Report | May 2023

New Report: Disrupting the Security Playbook in Post-Duterte Philippines

Protestor standing next to a transmission tower

Source: Photo by Raffy Lerma

During the six-year administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte, civic freedoms in the Philippines took a dark turn. Under the guise of three contiguous “wars”—on terror, drugs, and the COVID-19 pandemic—the Duterte regime vilified activists and opposition through dangerous narratives, surveillance and censorship, and the securitization of civic space. Now, new analysis for Civic Futures by a team of independent researchers in the Philippines has shed light on the extent of past and current Philippine governments’ attacks—and the inspiring resilience and creativity of Philippine civil society.

In “Resistance and Alternatives to the ‘Wars’ on Civic Space in the Philippines,” researchers Marc Batac, Mary Jane N. Real, Jessamine Pacis, and the Ateneo Human Rights Center explore how the Philippine state has systematically attacked and undermined civic space by employing the “security playbook”—a common set of authoritarian tools and tactics identified by Civic Futures. 

The confluence of interests and opportunities brought by global and national events and actors—including the United Nations’ stance on counter-terrorism—enabled this surge in strategies from the security playbook,” says co-author Marc Batac. “In turn, that facilitated the direct and systematic attack on dissenting groups, civil society, and civic space.

At the same time, the researchers show how local activists have responded with courage, ingenuity, and alternate visions for a better future. Through their research, the team identifies promising opportunities and approaches to disrupt, reform, and transform security to ensure a thriving civic space in the Philippines.

Understanding the Security Playbook

Duterte’s three “wars” are part of a larger global trend: the weaponization of security-based narratives to crack down on civic space. These toxic narratives dovetail with the abuse of counter-terrorism and security laws and the proliferation of insidious communications and information technologies to form what Civic Futures calls the security playbook. Across the world, governments have used this shared toolkit to shrink civic space and consolidate their control.  

Through Civic Futures, the Funders Initiative for Civil Society and the Fund for Global Human Rights hope to improve collaboration for a cohesive and long-term response to counter the closing of civic space at the transnational, regional, and domestic levels. 

Activists and communities across the globe are confronted by opaque systems and powerful bodies that use the security playbook to keep civil society at arm’s length and suppress dissent,” says James Savage, director of the Enabling Environment Program at the Fund for Global Human Rights. 

To disrupt, reform, and ultimately transform the relationship between security and civic freedoms, activists and funders must collaborate across movements and geographies to equip ourselves with the capacity and tenacity to be in this together for the long haul.

That begins with understanding the threat. Through Civic Futures, funders and civil society groups are working together to document the use of the security playbook, map activists’ responses, and identify opportunities to push back. 

This research comes at a pivotal moment for the Philippines. Recently elected President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of long-ruling dictator Ferdinand Marcos, seems to have embraced much of Duterte’s repressive approach. The findings of this report will help grassroots activists, civil society actors, and funders—in the Philippines as well as across the world—explore alternatives to fear-based narratives enabling security overreach, and develop effective strategies to protect and expand civic space.

Key Findings

Across four chapters, the researchers find that the shrinking civic space in the Philippines is characterized by three main factors: the government’s harsh curtailment of fundamental freedoms, particularly those essential to sustaining a vibrant and discursive civic space; serious human rights violations  by the state and its apparatus in its crackdown on human rights defenders, including extrajudicial executions; and the suppression of dissent, as evident in the mass arrests and vilification of those who have been critical of the government, regardless of whether they self-identify or are identified by state actors as activists.

The researchers identify the security playbook as a dominant driver of shrinking civic space in the Philippines. Often, this pernicious form of securitization is enabled and encouraged by rapidly expanding oppressive transnational security interests and architecture. Counter-terrorism policy-making, programming, and financing within multilateral bodies such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations contributes to the growing pattern of governments labeling repressive regulatory measures as necessary for national security. 

Analyzing the nature of the security playbook in the Philippines, the researchers highlight the phenomenon of “red-tagging”—the act of branding and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists, or terrorists to delegitimize them and make them easy targets for government military or paramilitary units. Red-tagging has emerged as one of the most pervasive and harmful ways the Duterte administration and its hawks in the military establishment have curtailed people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

Critically, the researchers also highlight community and civil society responses that integrate feminist and transformative visions of safety and security . These alternatives present pathways to reshape activism for human rights and offer possible levers of change that donors and other stakeholders can support in the next few years, especially under the new Marcos Jr. presidency.

A few of those responses mapped in the study include:

  • the Indigenous people–led convergence Lumad Husay and other multi-sectoral initiatives for independent spaces for deliberation and citizens’ agenda on the GRP-NDFP peace process and on peace and security writ large; 
  • initiatives by groups like RESBAK and the Night Watch/Nightcrawlers that use art and culture to shed light on and engage the dehumanizing narratives underpinning the drug war; 
  • efforts by groups like No Box Philippines to change policies away from a focus on incarceration and rehabilitation towards harm reduction and public health; 
  • the emergence of community platforms of care  and mutual aid amidst the pandemic, such as the tide of pantries inspired by the Maginhawa Community Pantry, and the virtual-based helpline and survivor-centered care space Lunas Collective supporting those experiencing gender-based violence and concerned with reproductive health; and 
  • hashtag campaigns like #HijaAko reclaiming online spaces and shedding light on misogyny and abuse, as well as civil society–led response to cyberattacks.

Ultimately, all four chapters invite readers to reimagine and redefine safety and security, civic space, and the linkages between the two. By working towards a collective understanding, this research aims to center the needs, potentials, and aspirations of invisibilized, oppressed, or marginalized people.

Next Steps

As activists in the Philippines work to reverse the harms perpetrated under Duterte’s rule, Civic Futures aims to provide entry points for opportunities during the Marcos Jr. administration. This report is only the first step toward understanding the security playbook in the Philippines context and identifying ways for activists to disrupt it.

In the second phase of this initiative, Civic Futures will support grassroots activists and local groups to collectively counter the security playbook, strengthen their movements, and nurture civic space in the Philippines.

By Marc Batac and James Savage

Below you can download the full report, summary or the individual chapters.

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