As long as we are here, we will keep fighting: Filipino health activists brave repression

Following the election of Bongbong Marcos as president of the Philippines, health activists remain worried about the impact his presidency might have on the status of human rights in the country

December 11, 2022 by Viva Salud
Persecution of activists Philippines
Protesters hold signs warning against persecution of Filipino human rights activists. (Photo: Karapatan)

On June 30, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was elected in the presidential election in the Philippines. His coming to power raised concerns about the status of human rights in the country, especially when it comes to red-tagging and other forms of repression of human rights activists. 

Viva Salud, a Belgian organization working to protect and promote the right to health, met with Tinay Palabay, secretary-general of Karapatan, an alliance that conducts research and advocacy of human rights, to discuss what the new government will bring to health activists.

Viva Salud: What does the new presidency mean for activists and social movements in the Philippines? 

Tinay Palabay: I fear that Marcos will reinforce President Duterte’s culture of impunity. For instance, the new president has promised Duterte protection from international legal proceedings. This means that he cannot be sued for the human rights violations he committed during his time in office. Perpetrators among the state actors are emboldened to continue violating human rights because they’re not held accountable for previous violations. And that increases the dangerous climate of impunity in the Philippines. The political repression against health activists and social movements is also likely to increase. 

VS: What does this political repression mean in practice?

TP: Activists, as well as health workers who make their voices heard about the deplorable health care system, are threatened. The violations include threats to their physical and psychological integrity, as human rights defenders and as human beings. There are numerous forms of death threats or red tagging, threats that incite violence on health workers and individuals, groups, and communities advocating for the right to health. But these are not just mere threats which can be posted online. They are not just words. The words cause real world harm because these forms of harmful attacks sometimes result in extrajudicial killings, trumped-up charges, or arrests.

VS: I believe that one of the practices you are referring to is red-tagging. Can you tell us what that is and how it impacts activists?

TP: People get tagged if they are supporters, members, or officers of the Communist Party of the Philippines or the New People’s Army. It’s just labeling or name calling because for many of those who experienced red tagging, this was not even true. Red tagging has really gone through the roof: well known personalities, priests, journalists, even beauty queens have been exposed to it. People who may have no connection at all to any progressive belief or cause outside of the fact that they have expressed political dissent or disagreement with the government or its policies have been exposed to this practice.

The dangers of red tagging come when violence is incited. That is why UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, called red tagging a context-specific death threat in the Philippines. More often than not, those who are red tagged end up being killed or arrested, like many of my colleagues in Karapatan and many health workers working in several communities in the Philippines. 

VS: Why is there so much violence against activists in the Philippines?

TP: Even though the Philippines is a signatory to many UN conventions, human rights treaties and declarations, the prevalent policies in relation to protection and recognition of human rights are all just for show. They are just pieces of paper if they are not implemented. The intolerance to political dissent remains a central feature of a system that keeps the Philippines an agricultural state and maintains the neocolonial relations our country has with many countries. The violence and human rights violations emanate from the very root cause of our exploitation and oppression. They silence people and social movements because the social movements and communities fight for their rights, there can be no other explanation. The government silences people to keep itself in power. Dissenting opinions are violently suppressed because they threaten the status quo. But organized dissent is at the heart of democracy, isn’t it?

VS: What are the consequences for the Philippines and its people?

TP: The consequences are dramatic. First of all, too many lives have been lost. Since 2001, Karapatan has documented the deaths of 900 human rights defenders. They were hardworking and passionate activists who continued to fight for human rights despite numerous threats to their lives. They are a tremendous loss to their families and communities.

The repression is also affecting the level of welfare in the Philippines. If the government had listened to people like Zara Alvarez, a health activist who was killed in 2020, for example, it would have been better able to deal with the pandemic. Unfortunately, the slightest criticism is harshly addressed. And that has a major impact on the welfare and rights of Filipinos. The death of activists is not simply the loss of one person, but of an entire community.

VS: Who is Zara Alvarez and why was she killed?

TP: Zara Alvarez was a health activist known for her steadfast commitment to farmers’ struggles in Negros province. She worked for the health program there. As a result, she became the target of repression. Zara was labelled a terrorist and received constant death threats. Yet she continued to work for the health of the population.

In August 2020, Zara was gunned down by unknown assailants. After the murder, no independent investigation was conducted. This makes us more determined to continue our work. Because if people like Zara could do it despite the risks, so can we. She is an inspiration to many of us. Not only for other activists, but especially for the community in which she worked.

VS: Have you personally experienced any repression or violence? 

TP: The past six to seven years have been really difficult. I eat threats at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sometimes as a snack. And it escalates. Not only the threats against myself, but also against my family. False charges are currently pending against me. If I am convicted, I will end up in jail for six years. That scares me a lot.

My organization Karapatan is also under fire. The government is monitoring all our banking transactions and trying to curb our influence at the UN. I think that shows that our work matters. Actually, we don’t want Karapatan to exist. Because if Karapatan exists, it means there are human rights violations. But as long as we are here, we will keep fighting. Not for ourselves, but for the communities we serve.

VS: What are your hopes for the future? 

TP: Many health workers are at the point where they feel they have no choice but to fight back. They also realize that you can’t just change things on your own. You have to change things as a movement. And that is the added value of organized health workers in the Philippines. I learn so much from them.

During the presidential election, a broad mass movement emerged. People from different sectors, especially the youth, joined hands to denounce the crimes and wealth of the Marcos family. Herein lies a great opportunity. The Philippine social movement is ready for a determined struggle. Against repression, for social justice and for the right to health.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.