Philippine government officials and state forces weaponize trumped up charges as pretext to detain Indigenous leaders and suppress political dissent. This violates Indigenous Peoples' rights, questions peace processes, erodes public trust in law enforcement, and exacerbates destructive projects in ancestral lands.
Last December 1, 2022, Baguio City Regional Trial Court Branch 59 convicted Sarah "Bestang" Dekdeken, Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA)'s Secretary-General, over the cyber-libel charge filed by former Police Regional Office Cordillera Director R'win Pagkalinawan. The former police chief made the charge after Bestang's remarks on the chief's role in the desecration of the Anti-Chico Dam Struggles Heroes Monument in Tinglayan, Kalinga. Bestang's remarks were supported by the affected indigenous communities. When the Butbut tribe reestablished the monument, they reiterated that the Philippine National Police were to blame for its destruction.
Bestang is an Indigenous woman leader and human rights defender. The Kankanaey-Igorot, along with many Indigenous communities and organizations, persists to defend their right to self-determination and ancestral lands in the face of state attacks on indigenous leaders and members. Threats to Indigenous Peoples are done in various forms, including killings by paramilitary groups and state security forces, land evictions resulting from extensive mining operations or military activity, and destructive infrastructure projects such as dams and energy projects.
Bestang has been accused of cyber-libel by Pagkalinawan to silence her and prevent her from carrying out her duties as an indigenous human rights activist, which include protecting the rights of others. Her work for the human rights of Cordillera peoples has made her the target of judicial harassment. While Bestang faces the trumped-up charge, the CPA and her colleagues have been subjected to red-tagging, terrorist-labelling, and criminalization.
Last January 24, 2023, Bangued Regional Trial Court Branch 2 in Abra issued a Warrant of Arrest against nine human rights defenders in Northern Luzon, Philippines over a trumped-up charge of Rebellion. The warrant includes CPA Chairperson Windel Bolinget, CPA Regional Council member Steve Tauli, CPA Research staff Jennifer Awingan, development worker Sarah Abellon, Apit-Tako member Lourdes Gimenez, and Ilocos Center for Research, Empowerment, Northern Dispatch Ilocos Correspondent Niño Oconer, and Ilocos Center for Research, Empowerment, and Development acting executive director Florence Kang. The police already arrested Awingan on January 30, 2023 in Baguio City.
On the other hand, during the National Service Training Program webinar on the national security in the University of the Philippines Baguio last November 2021, retired Armed Forces of the Philippines Major General Peale Bondoc red-tagged the CPA, together with other progressive organizations: Anakbayan, College Editors Guild of the Philippines, Cordillera People's Alliance, League of Filipino Students, National Union of Students of the Philippines, and Student Christian Movement of the Philippines.
Moreover, the systematic and widespread attacks of the state against Filipinos also manifest in indigenous communities. Due to militarization, forced evictions, and violence, many indigenous groups in the Philippines have been uprooted from their ancestral lands and forced to live as refugees in their territories. Under the administration of former president Rodrigo alone, forced evacuation affected 97,118 individuals, alongside 158 victims of frustrated killings, 19,928 victims of threat, harassment, and intimidation, and 25,264 victims of bombings and indiscriminate firings.
The Panaghiusa Philippine Network to Uphold Indigenous Peoples' Rights #StandWithBestang. We oppose the weaponization of the law against Bestang and other indigenous leaders, community members, and progressive organizations. Bestang's credibility and integrity as CPA's Secretary-General, activist, and development worker contribute to Indigenous Peoples' protection of their fundamental rights and territories. To stand against destructive projects, such as the Gened Dams in Apayao and for the preservation of Indigenous Peoples' history of long struggle for genuine freedom will never be crimes.
In a country where state forces use its resources to criminalize human rights defenders, we are left with a choice: to remain silent and maintain the status quo or to stand for the Filipinos' rights and welfare and demand change. It is time for us to choose.
We urge everyone to sign the Manifesto of Unity to #StandWithBestang: