There was a public uproar after Congress passed a new anti-terrorism measure before its first regular session ended last week.

Human rights activists, businessmen, journalists and even the clergy have expressed concerns the new tough security measure would be used to silence dissent despite strong assurances from lawmakers that there were enough safeguards to protect basic human rights under the 1987 Constitution.

From a security point of view, the bill, which would replace the 2007 Human Security Act (described by proponents as a toothless legislation that failed to stop the Marawi siege in 2017), appeared to be an improvement by introducing draconian measures, like warrantless arrests and longer detention of suspected “terrorists” and intense surveillance.

The very same provisions however sounded alarm bells for people opposing the new measure, because the provisions could be unconstitutional and could be prone to abuses, including torture to extract information.

A closer scrutiny of the proposed new law, which needs only the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte to be effective, would show it conforms with international norms in fighting terrorism.

It could be much tamer than the stringent Internal Security Act enacted in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore in Southeast Asia, as well as other anti-terrorism laws in Western Europe and in the United States.

The main problem of the proposed law is not on the legislation itself but on the very people who will enforce it. There is very little trust on the government of Rodrigo Duterte, who in four years in power knew of only one thing that can control people – fear.

Duterte only knew one solution to every possible problem in government – send in the army and police.

He has tried to address social ills, like crime, corruption and illegal drugs by calling in the armed services, recalling retired generals to active service by appointing them in civilian positions for which they do not have competencies, like health services, utility management, information and communication technology, social work, and environment.

Even in addressing the coronavirus pandemic, Duterte has relied on the generals who had led the campaign in re-taking Marawi City from pro-Islamic State militants belonging to the Maute group and the Basilan-based Abu Sayyaf Group.

These retired generals are professionals and experts in managing violence, but not experts in fighting an unseen enemy, a lethal pathogen.

A good leader must know how to deal with problems. The military and police are not the panacea for the ills plaguing the country.

Overdependence on the military and police has made the president a hostage to the interest of the security sector in addressing the country’s long-term political instability, a major stumbling block in attracting investors as well as in addressing development concerns.

After Duterte was swept to power in 2016, he proudly declared himself as the first socialist leader elected into office in the fiercely pro-US Philippine-style democracy.

He wasted no time in shifting the country’s foreign policy toward China and Russia, distancing from the United States and other Western powers.

Domestically, he resumed talks with the Maoist-led rebels, who have been fighting a protracted guerrilla warfare for more than half a century to overthrow a democratically elected government.

He had even appointed some progressive and known left-of-center personalities in his Cabinet, offering hope a political settlement of the communist insurgency, which has eluded past government’s since Ramon Magsaysay, could be achieved.

But all these overtures ended two years later due to pressures from generals as Duterte increasingly appointed former military officers to his Cabinet.

The other main problem of the proposed anti-terror is the labeling of “terrorist,” as the justice department has a pending petition at a local court in Manila declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its military wing the New People’s Army (NPA), and its political arm, National Democratic Front (NDF), as terrorist organizations.

The United States and other Western countries have labeled the CPP-NPA-NDF as terrorist organizations, imposing sanctions such as denial of visaa and funding support from other international humanitarian organizations.

In the Philippines, however, a terrorist label is tantamount to a death sentence as the Duterte government is fond of name-calling and labeling critics and political foes with the most unflattering descriptions, putting them at risk of getting harmed or killed.

Since Duterte was elected into office in 2016, more than 6,000 people suspected of being drug traders and couriers, and even as ordinary users, have been killed, and millions have been arrested or have surrendered under the government’s war on drugs policy.

As the campaign starts to lose steam, the killings shifted to suspected communist rebels and sympathizers as Duterte vowed to quash the insurgency before his term ends in June 2022.

Farmers, community organizers and lawyers outside the capital were getting killed and arrested as the military and police stepped up anti-insurgency operations even during the time of the pandemic.

The new anti-terror law would provide a legal justification for the government to go after its critics and political enemies, including nosy journalists and human rights lawyers. It could label them as “terrorists” and supporters.

Long before the anti-terror bill was enacted in Congress, the defense and military establishments have been labeling the Maoist-led guerrillas as “communist terrorist” in official reports.

The New People’s Army (NPA) was lumped together with other revolutionary and liberation movements, like the Middle East-based Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), as a “terrorist” organization.

It was already a “terrorist” group before the Abu Sayyaf Group or the pro-Islamic State Maute group existed in the southern Philippines. The Moro rebels were known then as a separatist movement which was fighting to dismember their land from the Philippines.

The “terrorist” label gave dictator Marcos a free hand to jail, torture and kill anyone suspected to be a communist cadre, a guerrilla and even a sympathizer, including community organizers, priests, lawyers and barrio doctors.

There are fears the new anti-terror bill will bring the country back to the dark days of the Marcos years when anyone who opposed and criticized the government could be labeled a “terrorist”.

Since 2016 there have been instances when this government showed it could not tolerate dissent, as a sitting senator was detained on trumped-up drug-related charges and a former chief justice was unceremoniously removed from her position.

Even critical media organizations and journalists were harassed with fantastic matrixes linking them to enemies of the state.

Last month, the country’s largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, was shut down after its 25-year legislative franchise was allowed to expire without Congress renewing it, despite an application as early as 2014.

Some social media users, including some officers in the armed forces, have tried to malign the broadcaster, labeling it as “friendly” to the communist rebels as well as red-tagging one of its staff.

This is not new. In fact, many journalists were labeled as “terrorist” sympathizers for covering activities of the New People’s Army in the countryside.

Some people within the security sector do not recognize the role of a free press in society. One rabid anti-communist army general wanted the media to report only military propaganda and to denounce the rebels.

The level of intolerance has become alarming when even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was suspected to be aiding the NPAs when it evacuated two wounded combatants early this month to a hospital in the south.

For some people in government, the world has turned into black and white. If you are not on their side, then you could be on the opposite end.

If the media and humanitarian organizations were perceived to be partisan and working against them, it’s worse for ordinary people voicing out their own opinion.

A salesman in Mindanao was arrested by police on libel charges even without a legitimate complaint from the offended party when he criticized the president and his trusted ally.

Where is freedom of expression? Again, there is danger the new anti-terror bill can be invoked to make a warrantless arrest and detain a “terrorist” suspect for a maximum of 24 days without any criminal charges.

A “terrorist” is the most cruel and inhuman label in today’s society under the Duterte administration. It is worse than being labeled a “drug suspect” in the early days of this government.

Both labels could mean untold misery or even death. There are provisions in the anti-terror bill that have no place in a civilized world. Not in the Philippines where the people do not trust the government. It should not put a “terrorist” label on any individual – a lawyer, a journalist, a farmer, a worker, a student, an ordinary social media user and even a rebel.

Some people in the countryside have been forced to take up arms, not because of poverty but due to government neglect, inequality and injustice.

There could be no real communist fighting for an ideology which even China and Russia have long abandoned, only real people who are victims of the country’s social ills, like corruption.

Retired general Jorge Segovia, a seasoned army intelligence officer who was once a top military commander in the Davao region, has discovered the main driver of insurgency in the country – the social justice system.

There would be no rebels in the hills if “those who have less in life should have more in law,” a slogan made famous by another Filipino leader well loved by the masses.

Ramon Magsaysay ended an agrarian unrest that fueled the Huk rebellion, a forerunner of the Maoist-led insurgency, at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s without any draconian laws.

Magsaysay should be Duterte’s model if he wants the people to love him more. Definitely not the former dictator who he desperately wants to emulate.