Harassment of development workers intensified under Duterte regime

Media Release

July 16, 2018

In a public forum organized by the Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network (ASCENT) on July 16, 2018, various Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) shared the numerous harassment and threats that they experienced since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed his office two years ago.

“In 2016, the humanitarian and development workers were very hopeful that the attacks during the Arroyo and Aquino administrations will subside under the Duterte regime because of his pronouncement that ‘change is coming’. But they were proven very wrong. Instead, more human rights violations were committed by the police and military”, said Estrella Catarata, a convenor of ASCENT.

According to KARAPATAN, there are already 163 cases of extra-judicial killings, 351 illegal arrests and detention, and 432,380 incidents of forced evacuation from July 2016 to June 2018.

“The role of development workers is to help address the needs of the poor and marginalized sectors of our society, especially those living in rural areas since they are largely unable to access government services. But instead of supporting them, the government through its state security forces is demonizing their work and tagging them as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) or the New People’s Army (NPA)”, added Catarata.

According to her, many of the government’s recent actions are meant to criminalize persons involved in development work and to legitimize the harassment being perpetuated against them by the police and military. One of which is the creation of the Inter-Agency Committee on Legal Action (IACOLA), which will allegedly pursue the government’s legal offensive against terror groups.

“ASCENT’s own Senior Consultant, Benito Quilloy, and Project Staff, Rita Espinoza, were illegally arrested by elements of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on October 19, 2017 in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental due to trumped-up charges of robbery, arson, illegal possession of firearms, and attempted murder. This happened a few weeks after the creation of the IACOLA”, added Catarata.

Quilloy and Espinoza were in Negros for a two-day consultation with the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) regarding the issues and situation of sugar workers in the region. They also conducted workshops and planned for campaign activities on the demand of sugar workers for a 50% wage increase and pakyaw rate. It was during their last day in Negros while having lunch at a native restaurant when the CIDG and AFP barged in, pointed their guns at the victims, and took them without a warrant of arrest. They were then brought to Camp Montelibano. After a few days, they were surreptitiously transferred to Camp Crame in Quezon City. And on June 8, they were again transported without the knowledge of their lawyers and brought to the Bayugan City Jail in Agusan del Sur where they are facing criminal charges.

Aside from the IACOLA, President Duterte himself announced a crackdown against activists last November. He later signed Proclamation 374 declaring the CPP and the NPA as terrorist organizations. On February of this year, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) released a proscription petition naming certain individuals as leaders and members of the CPP and NPA, including human rights defenders, activists, and development workers.

The state of Martial Law in Mindanao has also aggravated the worsening human rights violations against alternative schools in Lumad communities.

“During a Fact Finding Mission conducted by the Save Our Schools Network, we were able to document 225 cases of attacks which affected 64 schools, 4,578 students, 189 teachers, and 202 members of the Parent-Teacher Community Associations (PCTA) in Region 12 alone, from July 2016 to July 2018”, said Mercedes Arleen Alonzo of the Center for Lumad Advocacy, Networking and Services (CLANS).

“9 out of the 11 schools we established in Kalamansig, Sultan Kudarat were forcibly closed because of the heavy militarization in the area by the Philippine Marines protecting the mining, logging, and coffee plantation enterprises of the David M. Consunji Inc. (DMCI). Many of our teachers were harassed, illegally arrested, and threatened to be killed. They were thus forced into hiding in order to save their lives”, she further added.

Church workers are also not spared from the harassment and threats. Last April, Sr. Patricia Fox, a missionary nun working with peasants, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups was ordered to be deported by the Bureau of Immigration for allegedly being involved in partisan political activities. And last July 5, 13 development workers and church development volunteers of the Iglesia Filipina Indipendiente (IFI) were illegally arrested by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in General Santos City while they were conducting a project assessment for the turnover of the IFI-Visayas Mindanao Regional Office for Development (IFI-VIMROD) to the Diocese of Libertad.

“Development and humanitarian workers do not deserve the attacks that they are experiencing. We at ASCENT are vehemently condemning these threats, harassment, vilification, illegal arrests, forced evacuation, and extra-judicial killings. Instead of being disheartened, we are even more emboldened to continue to fight for our cause and serve those in need”, concluded Catarata.



ASCENT Condemns the Illegal Arrest and Detention of 13 Development Workers in Gen San

The Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network (ASCENT) strongly condemns the illegal arrest and detention of 13 church and development workers last July 4 at the Mother Francisca Spirituality Center in General Santos City, South Cotabato.

Elements of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the military barged into the room where the 13 development workers were conducting a project assessment for the turnover of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente – Visayas Mindanao Regional Office for Development (IFI-VIMROD) Integrated Development Program to the Diocese of Libertad. They served a warrant of arrest for three persons who were unknown to the group members.

Among those arrested were Aldeem Yanez (IFI), Jomorito Guaynon (Kalumbay), Ireneo Udarbe (Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas), Vennel Chenfoo (Kabataan Partylist), Kristine Cabardo (League of Filipino Students), Roger Plana (VIMROD Volunteer), and Teresita Naul (Karapatan). They were then detained at Camp Fermin, General Santos City.

The following day, July 5, charges of obstruction of justice were filed against 11 of them while the charges against the two are not yet known.

IFI-VIMROD is the social development arm of the Visayas-Mindanao Bishops Conference of IFI.

The illegal arrest and detention of the 13 development workers is an affront to the church legacy of social action in the country. It is an injustice to development workers whose commitment and voluntary services in poor and marginalized communities has continued despite threats of political repression.

Development workers have always followed the lead of people’s organizations and can be found where these organizations are – in communities of peasants, workers, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, and urban poor. They address people’s issues of land, wages, rights and freedom.

The illegal arrest and detention of the Gen San 13 is wrong and unjust. What has happened to our society that rewards commitment and working with the poor and oppressed with illegal arrest and detention?

ASCENT thus, demands the immediate release of the Gen San 13 and all political prisoners. It also calls for the resumption of peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF), where the causes of poverty and lack of genuine development in our country can be seriously tackled.


Getting to Know Ben and Rita

At 64, Benito Quilloy is never grumpy and speaks the language of the youth. Perhaps it is because he loves working with young people, listening to their stories and also sharing his own experiences with them as a student activist and development worker.

A former President of the UPLB (University of the Philippines-Los Banos) Chemical Society, he was a student organizer known to be influenced by what he saw in his immersion with the sugar workers of Negros Occidental. As a Sugar Technology major, he was required to spend sometime in the sugar fields of Negros where he saw the inhumane working conditions of the sugar workers and the measly wages that they received. This proved to be the turning point in this life. Even if he was already employed at the Canlubang Sugar Estate as a laboratory technician and chemist, he opted to quit and worked full time first as a student organizer and eventually as peasant support service worker and development management consultant.

The image of the sugar workers and their long years of oppression would haunt him prompting him to say that “I lost interest in having a regular job in the mainstream. Working for the interests of the sugar workers — agricultural workers and landless peasants proved to be not only a most interesting job and but also the most meaningful.”

Rita Espinoza was always an honor student but his father still considered her an average student. For the latter he wanted Rita to be number one. But this was farthest from Rita’s mind. She did her best in her studies, and even with her household and domestic assignments, without even thinking if she was number one or not.

And when she was in her college years in the 70s, she did not think twice in giving up her formal education to again, “do her best” in education but outside the school and among the rural poor. She organized the farmers even as she also engaged in the buy and sell of ready to wear (RTW) clothes. She learned early in life to be hard working and independent. She can also sew dresses and curtains.

Her experience in farmers’ organizing led her to the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) where she was a volunteer staff under the then National Coordinator Sr. Patricia Fox, the Australian missionary nun. From 2000-2007 she assisted Sr. Pat in the conceptualization of development projects for the farmers. They would also help RMP chapters in project implementation and evaluation.

“I have known her to be full of energy and enthusiasm in our work,” Sr. Pat said of Rita. It is no wonder then that Rita has spent most of her adult years starting when she was 18 years old in the service of the farmers.#

Statement on the BI’s arrest of Sr. Pat Fox

We condemn the arrest and detention of Sr. Patricia Fox of the Sisters of Sion Congregation at the Bureau of Immigration (BI). She has stood up for the cause of the Filipino poor especially the landless peasants, agricultural workers, and indigenous peoples, and has tirelessly worked for genuine development through her engagement as former National Coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) and current Board Member of the Tahanan ng Pag-asa, an organization that advocates for community-based programs for the elderly. As a participant to countless fact-finding and medical missions in the Philippines for more than two decades, Sr. Pat has also led the way for church people to perform their prophetic mission of being with and working for the poor.

She has also been most supportive of the newly organized Free Ben and Rita Now alliance which calls for the release of ASCENT’s Convenor and Senior Consultant Benito Quilloy and Project Staff Member Rita Espinoza. It is most unjust that her many years of adherence and assertion for human rights and social justice alongside the poor and marginalized has resulted to this humiliating and degrading action of detention at the BI office in Intramuros, Manila.

ASCENT calls for the immediate release of Sr. Patricia Fox who does not deserve this kind of treatment in the country that she has selflessly served for the past 27 years. Any kind of deportation order is most unkind as she has grown to love, nurture and fight for the rights of poor and oppressed Filipinos.

Sr. Pat of All Seasons

Development workers and political activists who work for national organizations in the Philippines will certainly know the Australian missionary, Sr. Patricia Fox, NDS. She speaks Filipino, rides the jeepney and the MRT regularly, and has been involved in most national issues for the past 27 years — genuine agrarian reform, right to self-determination of the indigenous peoples, churchpeople’s rights, right to development, women’s empowerment and a host of many other issues. As one friend laughingly said, “She is everywhere and we do not know in what sector she belongs — She can be with the peasants in Hacienda Luisita this week and with the churchpeople in a rally the following week. And after that she will be with the indigenous peoples somewhere in Mindanao. Then she holds consultations with co-founders of a program for the elderly.”

Her stamina and energy defies her age (71) and her commitment and dedication to the causes she advocates is admirable. During a medical mission to a Yolanda-affected community in Northern Samar, she braved the almost 24 hour travel and put to shame the younger delegates of the medical mission while climbing the mountain on the way to the community. Angeli Mercado, a twentysomething medical student who was with Sr. Pat’s group observed that “I had more difficulty catching up compared to her”.

Developing and Establishing Organizations

Sr. Pat, as she is fondly called, is no ordinary missionary nun. She is also a lawyer and has led the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) from 2000-2007. During her time she immersed herself in the issues of the landless peasants, agricultural workers, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples.She steered RMP to provide support services to its constituencies including agricultural production, trainings in project management, self help undertakings and organizational development.

Sr. Pat believed that apart from the land issue, the peasantry face the constant challenge of inadequate support services and inputs for their productivity.Along with her colleagues in RMP, they launched serious attempts of mobilizing church people towards developing projects and programs for farmer’s and indigenous peoples communities. This, she did side by side with capacity building of RMP chapters. Recognizing the need to further strengthen RMP she spearheaded trainings and activities for organizational development. Regular evaluations were likewise undertaken for more accurate planning inputs.

Sr. Pat would surprise even herself when she began a modest alternative program for the elderly who have spent most of their lives for nationalist and progressive causes. Along with like-minded individuals from the academe, church and the medical and health profession, they would establish the Tahanan ng Pag-asa (TNP). It fights for the rights of the elderly and advocates a community-based elderly program.

Upon hearing that ASCENT Convenor and Senior Consultant Benito Quilloy and Program Staff Member Rita Espinosa were arrested on trumped-up charges, Sr. Pat was also among the first ones to extend her support to ASCENT. She is an active member of the Free Ben and Rita Now alliance. In a strange twist, she now finds herself also illegally arrested and detained for participating in rallies. ASCENT’s members and volunteers are sure to raise protest over this.

The nun who knows no season in coming to the aid of the poorest of the poor will absolutely be defended and protected by those whose rights and interests she selflessly fought for.