 

KM was officially banned upon the establishment of martial law by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. But that didn’t stop young people. The involvement of Filipino youth in resistance has even led to the colloquial term “namundok”, which refers to leaving home for the mountains to join the guerillas—a practice that was fairly common during the martial law years in the 1970s and ‘80s as many universities were shut down. During that era, countless student activists went underground or opted to join the armed struggle of the NPA in response to state-perpetrated attacks on civilians. 

Embedding themselves in unions, slum areas, farming communities and even workplaces, young Filipinos were at the forefront of movements that toppled authoritarian leaders, such as President Marcos in 1986 and President Joseph Estrada in 2001, through uprisings known today as People Power 1 and People Power 2. 

Contemporary youth movements continue to draw inspiration from their predecessors. Today’s leftist student leaders regularly allude to the storied and militant history of challenging the Philippine state—one they see as still being dominated by landlords, capitalists and oligarchs. 

Today’s leftist student leaders regularly allude to the storied and militant history of challenging the Philippine state—one they see as still being dominated by landlords, capitalists and oligarchs. 

And just like how KM’s roots can be found in student groups at the University of Philippines, tertiary institutions today can still be a space for important ideological battles. All manner of ideas permeate through them, says Sison in an interview with New Naratif: “Even without any campaign of rabid anti-communism to dominate the universities in the Phillippines, anti-communist, conservative, liberal and all sorts of subjectivist ideas are in fact dominant in the curricula and in the study materials.” 

Sison, now an 80-year-old political refugee in the Netherlands, is of the opinion that President Duterte fears student activists who are vocal critics of social justice and determined to push for change, whether through mass action in the streets or involvement in armed insurgency. They have, after all, proven their potential strength: Anakbayan, a youth activist group labelled by Dela Rosa as a recruitment hub for the NPA, had been formed during the politically charged years preceding the ousting of Estrada and went on to mobilise thousands from universities and slum communities alike.

Human rights activists say that Duterte administration’s response, too, harks back to the days of martial law. KARAPATAN, a national network for human rights, has branded Duterte a “Marcos wannabe” for his “draconian policies” and likened his current crop of counter-insurgency policies to that of the late dictator. Duterte has also been observed to be singling out young people for their involvement in dissent and insurgency as Marcos had done in the past.

Dissent, Resistance and Red-Tagging

Marcos’ clampdown on youth organisations like KM failed to suppress young people’s activities, and Sison thinks Duterte’s tactics aren’t  faring any better. In fact, he argues that harsh repression from the government actually aggravates young people into seeking out revolution. “Unwittingly, Duterte, like former dictator Marcos, has also become a ‘chief recruiter’ of the CPP and the NPA,” he says.

Since its establishment in 1969, the New People’s Army—which is made up largely of people from rural communities—has been a thorn in the Philippine government’s side. It’s now known as the longest-running communist insurgency in Asia, and has been on the receiving end of accusations from people like Dela Rosa, who say that their recruitment activities have torn apart Filipino families.

The NPA’s current strength is a matter of some contestation: while the armed group claims that it has a presence in 71 out of the country’s 81 provinces and that it’s still growing, the Philippine Armed Forces insists that the NPA is actually the weakest it’s ever been, with only 4,000 regular fighters.

But armed insurgency isn’t the only way for young people to engage in political resistance. Student groups have also shown themselves to be a formidable force of political opposition to the current regime. As mentioned earlier, walkouts in the thousands have become an increasingly regular feature, protesting peacefully against issues ranging from campus militarisation (the presence of soldiers in and around schools) to budget cuts for the education sector.

Such walkouts are legal and protected under the country’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. But linking student groups with communists insurgents works in favour of the state, allowing them to justify intervention. In December 2018, Duterte signed into force Executive Order 70, which seeks to utilise all branches of government to crush revolutionaries alongside any group considered to be a “front organisation”. Government agencies are instructed to investigate any links that individuals or organisations—even legally registered groups—might have with the rebels. 

Duterte’s administration has also engaged in red-tagging or red-baiting, a practice that refers to accusing an individual or group of having communist ties, and thus presenting them as a danger to a country’s security. Red-tagging serves to discredit demonstrators, like students, as mere vessels of rebel activity, while diverting attention away from any pertinent issues raised. 

Human rights defenders have already raised the alarm. According to the Commission on Human Rights, an independent office set up under the Constitution of the Philippines, red-tagging in schools “endangers students and the youth and it may give the AFP a license to arbitrarily infringe freedom of expression, the right to petition government, as well as to assembly”.

The president’s particularly outspoken nature has fanned these flames; many of his speeches vilify legal organisations as working for the NPA’s objectives, branding them as accessories to terrorism. In September 2019, he dared student activists to join the NPA, threatening them with death. He’d earlier also threatened to remove scholarships from any student who “espoused the overthrow of government”. 

The State Also Mobilises

Aware of the university as a fertile ground for recruitment, the Duterte administration itself is keen to mobilise young people for its own aims.

From his first year in office, President Duterte has promised a return of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, a military recruitment and training programme in universities. The programme had used to be mandatory, but the requirement was lifted in 2002 following outrage over the death of a student who had exposed corruption in the ROTC, making the programme an optional one. 

Lawmakers, including Dela Rosa, have already filed a bill for the return of mandatory ROTC. Speaking to the press, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo insisted that the programme was important for nation building “for our own security so that when the time comes, we know what to do. It is all for our benefit”.

In addition to this, Dela Rosa has also called for an increased police presence on campus to ensure a safer and more conducive academic environment that prevents students from leaving to become activists or guerrillas.

But student groups like the League of Filipino Students have consistently opposed the return of the ROTC, describing it as a measure for inculcating violence and blind support for the military on campus.

But while the narrative is that of combatting the recruitment of impressionable young minds into armed revolution, there is again a lack of clear distinction between civilian protesters and violent insurgents.

Documents have shown that the government and the military frame their own mobilisation exercise in universities as a way to combat the NPA’s recruitment practices. In a follow up to Duterte’s Executive Order 70, a document entitled “12 Operational Pillars”—used as a strategic guide by the Philippine army in identifying targets thought to be engaged in overthrowing the state, and obtained by New Naratif—stressed the need to “crusade against the communist ideology starting with the youth”, and argues for the need to “counter and manage the continuity role of the youth in the education student sector in the advancement of the national democratic revolution”.

But while the narrative is that of combatting the recruitment of impressionable young minds into armed revolution, there is again a lack of clear distinction between civilian protesters and violent insurgents.

“Education Is Inherently Revolutionary”

One of the student groups that has been the target of accusations from members of the Duterte administration is the LFS. Established in the mid-1970s, they are one of the oldest national students groups in the country, and describe themselves as patriotic, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist.

The LFS categorically denies facilitating NPA recruitment in universities. Speaking to New Naratif, LFS spokesperson Kara Taggaoa says: “This is an attack on the democratic rights and academic freedom that we have long fought for inside our campuses. Clearly, the Duterte administration opposes the flourishing of progressive and critical education that strengthens the youth movement amidst growing repression and tyranny of the government.” 

She adds that “the deployment of police and bringing back the ROTC to stifle students is their main agenda”.

That said, she points out that while armed revolution and legal protest movements are distinct from one another, they both stem from the same roots: social tumult, and the sense that the government is unresponsive to the people’s needs.

Earlier this year, youth groups organised mass walkouts against the authoritarian policies of the Duterte administration. Kabataan Partylist, the country’s only youth party in Congress aligned with the left-leaning bloc, has encouraged young people to participate in the “politics of change”, referring to the need to push back against authoritarianism by the Duterte regime.   

Kabataan’s congressional representative, the 29-year-old Sarah Elago, is the youngest lawmaker in the Philippines. Along with groups like LFS, Elago has been leading walkouts and demonstrations, with turnouts in the thousands, against state repression. Dela Rosa has also accused Elago of being an NPA recruiter, claiming that leaders of leftist youth movements have “brainwashed” young people into disobeying their parents and leaving their homes.

On 20 August 2019, Elago, along with several leaders from the youth group Anakbayan, were charged by the Department of Justice with trafficking, child abuse and violations of international humanitarian law for recruitment of children into armed conflict.

In response, Anakbayan has clarified that all minors that have been identified by the authorities as kidnapped or ripped from their families have actually been accounted for. They add that their activities as political organisers have required them to travel extensively, which means that they might often be out of touch with their families. Some young people have also fallen out with their parents and left home voluntarily.

“These charges are bogus and malicious! There are no ‘missing minors’, therefore there is no case. This is plain and simple state harassment. A paper tiger specifically engineered to terrorise the youth into silence,” insists Anakbayan spokesperson Alex Danday in an interview with New Naratif.

Sison thinks the attention should be trained not on young dissenters like Elago, but the ones who are now pointing fingers. “It is the forces of oppression and the mass murderers in authority like [Senator Dela Rosa] that break up families by killing people with impunity on mere suspicion of being drug addicts, or being connected to the CPP and NPA.”  

“It is the forces of oppression and the mass murderers in authority like [Senator Dela Rosa] that break up families by killing people with impunity on mere suspicion of being drug addicts, or being connected to the CPP and NPA.”  

Professor Cristita Almonte-Mallari has been teaching for over 40 years, mainly at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, known for being a bedrock of student activism. PUP students are regularly seen at demonstrations, showing up in the thousands. In 2013, they made headlines after setting armchairs ablaze in a bonfire to oppose an increase in school fees and cuts to the education budget. 

Almonte-Mallari says that many of her students have gone on to become full-time activists, or have chosen to join up with rebel fights. But neither outcome surprises her, as social inequalities continue to be a pressing problem in the Philippines.

“I think more than the usual idealism, [the students] were motivated by the desire to contribute to meaningful social change,” she says. “Many of the students came from marginalised backgrounds so they are very much aware of social injustice, poverty and oppression. They experience it first-hand. What they call brainwashing, we simply call education. Education is inherently revolutionary.”

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