On July 30, a demonstration at the condiments company NutriAsia in the Philippines was violently dispersed by Philippine National Police officers and armed security guards. Some 300 workers and activists took part in the protest, calling for an end to the company’s exploitative labor contracting practices.
Video footage of the protest shows police indiscriminately wielding rattan canes against the picketers; scores of them were wounded and hospitalized. The nineteen arrestees included eight NutriAsia workers, six activists, and five journalists. Two of the arrested journalists are from California.
The clash has reignited calls from activist groups demanding that U.S. Congress restrict aid to the Philippine police and military on the basis of human rights violations.
“It was the police superintendent Santos D. Mera himself who ordered my arrest. Our rights were not read to us, there was no due process,” says Hiyas Saturay, a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been documenting the strike from its beginnings and was one of the nineteen people arrested.
The factory workers at the NutriAsia plant outside of the city of Marilao, in the Bulacan province, went on strike June 2. Many of these employees had worked there for years, but as contractual workers hired through outside agencies, they were obliged to accept dismal working conditions.
The clash at NutriAsia has reignited calls from activist groups demanding that U.S. Congress restrict aid to the Philippine police and military on the basis of human rights violations.
For weeks, the workers successfully barred the entrance to the factory, bringing production at the facility to a halt. On July 30, police showed up to drive the protesters out, precipitating the clash. To justify their actions, the police and NutriAsia have publicly maintained that the protestors initiated the violence, alleging that rocks had been thrown and shots fired.
As a key U.S. military ally and former territory, the Philippines have long received substantial financial and institutional support through U.S. foreign aid. The State Department allocated $50 million in foreign military financing and $5.3 million for narcotics control and law enforcement to the Philippines for the 2018 fiscal year. This puts the Philippines behind only Israel and Egypt among recipients of U.S. military funding outside the Western hemisphere.
Since 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been waging a war on drug trafficking and even drug users, calling for their execution. This war is being carried out by the Philippine National Police, who have become the object of international censure for the extraordinarily high number of extrajudicial killings they have committed.
Numbers vary widely depending on the source, but by the police’s own count, at least 3,967 “drug personalities” had been killed by the end of 2017, in the first two years of Duterte’s presidency. The police also count 16,355 unsolved drug-related “homicides,” suggesting that the actual death toll could be more than 20,000 people.
When asked to account for the killings, the police routinely offer the same justification they used against the NutriAsia workers: that it was those on the other side of the gun who incited violence first.
In addition to the nineteen people arrested in the dispersal, the local police named Edwin Barana as the “20th suspect” among the demonstrators, presenting a handgun and a stash of shabu (methamphetamine) as evidence, which police claim Barana had been carrying on him during the dispersal.
But other arrestees say Barana was not a part of the NutriAsia demonstration at all; he was a prisoner who had been detained by the police since 2016. His confession had been forced and the evidence planted as a way of steering blame towards the protestors.
“What they call a war on drugs we understand to be a war on the poor.”
“When the workers talked to [Barana] while we were in police custody, he just said his body couldn’t take it anymore, he’d been beaten up and forced to say that,” Saturay says. “The police can twist anything. They control the media, the evidence. This shows how the drug war is a tool for the Philippine National Police to basically do whatever they want.”
Katie Joaquin, legislative coordinator for the Los Angeles branch of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), agrees. “What they call a war on drugs we understand to be a war on the poor,” she says in an interview.
Joaquin heads a lobbying campaign urging Congress to pass an appropriations bill that would restrict U.S. military aid to the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines until they institute accountability measures for extrajudicial killings.
“We have seen the direct involvement of the [police] with NutriAsia, with the police superintendent commanding and coordinating the violent dispersal and arrest of the protestors,” Joaquin says. “We want to send the message that the people in the U.S. do not stand for their tax dollars being spent in this way.”
Joaquin’s campaign has already had some success on the heels of ICHRP’s Stop the Killings Tour, a nationwide Filipino-American advocacy effort that caught the ears of some members of Congress.
According to an ICHRP press release, at a special hearing on June 21, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a funding bill for the 2019 fiscal year with language demanding greater oversight and accountability from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It also explicitly prohibits the police from using U.S. funds for its program of extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs.
This is a victory, to be sure, since it proves that Congress is paying attention––but there are reasons to be skeptical of these kinds of language acts.
U.S. politicians, most notably Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, have been decrying Duterte’s War on Drugs since 2016. But after conducting a study of the 2018 Congressional budget report, secretary general of the Philippine human rights group KARAPATAN Cristina Palabay slammed the U.S. for its hypocrisy.
“The U.S. engages in doubletalk when it throws criticisms on Duterte’s human rights record.”
“The U.S. engages in doubletalk when it throws criticisms on Duterte’s human rights record, when all this time it has been funding Duterte’s drug war and the Philippine military’s all-out-war in the country,” Palabay said.
The NutriAsia nineteen were released from police custody on August 1, but they face charges by the police ranging from illegal assembly to assault. On August 10, they will be filing counter affidavits to the charges leveraged against them.
Edwin Barana remains in prison.
As for Saturay, her work will continue. “We’ve been following the NutriAsia issue for about two months as part of a longer documentary about the people’s movement in the Philippines,” she says. “You can trace this movement all the way back to Spanish colonization. So we’re looking at the history of that and how it looks in the present.”