Last week, Rodrigo Duterte’s government published two sets of lists naming more than two dozen people as “terrorists,” sparking protests from lawyers, activists, and church-based groups.

They denounced the unilateral and arbitrary designation of 19 Maoist-led rebels and 10 Islamist militants as “terrorists” without judicial processes. They questioned the basis for calling them “terrorists.”

Reuters, an international news agency, has been very careful in labeling people as “terrorists” because there is no politically accepted and universal definition of the term, which originated in France after its revolution in the late 18th century.

The United Nations had attempted to define it but failed because of the national liberation and self-determination movements that flourished in the 1970s.

During that period, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) emerged in Central Luzon and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the south.

Both organizations waged war against the government in Manila. The communists sought to overthrow the government similar to what was happening in Indo-China at that time. The Muslims were seeking a separate, free and independent Islamic state.

Fifty years later, the government has declared both the Communists and Islamic militants — those who refused to enter into peace negotiations — as “terrorists.”

The government defended its action as legal and morally just under the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, saying it was the right of the state to protect its people from the use of violence to achieve political goals.

Nearly 40 groups composed of legislators, former justices and lawyers, journalists and various other sectors have petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the law as unconstitutional because of provisions that violate the civil rights of citizens. It contradicts Article III of the 1987 Constitution.

The high court has been hearing oral arguments from both sides and a decision is expected later this year.

An adverse ruling would be a big blow to the Duterte government which has intensified its anti-insurgency operations to defeat the CPP-NPA and small groups of pro-Islamic State militants before the president steps down from power in June 2022.

The designation of several people as “terrorists” did not come as a surprise. The list could have been made earlier, or as soon as Congress enacted the legislation, because the Maoist-led CPP-NPA, the Abu Sayyaf and other groups have existed for more than a decade.

The defense and miliary establishments already have the names of thousands of communist rebels and hundreds of Islamist militants in the “order of battle” based on intelligence information.

It is understandable that not all names in the “order of battle” are included because many are only known aliases. But the leaders of these groups should have been included in the “terrorist” lists.

The two lists containing 29 names are incomplete. It appears the government rushed in preparing the lists to beat the June deadline when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) holds a meeting to monitor compliance of 200 countries in preventing money laundering and terrorist financing.

Only two countries are on the FATF red list — North Korea and Iran. Several jurisdictions are in the grey list.

The Philippines has been delisted from the grey list but there are concerns it might be placed under the grey list anew, one of the rationales for the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

The FATF could impose severe sanctions on a country’s financial institutions, which could cripple its economy as it tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Moreover, the Anti-Terrorism Council’s designation of the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization and its leaders as terrorists is a complete departure from state policy of pursing peace with rebels.

The CPP-NPA as an organization was already designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States State Department and by the European Union in 2002.

Two years later, the US again designated it as a foreign terrorist organization because the Maoist-led guerrillas were considered a threat to US citizens and interests.

In fact, in 1989, two suspected NPA assassins were sent to prison for killing Army Col. James Rowe, the highest ranking US military adviser in the Philippines.

But past governments have resisted designating the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization because of the peace process. It was among the few issues in which the Philippines contradicted the United States.

All post-Marcos presidents, from Corazon Aquino in 1986 to her son, Benigno Aquino in 2010, hoped to find a just and peaceful political settlement to more than five decades of conflict that has killed 40,000 people.


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After Duterte terminated the peace process with the CPP-NPA and its political arm, the National Democratic Front (NDF) in 2017, the government started preparing to declare them as “terrorists.”

Duterte, who is known to have links with the NPAs when he was mayor of Davao City, has declared an all-out war policy to crush the CPP-NPA-NDF before his term ends in June 2022.

It appears there’s no returning to the peace negotiations after the designation of the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization. The Philippines has a policy of not entering into negotiations with “terrorists.”

The Islamist militant groups is a different story. The Muslim rebel groups fighting to carve out an autonomous region in the south are separate from the small, more brutal and more violent Islamist militants behind the bombings of churches and the kidnapping of foreigners and locals in the western part of Mindanao.

The government struck a deal with the MNLF in 1996 and with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014, ending more than 50 years of conflict that has killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.

As early as 1997, the US has already listed the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) as a foreign terrorist organization because of its violent activities in the south, like bomb attacks on Catholic churches and kidnappings of nuns and priests.

The ASG had links with Middle East-based groups responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

Later, the group took 20 mostly Western tourists from a Malaysian report in Sipadan and another group of tourists, including three Americans, from Dos Palmas resort. The group also beheaded two Canadians and held captive a Jordanian journalist.

These are clearly terroristic activities but the government listed down only 10 names from Muslim extremist groups, three of them leaders of the pro-Islamic State Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters operating at Liguasan marsh in Maguindanao.

There was no explanation why the one-armed former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighter, Radullan Sahiron, who is believed to have assumed the ASG leadership after the death of Khaddafy Janjalani in 2006, was not on the list.

The US State Department has even offered a bounty of up to $1 million for Sahiron’s arrest or death.

An Indonesian-linked militant group operating in the southern Mindanao region, Ansar Khalifa Philippines (AKP), which uses the Islamic State’s Black Flag, is also not on the list.

The Anti-Terrorism Council did a sloppy job in compiling the list of “terrorists.” It appears the list was prepared in haste despite huge resources available to the military and police intelligence.

Both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police are part of the Anti-Terrorism Council.

It also appears the government was only targeting some personalities in coming up with the “terrorist” lists.

There should be no shortcuts.
The courts should be left to decide who to designate “terrorists” after lengthy judicial processes.

Allowing the government to designate groups and people as “terrorists” heightens attacks on perceived enemies of the administration.

Even before the government labels its foes and critics as “terrorists,” dozens of people have been summarily executed on suspicion they were NPA members or supporters.

The “terrorist” designation can be used to silence dissent and as a tool to curtail freedom of expression and press freedom.

The Supreme Court must hasten its decision to declare the Anti-Terrorism Act unconstitutional, striking down as well the government’s power to designate “terrorist” groups and people.

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