By April Howard
Whenever governments seek to curb the threat of terrorism, they must walk a faint line — a line between safekeeping and oppression. It is often very difficult balance to stay on the right side of the line. George Orwell foresaw such difficulties when writing ‘1984’ where the Party claim that ‘War is Peace’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery’. The Party create an imagined foreign threat, rallying anger against an invisible enemy, when, in reality, the Party is the enemy and its dissidents are the ones unduly subjected to violence. This issue normally manifests in governments considering or implementing invasive online surveillance measures, however in the Philippines President Duterte seems to be pushing forward a law which may infringe on freedoms to protest and dissent, for the sake of quashing terrorism.
Certain regions of the Philippines have suffered from clashes between the government and Islamic Liberation movements, such as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region which is currently transforming after decades of fighting as steps are made towards stability there. Still, there are fears of ISIL inserting themselves in Mindanao, and concerns about terrorism across the Philippines more generally.
However, it is often the clashes between the military and the armed groups that causes the most violence. This begs the question: is the government genuinely acting to move towards peace or are they using violent suppression instead of working towards actual solutions? One of Duterte’s finest achievements as president is the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which works towards a peaceful solution, by moving towards ‘the creation of a Muslim-majority sub-state entity within Catholic-majority Philippines’ (Heydarian), thus demonstrating how compromise and negotiations can work to diffuse tension. Contrastingly, when violence was used to suppress Islamic armed groups, splinter groups formed and became increasingly violent in return.
The backbone of the issue with any sort of anti- terror legislation is that it is difficult to identify what exactly constitutes a ‘terrorist’. In the US, a white man who carries out a mass shooting (perhaps as a member of the online ‘incel’ movement) is rarely called a ‘terrorist’ (even though he may be acting from the basis of a far-right ideology), yet a Muslim man carrying out a similar act of violence would be immediately treated as one. The lines between ‘lone wolf’ and ‘terrorist’ are blurry at the best of times, and debates to establish the difference between ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’ often split opinion.
The Philippine government may seem to be acting out of genuine concern for their people and the suppression of ideological violence, but are perhaps using the generalised fear of terror to oppress troublesome dissenting voices and movements. Marc Batac points out that the language of the bill is deliberately ambiguous, carrying a ‘vague definition of “terrorism” that offers little distinction between organisations that commit acts of terror and revolutionary armed movements’. The power to decide who classifies as a ‘terrorist’ will largely be left to law enforcers, meaning that the delineation between ‘activist’ and ‘terrorist’ may dissolve in front of our eyes and freshly emboldened law enforcers may act wrongfully and out of suspicion instead of solid fact.
The Philippine people have good reason to be suspicious of Duterte’s National Security Law. The Philippine government have long struggled to suppress communist armed movements, and this bill could give them the right to control any kind of revolutionary or protestor. One must ask oneself: are the damages to democracy worth the possibility of peace? And even more pressingly, will this law allow for safeguarding against terror or will it ultimately breed more violence?
Image: by Republic of Korea via Flickr