December 10 was International Human Rights Day. The United Nations adopted the day in 1948 and, according to its website, 2020’s theme is “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”. Filipinos in Seattle have been answering that call in various ways.
The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) in partnership with the Malaya Movement has been advocating for the passing of H.R. 8313, also known as the Philippine Human Rights Act (PHRA) in response to the numerous killings of lawyers, journalists, priests, students and activists in the Philippines. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal signed on to the bill which was introduced in the House of Representatives on September 17.
“$550 million of aid has been sent to the Philippine military and police since 2016,” said Michael Alcantara of ICHRP Seattle. “The U.S. government is spending our taxpayer dollars arming a fascist president who has killed almost 30,000 people in a ‘drug war’ that targets the poor and attacks human rights defenders.”
The PHRA would prohibit using federal funds to provide assistance to the Philippine police or military. It also stipulates that foreign aid will not be provided until the Philippines government investigates and prosecutes members of its military and police forces who have committed human rights violations, stops using military force in domestic policing activities, and protects the rights of journalists and activists.
Although there is a demand to cut military aid to the Philippines, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien announced on Monday, November 23, 2020, that the U.S. was sending $18 million worth of military missiles and bombs to the Philippines. The gesture was meant to signify the alliance of the Philippines and the U.S. in the war on terror. The U.S. claimed that the armaments were to help eradicate the presence of ISIS.
“This delivery comes in the midst of the global pandemic, at a time when medical support is direly needed,” said Jill Mangaliman representing the Seattle chapter of BAYAN, a national progressive alliance of Filipino organizations. BAYAN’s work has included calling for the oust of the Duterte regime, speaking out against the killings of lawyers, faith people, farmers and students in the Philippines, demanding justice for trafficked Filipino workers, and educating the community about the conditions of poverty in the Philippines.
According to Mangaliman, “fighting terrorism” is simply pretense the Duterte government uses to commit violent acts and further repress people who are critical of the government’s neglect of the actual economic, medical, and survival needs of Filipinos both in the Philippines and abroad.
“Some of us in BAYAN have gone to the Philippines and witnessed the devastation from the Duterte regime,” said Mangaliman. “People being arrested on false charges, people separated from their families, families left without aid in the face of natural disasters because of government corruption. When people protest and call to oust a president, it’s a response to their needs being grossly neglected and their assertion of human rights being violently punished. Activism is not terrorism.”
After implementing a violent military response authorizing killings of people who were unable to quarantine or shelter-in-place due to extreme poverty in April, President Duterte passed the Anti-Terror Law (ATL) on July 3. The law makes definitions of “terrorism” broad and vague, allowing an appointed council instead of a court, to have discretion to interpret “terrorism” on their own. Mere accusations of terrorism is basis alone to arrest individuals without due process.
The law targets Filipinos and others outside the Philippines. By designating certain groups such as BAYAN as “terrorist organizations”, the PH government can utilize the partnerships of the Philippine National Police and U.S. law enforcement to target grassroots organizers advocating for human rights. In fact, Mangaliman was red-tagged as a terrorist by Duterte supporters online.
“By even attacking activists internationally, they are shamelessly trying to hide their crimes, but they can’t because there are so much people out there who care,” said Mangaliman. Mangaliman cited the case of Chinese American Brandon Lee, who was left paralyzed after an assassination attempt in 2019 in response to his environmental and human rights advocacy work in Ifiguao, Philippines.
“Advocating for the government to do its job to protect and take care of its citizens is not terrorism,” said longtime activist and former Washington State Legislature representative Velma Veloria in response to the passing of the ATL.
“This is really attacking international activism, attacking people who are fighting for human rights internationally. And it’s scary because it sets a precedent globally,” she added.
“We were very alarmed,” said human rights activist Cindy Domingo, a member of Akbayan North America, an organization of Filipinos that spans the U.S. and Canada. “It is a reminder of the 80s when the Marcos Regime tried to pass an extradition treaty which would allow Filipinos in the U.S. to be extradited to the Philippines for crimes they were accused of there.”
In response to the passing of the ATL, Akbayan hosted webinars for over 100 people to inform them about the new law.
Indeed, this is not the first time the Filipino community has encountered violence in response to advocating for democracy and human rights.
The Filipino community’s presence in Seattle is rooted in the migration of Filipino workers in a variety of fields including canneries, farms, and also in healthcare. They were often subject to discrimination, lower wages and dangerous working conditions.
On June 1, 1981, two Filipino labor organizers Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo were murdered by a gunman hired by the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. They were also involved with the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (Union of Democratic Filipinos). Both organizers had witnessed the mistreatment of Filipino workers compared to their white American co-workers and had organized and advocated for the rights and wellbeing of the migrant and immigrant workers. In investigating why Filipinos had to migrate in the first place, they went back to the Philippines and saw the conditions of poverty, landlessness and violence in the Philippines that had forced many Filipinos to seek jobs abroad.
“I got here in 1983 to continue the fight to work for justice,” Veloria, also a former KDP member, said. “When the murders happened, we in the KDP were shocked. We didn’t realize the PH government would use its muscle to kill our kasamas [comrades].”
“Gene and Silme stood at a very dangerous crossroads being KDP members,” said Silme’s sister Cindy Domingo, herself a former KDP member. “They had been leaders of a movement to support the efforts to re-establish democracy in the Philippines, which would mean overthrow of the dictator.”
According to Domingo, her brother and Viernes were also elected as officers within the International Longshoreman Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 37. “They thought to merge the two movements together right before there were murdered,” she said.
Domingo explained that ILWU was the most progressive labor union in the country and that prior to his death, Viernes had gone to the Philippines to establish international solidarity ties with the militant trade union Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, May First Movement) that was forced underground under Marcos.
“They can impact the economy when port workers decide to implement things like refusing to unload cargo from the port. They have done that in the past to oppose the dictatorship of Pinoche in Chile and also to oppose Apartheid in South Africa,” Domingo said. “We in the U.S. have a responsibility to uphold human rights because we live in the belly of the beast. We have a great responsibility with people all over the world to ensure our foreign policy will be changed to foster a more humane society. Not one of war, targeting activists, and violating human rights.”
It’s no coincidence that labor leaders were the ones to rouse a powerful movement demanding people’s rights and an end to government corruption, violence and poverty in the Philippines. Labor and human rights are once again the impetus for demanding the oust of a fascist dictator 39 years after the murder of Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo.
Although KDP disbanded shortly after the oust of Marcos, organizing in the Filipino community remains strong. Like KDP before them, both BAYAN and ICHRP continue to bring people to see conditions in the Philippines themselves and stories they have learned. BAYAN continues to fight for National Democracy in the Philippines. ICHRP advocates for human rights and demands an end to Duterte’s fascist dictatorship along with the Malaya Movement.
Political activism is not the only form of supporting human rights within the Filipino community.
On Saturday, November 21, the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) partnered with the International Drop In Center (IDIC) in Beacon Hill to distribute ‘Winter Wellness Kits’ to the Filipino community. The kits contained essential personal protective equipment (PPE) such as KN95 masks, disposable masks for children and adults, gloves, and sanitizing wipes as well as tea, cough drops, oral thermometers and additional health information. 100 wellness kits and over 500 boxes of food were distributed to individuals and families.
Since COVID-19’s arrival to Washington in March, NAFCON has been active in supporting the community. Delivering groceries to elders and families, providing PPE to frontline workers, and also hosting webinars to educate the community on symptoms, transmission, where to get tested, and best practices to keep each other healthy and safe as part of NAFCON’s Baynihan campaign. The campaign even encompasses reaching out to elders through Kamusta Ka (how are you?) calls.
“We had the understanding that a lot of elders who relied on the IDIC for community don’t have that sense of connection anymore so the calls are a way to still keep in touch during a really isolating time” NAFCON steering committee member Nadine Guyo said. “NAFCON stands for advocacy, culture, education and health. Because of limited government aid, we can only rely on community to help each other. This is a response to harness the strength of people to care for one another.”
The care the Filipino community has extends beyond Seattle and reaches back to the Philippines. The Foundation for Philippine Progress (FPP) has mobilized and rallied the community to support rural communities devastated by typhoons, raising $10,000 within weeks of Typhoon Ulysses and Supertyphoon Rolly. Earlier this year FPP also raised funds to support frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The challenges and the kind of intense environmental landscape that we have to now survive through is a lot worse than any time and any generation for Filipinos,” said Rigor, who also serves as board vice president of the Foundation for Philippine Progress. “I look upon human rights as the basic need to live. It is also having the right to livelihood and safety. It’s what Filipinos have stood for. It’s why they had to leave our country to begin with: livelihood and safety.”
“When you speak of a migrant, you speak of frontliners who are mostly Filipinos. We talk about hospitals. Filipino nurses who left the country because of economics. This diaspora of Filipinos exists because of economic challenges and so now… we are faced with a pandemic after being beset with economic poverty, and we are now impacted with climate changes. It led to disasters impacting folks without any access to living except their dependency on land and nature and on space they used to have. The folks on the fringes of survival and in the rural provinces is who the Foundation serves.”
Whether it is passing legislation, sharing stories and history, sending people on the ground in the Philippines or supporting workers and families, unity and a strong sense of a community of immigrant and U.S. born Filipinos continues to be cited as a necessity to advance change and to recover better.
“It’s inspiring that young people are still stepping up to the plate with many Filipino Americans and Filipino international support of the movement,” said Domingo. “I hope there is more cooperation amongst groups doing Philippine solidarity and human rights work in the future.”