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A PC(USA) partner and human rights advocate works diligently for native country against great odds

Red-tagging at core of abuse by Philippine government

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Snap Mabanta, a human rights advocate from the Philippines, is pictured in front of the U.S. Capitol. (Contributed photo)

Editor’s note: Red-tagging is the act of labelling, branding, naming, and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists, or terrorists. It’s a strategy used by state agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be “threats” or “enemies of the State.”

LOUISVILLE — Red-tagging and other human rights violations are done systematically in the Philippines, according to Filipino human rights advocate Jimarie Snap Mabanta.

It was a key message to her audiences as she traveled the U.S. this summer embarking on a six-city, two-week tour that included Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago.

Snap works in the Ecumenical Education and Nurture unit of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), a unit that focuses on concerns related to women, youth, and children. Central to all NCCP’s work is respect of human rights and dignity and being a witness of Christian solidarity toward the transformation of church and society.

The PC(USA) has been a consistent partner of the NCCP in its migration and human rights work. Last year the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in favor of an overture promoting human rights in the Philippines, and provided financial support for this summer’s tour, which was a collaboration among the International Coalition for the Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), NCCP, and the PC(USA).

Snap’s visit to the U.S. not only brought awareness to the human rights violations to American audiences but also reinforced to herself the severity of the problem in her native country.

“When I was in the U.S. I realized how complex the human rights situation is in the Philippines. Every day, something is happening — either someone gets arrested, jailed, forcibly abducted, or even killed,” said Snap. “During the course of my speaking tour I had to revise and update my working manuscript. Otherwise, it would have become ‘history’ and irrelevant in these fast-paced times.”

Sectoral leaders and indigenous and community leaders being named terrorists by the Philippine Anti-Terrorism Council was one example cited. But Snap acknowledged the systemic human rights abuses that red-tagging begets has been increasing since 2017, when former President Rodrigo Duterte unilaterally terminated the peace negotiations between the government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

“People’s legitimate demands for better conditions are met with suppression and violence resulting in human rights violations on the ground,” said Snap.  “Aside from drug-related killings, terrorist labelling by the government of known critics — such as progressive civil society organizations, churches and activists that are serving and working with the poorest of the poor — has become more threatening.”

She shared statistics to support her argument that with the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, red-tagging (including surveillance, labeling of progressive groups and vilification) has become systematic.

A report by the US-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project recorded nearly 50 red-tagging-related violent events targeting civilians dispersed throughout the country between 2020 and June 2023. This includes events where a person is physically harmed or killed but does not include cases of arrests, imprisonment or other intimidation.

According to the Philippine-based human rights group Karapatan, there were 60 victims of extrajudicial killings, eight victims of enforced disappearances, and 11 victims of torture among human rights defenders and activists since President Bongbong Marcos Jr. assumed office in June 2022.

“Free expression and freedom of association are relentlessly repressed. Instead of addressing the roots of the armed conflict in my country, which include poverty, historical landlessness, government neglect such as inaccessibility to services and inequitable distribution of resources, the government laid down the architecture of an all-out war against the people’s legitimate dissent and resistance,” says Snap. “The Philippine government should recognize that the long-running armed conflict in the country has its roots in massive poverty, landlessness, inequitable access to resources, and foreign domination.”

Among Snap Mabanta’s stops in the United States was New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. (Contributed photo)

Via email, Snap shared examples of several individuals, mainly religious leaders, who have been red tagged. They include:

  • An NCCP bookkeeper known as a human rights defender in her province who has led campaigns for a safe and healthy environment. Her husband is also a land rights defender involved in organizing farmers. The military filed a trumped-up charge for allegedly recruiting a minor to the Communist Party’s New People’s Army.
  • An ordained clergyman of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), a member church of the NCCP. On several occasions, he has been threatened, harassed, and vilified by members of the armed forces of the Philippines. Recently, he received a subpoena for violation of the Anti-Terrorism Law.
  • A Roman Catholic bishop and vocal advocate for the protection and promotion of human dignity and the resumption of peace negotiations was recently vilified in various platforms identified with the government.
  • A UCCP pastor’s home has been subjected to pre-dawn raids by police and military forces where they allegedly recovered firearms and explosives, resulting in an illegal possession of firearms and explosives charge.

During her time in the United States, Snap did not shy away from sharing another key message to her audience: U.S. policy plays a role in the ongoing human rights violations by the Philippine government. While in Washington, D.C., she lobbied Congress on the Philippine Human Rights Act, a congressional bill that seeks to suspend U.S. military aid until specific human rights conditions are met.

Her government’s counter-insurgency program is patterned after the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide. As a global superpower the U.S.’s agenda is to treat developing nations militarily, politically, and economically as a neo-colony, which according to Snap means it enters into unfair trade relations and agreements at the expense of the Filipino people and its natural wealth and resources.

“The U.S. maintains its influence on its neo-colonies to serve its own interest. The U.S. admitted openly that it has a special interest in the Philippines as geopolitically significant to maintain its power in the subregion and as an entry point in Asia. The U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises in the country, unfair treaties, and the continuing subservience of the Philippine government to the U.S. has exceedingly threatened and endangered the lives and land of the Filipino people,” said Snap.

Nevertheless, she holds an optimistic vision that a just and enduring peace is still possible.

“My vision is like that of what Jesus Christ promised — peace based on justice. For the NCCP, peace with justice means people living sustainably in their communities without fear or threat to their lives and livelihood. If this is not established, and the hunger and suffering of the majority continue, the violence of the past and its manifestations in the present will surface, escalate, or even heighten.”

To watch a video clip of Snap Mabanta speaking to activists in Chicago during her U.S. tour, click here.

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