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[OPINION] Let us think more critically about ‘terrorism’

[OPINION] Let us think more critically about ‘terrorism’
'[C]ertain academics have recently argued that the legalization of armed movements in the country...would result in the end of their armed struggle. The academics’ arguments stand on shaky ground.'


Amid ongoing conversations about the so-called Anti-Terror Bill, certain academics have recently argued that the legalization of armed movements in the country, particularly the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, would result in the end of their armed struggle. The academics’ arguments stand on shaky ground. In addition, in this time of crisis, we need to ask more critical questions about the why’s of political violence and the term “terrorism.”

In the said article, the “legalization” of the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is cited by the academics for their argument that groups stopped armed strategies after legalization. But the case of these two groups actually show the opposite: the Moro armed struggle never ended, and only led to the rise of new groups, because the political and socio-economic factors driving their armed struggles, from the land problem to poverty and gaps in political voices, were never fully addressed. This is the big point missed by Lisandro E. Claudio and Patricio N. Abinales, like Senator Tito Sotto.

We must also be concerned that Claudio and Abinales wrote this thought piece at a time when the monster called the “terror bill” inches closer on Filipinos day by day. While they are not state actors, it is truly unfortunate that they continue to reproduce state “red-tagging” discourse at a time when even a June 4 report of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights claims that such discourse “may have incited violence and may have had the effect of encouraging, backing, or even ordering human rights violations with impunity.” (READ: [ANALYSIS] The Anti-Terrorism Act: Duterte will have all dissenters’ necks)

Claudio and Abinales are free to say their piece, but our time demands more productive conversations, those that actually advance the civil, political, and economic rights and freedoms of the people. We citizens, the media, people’s movements, human rights organizations, and thought leaders, would productively spend our energies (and our venomous words) better by directing these against those trying to take away our rights and freedoms — especially as we near the country’s so-called Independence Day. We need to consciously criticize the unfolding strategy of the Rodrigo Duterte administration as it seeks to consolidate its repressive rule. 

What we have learned about  “terrorism” and “violence” so far

At the center of our current situation is the term “terrorism,” a key term rarely questioned, but is never simple. It has been a political battle about who gets to define what it is and who gets to be called by the name. So far, we have learned that by employing a broad, loose definition that could cover the exercise of basic civil-political rights, the Duterte administration can lump together all critics — from civilian citizens to armed groups — under the term “terrorism.”

Governments often use the always-contested term to include violence of armed movements that are opposing the state for political goals. But we have also seen how state actors can be some, if not the most, violent actors in countries. We have seen killings of so-called “lockdown violators” while elite allies of the administration who violate quarantine protocols go scot-free. A recent report shows that military and police personnel are responsible for almost half of the violence against civilians during the period of the Philippines’ lockdown from March 14 until May 30. A recent social media post of Rappler journalist Patricia Evangelista shows the reality of state actors’ “terror” against citizens during the so-called “drug war” that killed thousands. There is the “counter-insurgency” program amid a proliferation of paramilitary groups who “act with apparent impunity.” The Philippines has ranked in the past years among the worst countries for land and environmental defenders, and for workers’ rights. And now police violence in the US reminds us of how the Philippines’ police has violently repressed unarmed protesters. In this context, critics increasingly claim the phrase “state terror.”

We have seen that it is not only the Philippine government that has been employing the term to silence all critics, but even the governments of the US and China. Indeed, US interests are prominent in the spread of  “anti-terror” laws after 9/11. A recent analysis of researchers from the UP Third World Studies Center asserts that the 2020 bill “rather thoughtlessly copied from other laws” of different countries, from policy formulations of the US and Australia, and  from the “counter-terror” policy of EU countries. They also claim that the Philippine legislature picked provisions from these Western sources even though “anti-terrorism measures have instantiated time and again acts of inhumanity, especially to those considered ‘foreign’ to the constitution of the nation.”

Keeping us in a “terrorism” box

We have seen the government trapping critics of the Anti-Terror Bill in an almost-moralistic box of a “question” of whether or not “we condone terrorism” and “violence.” For our government, like many others, all violence against the state are all “extremism,” all “terrorism,” and, back in the day, “subversion.” They make the illogical claim that if you oppose the bill, you are for “terror” and all they associate with it. (READ: [OPINION] Martial rule without martial law: An anti-terror bill subtext)

To understand further how the government deploys the term “terrorism,” we can get out of this morality box of whether or not we approve of armed violence. More objectively, armed movements are a historical fact, and from this we need to ask more critical questions: Why are people driven to armed struggle? 

Senator Sotto has a non-answer to this question: that terrorism has no social root causes in injustices. Some say that armed struggle is just due to “influence of foreign ideologies,” not social problems. This is simply untrue. Sotto’s rhetoric is far behind, as even the US and Philippine “counter-insurgency” policy at least state that so-called “violent extremism” is driven by lack of political voices, poverty, and social causes. But, then again, governments’ “security policy” often subsumes and instrumentalizes development goals in seeking to achieve mere military goals, compromising how development should be driven by communities’ voices.

The terror law uses the term “terrorism” against both civilians and all armed groups to de-legitimize all real problems and grievances. The lack of political power and voice, failures in governance, rampant poverty and lack of access to social services, land monopolies, and the entry of big mining corporations in the countryside, are just some factors as to why people are still driven to resort to picking up the gun today — but all of them become concerns “usually raised by terrorists.” 

Governments’ “terror-tagging” also moves to de-humanize. We saw how real or fake “drug users” can be shot with impunity because in the eyes of those in power “they are just drug users.” These critics, civilian or armed, are also “just terrorists” that can be disposed of. In the US and Hong Kong, protesters against police violence are tagged as “terrorists” that can be repressed with more police. “Terror-tagging” wants us to forget that, in the Philippines, members of the NPA are actual young and old people hailing from workers, farmers, and other social classes who are of the view that the current social system is at a dead-end. The Duterte administration only began calling the NPA as “terrorist” since 2017

No justice, no peace

Way before 9/11, armed violence has been a historical fact in situations where people found no answers to problems in established ruling systems. Many of them were waged by colonized people, the poor, many not actually jihadist, from Vietnam to Algeria to Cuba. Even Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress engaged in armed struggle for a time against apartheid. There is the iconic Che Guevara. In this way, we can extend Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement to claim that riots, as well as taking up arms, are historically “a language of the unheard.”

Many armed movements ended, some new ones emerged. Armed peasants have been a consistent feature of Philippine history. Today, there are armed movements by indigenous peoples in West Papua and Myanmar. There are those by the people of Palestine, by the Kurdish in West Asia, even in supposedly independent states such as India or Colombia. What are now called the Lumad indigenous people were said to have taken up arms on their own against invaders of their ancestral domains.

By missing the political and socio-economic factors behind the armed rebellion in the country, Claudio and Abinales in their article, and Sotto in his statements, also miss the truth that resolving armed conflicts means addressing the socio-economic root causes of why people resort to armed actions against governments. The words “no justice, no peace” ring out of Black Lives Matter protests today, and is indeed true. 

But then again, we face the next question: given the Duterte administration’s open violence against us the people in the name of the Anti-Terror Bill, its clique’s consolidation of power, to what extent can we expect justice any time soon? And what options does our situation leave us? –

 Jaime Basa is a graduate of BA Political Science. He is interested in studying the histories of social movements around the world.